German Shepherd Dog
The German Shepherd Dog – a true Jack of all trades.
He’ll excel at anything you throw at him – police work, military operations, drug detection, agility, search and rescue, service work, therapy, herding and more! Is there anything this talented canine can’t do?
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- For novice owners
- Apartment living
- Exercise needs
- Family friendly
- Stranger friendly
- Dog friendly
- Overall health
- Amount of shedding
- Grooming needs
- Ease of training
- Prey drive
- Watchdog ability
German Shepherd history: What were German Shepherds originally bred for?
German Shepherd Dogs are a relatively new breed, established in 1889 by Captain Max von Stephanitz. Having been a veterinary student in Berlin for many years, von Stephanitz gained significant knowledge of anatomy, physiology and the science of efficient movement.
In his pursuit of the ultimate, standardised working dog, von Stephanitz found Hektor Linkrshein, a wolfish-looking dog who demonstrated impressive strength, obedience, loyalty and intelligence. Captain von Stephanitz purchased him immediately, renamed him Horand von Grafrath and registered him as the first Deutscher Schäferhund, German Shepherd Dog, at the S.V. – The Society for the German Shepherd Dog. A detailed standard was developed emphasising mental stability and utility.
Horand became the foundation dog in von Stephanitz’s breeding programme and was bred with other native sheep herding dogs who too displayed desirable working traits. In order to cement particular characteristics in the GSD bloodline, early dogs were heavily inbred.
Unwavering in his firm belief that German Shepherds should always be capable working dogs, the sport of Schutzhund (German for ‘protection dog’) was soon developed as a way to measure individual German Shepherds’, temperaments, trainability, working ability and suitability for breeding. It wasn’t long before German Shepherds found themselves aiding police work, delivering messages, being used for personal protection and excelling as military dogs.
At the end of World War I, a number of U.S. soldiers brought German Shepherds home with them, sharing tales of their bravery and intelligence. Popularity soared further with the appearance of Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart, cementing the German Shepherd breed in the hearts of all who saw him.
German Shepherds are a large, powerful breed of herding dog, with a substantial head, deep chest and a dense double coat. They have long muzzles, dark eyes and erect ears, displaying a keen, intelligent and composed expression.
In comparison to other breeds, secondary sexual characteristics are notably marked in the German Shepherd Dog. Males are distinctly masculine, and females are decidedly feminine.
Weight and Height
Females: 49-71 lbs, 22-32 kg; 22-24 in, 55-60 cm
Males: 66-80 lbs, 30-40 kg; 24-26 in, 60-65 cm
If you’d like to view the full-length AKC breed standard for the German Shepherd Dog, click here.
German Shepherd Temperament
The German Shepherd temperament is iconic. Well-bred GSDs are known for being confident, direct and fearless. However, there is great variability in temperament due to dramatically different breeding lines, and breeder goals. In addition, poor breeding practices have led to many German Shepherds with shy, fearful and nervous natures, prone to aggression and unpredictability.
Especially eager-to-please, German Shepherds are renowned for their great trainability. Few breeds are used as extensively, and in such varied working roles as the German Shepherd Dog. Generally considered to be sensitive animals, fair, force-free methods of training such as positive reinforcement are advised, especially for inexperienced owners, and soft-tempered dogs.
If raised with children, German Shepherds can make excellent family dogs. They are wonderfully affectionate with their loved ones and naturally protective, making them top-notch guardians. Young GSDs can be boisterous, however, and may accidentally knock over young toddlers. Supervision around children is always recommended, regardless of breed.
German Shepherds are naturally suspicious, making them first-rate watchdogs. They require no training in letting you know something’s afoot. To prevent aggression toward non-threatening strangers, German Shepherd owners are urged to socialise and expose their pups to a number of people, sounds, children, animals and other scenarios while they’re young, curious and impressionable. Ensure their experiences are safe and positive, to prevent your dog developing negative associations later on.
German Shepherds tend to get along well with other pets in the home if raised with them, including the family cat, and small dogs. However, German Shepherds can be assertive and pushy with other dogs, instigating scuffles. They are prone to same-sex aggression.
Energy and exercise needs
German Shepherds are a high energy breed, requiring vigorous daily exercise. A brisk daily walk of an hour or more, as well as the opportunity to run off-leash and burn off any excess energy, is recommended for adults. In addition, German Shepherds are a thinking breed, who love to be challenged and require substantial mental stimulation.
More exercise may be needed for younger adults, as they’re known to be energetic and destructive when understimulated. Hard exercise should be avoided in young German Shepherds until they have finished growing, in order to prevent structural issues further down the line.
Without enough physical and mental stimulation, German Shepherds have a tendency to develop behavioural issues and find their own ways to amuse themselves – usually in ways you wouldn’t end appreciating, like digging, barking, and destructive chewing.
The German Shepherd coat
The German Shepherd coat is usually medium length, dense and double-layered. Long haired German Shepherds do exist in certain lines but are rare. The outer coat is straight, hard, and weather-resistant, while the under coat is soft and interwoven, acting as protection against extreme temperatures.
