My wife LeeAnne and I had a one and a half year old Golden Retriever named Baxter and, after experiencing the joy that he’d brought into our lives, were looking to add a second dog to our family. We were intuitively attracted to the German Shepherd breed because of their reputed loyalty, intelligence and high energy. We wanted a dog that would keep up with our active lifestyle and still cuddle up with us at home as a faithful companion, and so in 2009 we bought Sam from a breeder in New Brunswick.
Sam arrived on an Air Canada cargo flight in an oversized travel crate. He was 16-weeks old and had a thin, wiry appearance with an aloof demeanor. From the moment we let him out of the crate, he showed off his energetic, bold and intensely focused disposition and it wasn’t long before we started to notice some concerning behaviors. Sam wasn’t friendly with other dogs – this wasn’t much of a problem when he was small and easily controllable – but his rapid physical growth seemed to parallel his growing ‘attitude’. While LeeAnne and I weren’t strangers to dogs and we followed strict routines and rules in the house with both Sam and his older ‘brother’ Baxter, what we had failed to appreciate were the differences between show and working line German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs).
When most people think of a German Shepherd Dog, they think of a large, heavy-coated black and tan animal with slanted back legs; the quintessential image of the breed. What we didn’t realize was that there is a distinctly different version of the same breed, bred for work. Working line GSDs tend to be smaller, more muscular and without the characteristic black and tan coat. They’re bred to work with police forces, search and rescue organizations, the military and so on. The same qualities we were seeing in Sam – boldness, tireless energy and aggression – are considered essential for dogs working in those fields. At a loss, we took Sam to a dog training school in Scarborough that was recommended by a colleague of mine. The trainer (Chris) taking one look at Sam, diagnosed the problem instantly: “He’s a ‘police dog’, you can’t treat him like a regular family dog”, he said. What followed was an intense program of obedience, followed by more advanced classes in obedience and before long, Sam was learning how to track people through forests, find articles of clothing and other personal items, defend LeeAnne and I from an attack and even find drugs hidden in luggage and cars (a neat party trick). Four years later, Sam continues this style of weekly training, albeit at a slower pace due to some health concerns. While some were surprised to see us training Sam in this way, I can say without hesitation that the time, energy and effort put into the years of training saved all of us. By tapping into Sam’s instinctive play and prey drives, we were able to provide an outlet for his more disagreeable behaviors while simultaneously providing an incredible amount of structure in his life, structure that transformed Sam into the stable, obedient dog that he is today. Aside from the immense gains in controllability that came from this training, the biggest pay off was in the relationship that we forged with him. By fulfilling his needs and providing effective leadership, an incredibly strong bond formed between Sam and LeeAnne and I as his handlers. While Sam might not appear outwardly affectionate, it’s only because he saves those precious moments of love and vulnerability for LeeAnne and I and in many ways, we couldn’t have imagined having a closer bond with an animal.
The staff at North Town Veterinary Hospital know Sam well. Sam’s active lifestyle and intense training, combined with some inherited pre-disposition for joint problems, and a little bad luck, conspire to have Sam in the vet’s office more frequently than any of us would like. Sam has had two surgeries related to joint issues: his first, at age 11 months, was to repair a segment of fragmented bone in his elbow; and the second, only a few months ago, was to repair a torn ligament in his knee. Through it all, the technicians, receptionists, support personnel and veterinarians at North Town have treated Sam with consummate skill, professionalism and kindness. LeeAnne and I are grateful to each and every one of them for taking such good care of our best friend so he can live the best life possible.
We are excited to have the opportunity to have Sam featured as ‘pet of the month’ and share his story with you.
Yours very sincerely,
Justin, LeeAnne & “Sam”