I want a working dog, are German Shepherds reliable?
You really, really have to get a rock solid German Shepherd. Their natural tendency to protect their owner first can get in the way if they do not have a super personality to begin with and are brought up consistently in public situations.
You can read the Monk of New Skete's training books for personality testing guidelines in puppies.
Contacting and getting training for yourself prior to purchasing a dog is ideal.
Contact trainers who's dogs are proven performers: trainers that train K-9 units (not the handlers, the TRAINERS), trainers for Companion assistance dogs, detection dogs, etc... Make sure to follow up that their dogs consistently and reliably perform. There are a lot of quacks that even advertise that they are "training" these types of animals and who produce horrible, inconsistently performing animals.
Once you have the assistance of a proven trainer, they may be able to point you in the direction of great proven dog lines (once you have proven your ability to handle such wonderful animals).
The primary concern is a rock solid bloodline and breeder. With the majority of German Shepherd producers being quacks, you have to be careful. Find and pay for the excellent, proven, guaranteed lines. This will get you a healthy and solid German Shepherd. Then you have to know how to pick the right pup out of the litter for your desired occupation.
I, of course, think GSD's are excellent full utility dogs and you will never find a braver, more talented breed for any working needs. However, the key is picking the right dog at the beginning.
There is a small percentage of dogs in this world that can accomplish working class and finding a great German Shepherd means a lot of prep work.
I have had two of the greatest working level dogs in rescue, that could do everything, but were still shaky around unpredictable public situations (not acceptable for actual working occupations).
I currently own a fantastic 3 year old that has the sunny personality that would be perfect, but he prefers sleeping on the bed to working really hard.
They all make great family pets, but I have only had one or two rescue dogs out of 500 that were the all around perfect working dogs.
I have seen a lot of folks aspire to have working dogs, but just didn't get the right dogs from the right people.
It isn't just a good breeder, you then have to pick the perfect personality out of the right litter. Very hard work. I encourage further research into the evaluation of puppy personalities and finding a great dog trainer to mentor further work.
Written February 2007 by Elizabeth Riddle, President of the Central IL GSD Rescue
See also: The Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org): Improving human health through service and therapy animals.