German Shepherds come in a number of recognised colours and patterns, including black & red, black & tan, black, bi-colour and sable (with varying levels of pigment). In addition, there are a number of rare patterns such as black & silver, blue, liver and panda.
Different bloodlines tend to have higher incidences of particular coat colours and patterns.
German Shepherds are heavy shedders. You will regularly find dog hair on your clothes and furniture, particularly during Spring and Autumn/Fall, where they ‘blow’ their undercoats, shedding even more than usual. To minimise the impact of shedding, groom every other day with a slicker brush or undercoat rake to catch the hairs before they fall, and prevent clumping. Up this to daily when the shedding becomes more intense.
Avoid bathing too often with harsh shampoos. Instead, opt for gentle dog-specific shampoos to preserve natural protective oils on the skin.
Inspect ears, nails and teeth as part of your regular grooming routine, maintaining as needed.
While generally a healthy breed, German Shepherds are known to suffer from a few conditions, including:
- Allergies – both environmental and diet-related.
- Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) – a degenerative disease of the spinal cord, particularly common in German Shepherds, leading to muscle weakness, loss of coordination and eventual paralysis.
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) – A genetic-based disorder which causes improper food digestion due to lack of enzymes.
- Hip and Elbow Dysplasia
- Bloat, or Gastric Dilatation-volvulus (GDV). This deadly condition can appear suddenly, particularly in large, deep-chested dog breeds. To prevent bloat, feed your dog 2+ times per day, as opposed to than one large serving, and avoid physical activity for at least an hour after each meal.
Many diseases faced by German Shepherd Dogs are inherited, and therefore avoidable. By choosing a good breeder, who conducts relevant screenings and health clearances, and only breeds physically and temperamentally sound GSDs, you are dramatically improving your chances of having a strong, happy, healthy German Shepherd of your own.
German Shepherd lifespan
On average, German Shepherds live 10-13 years.
German Shepherds are notoriously mouthy, especially as puppies. Those familiar with the breed affectionately refer to them as ‘land sharks’. Ensure your pup learns proper bite inhibition while young, as strangers and guests could easily misinterpret the mouthiness as aggression or an attempted bite.
Unfortunately, some lines are prone to fear aggression and many German Shepherds are naturally territorial. Seriously weigh the consequences of having a potentially dangerous pet, and whether you would be happy and able to safely manage one for 10-13+ years.
Some can be vocal, but even ones who aren’t especially barky tend to grumble, grunt, groan and whine.
While they appear to be serious and stoic, German Shepherds bond deeply with their owners and crave attention from their loved ones. They are not suited to living alone outside, or owners who work long hours each day.
German Shepherds Dogs can be highly destructive when understimulated. Vigorous daily exercise and consistent training is a must, though well bred dogs should have an ‘off-switch’ and be capable of settling in the home if their physical and mental needs are sufficiently met.
Types of German Shepherds
Show-line German Shepherds
As the name suggests, these lines are bred largely for conformation. They are evaluated on how well they adhere to their written breed standards (particularly structure, colour, size and movement), as well as preferences of the time. There is arguably less emphasis on temperament, working ability and health, as these traits aren’t directly necessary for winning shows. It is down to the breeder to maintain their own high standards for these characteristics, some of which certainly do!
Taller and longer than their European counterparts, there is a particular focus on rear angulation in American show lines. They tend to have finer bone structure, softer temperaments, and lower drive and exercise needs. ASLs can make sweet, loving family pets if well-bred.
Colours include black & tan, bi-colour, sable, white and black.
West German show lines (WGSL)
Bred to conform to the S.V. (German Shepherd Dog Association of Germany), West German show lines are more substantial than their American equivalents. They have larger heads, heavier bone structure and plush coats. In Germany, German Shepherds must pass health, temperament and performance evaluations if breeders want their litters registered. In addition, working titles are a requirement, to demonstrate the dog’s working ability. As a result, WGSLs tend to have stronger temperaments, more drive, and generally better health than ASLs. However, emphasis is still placed on appearance, and unfortunately, weak temperaments are more common than they should be. If well-bred, West German show lines can make wonderful, active family pets.
The vast majority of WGSLs are black & red with the iconic saddleback. Other colours and patterns are rare.
Working-line German Shepherds
Working-line shepherds are bred for just that – work. They are judged on traits like courage, nerve strength, trainability, drive, endurance, health and overall temperament – all of which have a direct impact on their ability to excel at their jobs. Structure-wise, working line GSDs are largely utilitarian, and closely resemble the original German Shepherd Dogs bred by Captain von Stephanitz. Working-line GSDs are often intense and tend to be ‘more dog’ than the average dog owner is used to. As a result, dogs from these bloodlines are usually recommended to experienced, active owners, who can provide them with enough physical and mental exercise, as well as fair, consistent leadership.
