“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
-George Orwell, Animal Farm
I remember Max. He was a gentle brute who would grunt if you squeezed him, howl back to you if you howled first, and devour any food left unattended. His greatest scores in his twelve year lifetime were: two whole chickens, raw and quartered, all at once; a one pound brick of sharp cheddar; an entire can of bacon drippings; a ball of bird suet, mesh and all; a whole box of high school band fundraiser chocolate bars (he lived); a bullfrog; and one one occasion a deer haunch salvaged from the woods.
Max was a gentleman of a dog, ready at once snuggle with you or go toe to toe with a black bear and her cubs. We all canonize our childhood dogs, but you must believe me when I tell you that Max was special. He was a German Shepherd in full: sweetness and light, piss and vinegar, smarter than me and he knew it. With his pharaoh makeup eyes and bushy tail he cut a blur across the meadow every morning.
Fargo born Jessi Louis shares my love of German Shepherds, so it was only a matter of time before we became fast friends. I will get my next Max from her one day. Jessi runs Samherz Shepherds in Brainerd, Minnesota where she fulfills her calling to breed the world’s greatest dog.
“My family had German Shepherds since before I learned to walk,” said Jessi. “I got my own, Sam, when I was 28. He was only eight weeks old then. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two weeks after I brought Sam home.”
“At first I didn’t know how I could take care of a puppy when I could barely get up. But Sam drove me. One block turned into two. Two blocks turned into four. We kept going further and further while he got bigger and I got better. Sam saved me.”
Sam galvanized Jessi’s love for his breed. She wanted to make new Sams for everyone to take home with them and love too. “But Sam,” Jessi confided in me, “had problems. He didn’t have the temperament that a German Shepherd should. When lightning struck or fireworks burst, I would find him trembling behind the toilet. He was a doll around people, but couldn’t be trusted off the leash at the dog park. A German Shepherd should give his family total peace of mind but never bother the mailman. It wasn’t his fault — I found out later that his puppyhood was deprived, and I’ll never know about his breeding.”
So a few years ago Jessi set to work seeing how to raise the perfect German Shepherd. She attended dog shows, researched pedigrees, and learned about training. She delved into the subtleties of temperaments, hips, and ears (which everyone agrees ought to stand straight up like TV antennae).
Jessi lost Sam last April due to complications from stomach bloat in the meantime. She teared up while she told me. I did too.
Jessi met her husband Kyle during her journey of German Shepherd discovery. “I found that guys would usually get flighty when I would tell them about my aspirations to breed German Shepherds, buy Kyle was different. When I could tell he was genuinely interested in my dogs and not just feigning it, I knew he was the one. Kyle is now our official kennel carpenter and puppy walker. I joke that he’s the Samherz janitor, but really he is everything to me.”
“I was initially into German bred dogs who could pass the schutzhund, which is a disciplinary test meant to measure attention, intelligence, and loyalty. It’s very intense and only a few dogs can pass it,” Jessi explained. “Passing the schutzhund is the highest distinction a German Shepherd can earn. They can earn the honor anywhere in the world, but I prefer dogs who were bred in Germany and passed the test there.”
“I initially bred a schutzhund stud for two litters, but his puppies had way too much energy for the average home. They were dogs meant for a World War I trench, not a cozy house in the suburbs. I wanted to breed dogs who would rather toast their bellies by the stove than tackle someone.”
“So I rethought my appreciation for schutzhund and I found our current stud, Jay vom Billberg. Jay has the poise, the bone structure, and the smarts for schutzhund, but he hasn’t got the seriousness. That’s why he failed the test. Jay’s a snuggler who’d rather cozy up next to you in bed than do anything else. He looks big and tough, but he’s a teddy bear. Jay’s the ideal house dog, and his puppies are angels.”
After years of learning and growing, Samherz Shepherds is now home to six females and two very lucky studs. They have just celebrated the arrival of their 13th batch of puppies. To learn more about Samherz Shepherds and see about how you can take one of their prized dogs home with you, visit samherzshepherds.com.
“Here is what makes German Shepherds the best,” said Jessi. “They are by far the most loyal breed I have ever encountered. While a Lab loves everyone, a German Shepherd is distinctly yours. The look that they give you is inspiring. They appear intimidating, but on the inside they are made of pure love. They can be trained to do anything. A German Shepherd will look to you to be their boss right from the get-go. If you don’t give them that, they’ll rule the roost in no time. But give them a little guidance, and you’ll have the best dog you could ever imagine.”
“They’re the most beautiful dogs. They stand for strength and loyalty.”
The only German I know is from early 40’s propaganda cartoons, so I asked Jessi what Samherz means. “Herz means heart,” she told me. “Sam means Sam. Samherz means Sam’s heart. He will always be my heart dog.”
By David Scheller