Working-line German Shepherds are not without their own controversies, however. As there is a large leaning for sports titling, some breeders are selecting for particular characteristics that are conducive to success in dog sports, much in the same way that some conformation breeders breed for ribbons. This has led to a number of working line GSDs who excel at dog sports but are largely unsuited to the real world – lacking in nerves, balanced temperament and clearheadedness.
Colours can vary wildly, even within a single litter, as there is no preference for coat pattern. Sable is the most common, due to its genetic dominance, but working-line shepherds can also be found in black, black & tan and bi-colour.
WGWL GSDs tend to be intense dogs – highly driven with great aptitude for sport and service work. Many are used in police and military forces for bomb and drug detection, apprehension of criminals and finding missing persons. Powerful and athletic, these dogs need plenty of physical and mental stimulation.
DDR shepherds are known for their blocky builds, large heads and dark pigment. Temperament wise, they tend to have high handler sensitivity, medium energy levels and lower prey drives. Generally, DDR lines are less suited for sport and are notoriously slow to mature. These days, DDR bloodlines are highly diluted.
Sharing much of their bloodlines with East German dogs, Czech GSDs were largely used for border patrol and military work. Czech lines tend to be lighter in bone than DDR shepherds, with higher drives and stronger nerves. Police dogs are often found to have Czech bloodlines.
Why are German Shepherd Dogs called German Shepherd Dogs?
You may have noticed that when talking about German Shepherds, people often refer to them as German Shepherd Dogs (or abbreviate to GSD). It may seem redundant, but this is the official name of the breed! Deutscher Schäferhund (the original name, in German) directly translates to German Shepherd Dog and was named as such to prevent ambiguity when people referred to actual German Shepherds (i.e people who tend to sheep).
Interesting German Shepherd facts
- German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds in the U.S!
- White German Shepherds can be born into regular GSD litters, but are immediately disqualified from competing in conformation, discouraged from being bred from and were originally culled at birth!
- The American White Shepherd and the Swiss White Shepherd, or Berger Blanc Suisse, have since emerged and been approved by numerous international kennel clubs, allowing white German Shepherds to compete and breed under separate names.
- German Shepherds have among the strongest bite forces of all dog breeds, at 238 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). Rottweilers were 1st with 328 psi. Humans demonstrate a mere 120-150 psi!
- There are endless stories of GSDs heroism around the world, showing human-like intelligence to save their loved ones. One example is Max, who dragged his elderly owner out of bed after he had passed out from a Carbon Monoxide leak in his home. Another is Buddy, who lead Alaskan state troopers through a number of dark, winding roads to the burning house of his injured owner.
Buying a German Shepherd from a breeder
If you’d like to get a purebred German Shepherd Dog as a puppy, be sure to look only at reputable breeders who care for the welfare of the puppies they breed. You can determine whether a breeder is reputable by observing whether they go through the effort of health testing their breeding stock for hereditary conditions like those above, and only breed dogs who are physically healthy, and emotionally sound. They should be involved in particular avenues with their dogs – be it conformation, protection sports, obedience, service, therapy, or any other activity that showcases their dogs’ temperament and suitability for work and breeding.
Often puppies from reputable breeders cost more money upfront due to the breeder’s high expenses. However, poorly bred dogs from breeders who do not conduct health screening can have hidden costs in the form of silent (at the time of purchase) health and mental conditions that should never have been allowed to be passed on. This can be heartbreaking, and terribly expensive to deal with as an owner, on top of causing unnecessary suffering and a shortened lifespan for the dog.
German Shepherd Rescue
As one of the most popular breeds around, German Shepherds and GSD-mixes are not hard to find in rescues and shelters. If you would like to adopt a German Shepherd in need of a new home, search for GSD rescue organisations in your area. Alternatively, you could take a look pet-rehoming websites like Petfinder.
References and recommended reading:
- Stephanitz, M., & Schwabacher, J. (1925). The German shepherd dog in word and picture. Jena: Anton Kämpfe.
- Steiner, Jörg M., PhD, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, AGAF. “Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency in Small Animals – Digestive System.” Merck Veterinary Manual.
- Cassidy, K. M. (2008, February 1). Weight and Lifespan. Retrieved from http://users.pullman.com/lostriver/weight_and_lifespan.htm
- Dog Breed Health. A Guide To Genetic Health Issues for Dog Breeds: German Shepherd Dog. Retrieved from http://www.dogbreedhealth.com/german-shepherd-dog-alsatian
- OFFA. Explanation of DM DNA Test Results. Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. Retrieved from http://www.ofa.org/diseases/dna-tested-diseases/dm
- Associated Press. Alaska dog honored for leading troopers to fire. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/36754385/ns/us_news-wonderful_world/t/alaska-dog-honored-leading-troopers-fire/
- AKC – The Dog’s Champion. American Kennel Club. Retrieved from http://www.akc.org
- GSDCA. German Shepherd Dog Club of American. Retrieved from http://www.gsdca.org/