The German Shepherd is a large and handsome breed of dog that is highly intelligent, active, and versatile. The German Shepherd can be trained to perform a variety of tasks and has subsequently been used in a diverse array of professions, from Hollywood movie star, to military assistant, and, of course, a much loved family pet. Introduced in the late 1800s, the German Shepherd has a long, interesting history, originally used to protect and move livestock, used heavily by the German Army during WWI, and, of course, today, used as police dogs, as well as rescue, therapy, and guide dogs given their astute intelligence.
The German Shepherd requires a large amount of exercise, moderate amounts of grooming, and a large amount of mental stimulation. The overall breed has a great temperament with a high intelligence and trainability, making them loyal and adaptable pets.
About & History
The German Shepherd, or Deutscher Schäferhund, was first established as a breed in Germany in the late 1800s, where it was created by combining the characteristics of a variety of shepherd dogs. Shepherd dogs were widely used in Germany for protecting and moving livestock, and were bred for characteristics such as intelligence, a calm demeanor, and the capacity to work independently with the livestock, often without human direction. Some of the German Shepherd ancestors were wolf-like, while others were heavier boned and lop-eared, and some had pale coloured coats. The modern German Shepherd looks like a wolf, but is no more related to the wolf than any other breed of domestic dog.
Max von Stephanitz is the man attributed to establishing and promoting the German Shepherd breed. He first came to admire the shepherd dogs while serving in the military, where he had the opportunity to observe the shepherd dog at work. Von Stephanitz then went on to purchase several shepherd dogs, including a dog named Hektor Linksrhein, who von Stephanitz considered to be the ‘ideal’ type. Hektor Linksrhein was renamed to Horand ‘vom Grafrath’, as Grafrath was the name of Stephanitz’s kennel. Horand vom Grafrath was to become the foundation dog of the German Shepherd breed. A comprehensive history on Max von Stephanitz and the establishment of the German Shepherd breed can be read here.
From a genetics point of view, the German Shepherd breed did not have an ideal start, because Horand vom Grafrath was often bred with his daughters and granddaughters in an effort to best replicate the characteristics of the stud dog, a practice that is now well know to narrow genetic diversity and lead to increase risk of genetic disease. Horand vom Grafrath was responsible for 53 litters of puppies, and 149 of these offspring were subsequently registered.
The German Shepherd was widely admired for its athleticism, loyalty, intelligence and temperament (and also probably for its intimidating appearance) and with time came to be used by the police forces and military. The German Army used thousands of German Shepherds during World War I. Some of these dogs were captured by French and British forces, who also admired the characteristics of the German Shepherd, and the dogs were taken home with the soldiers. In the UK, the German Shepherd was renamed the Alsatian, and it was not until 2010 that the Kennel Club (UK) officially renamed the breed to German Shepherd. The French used the name Chien Berger d’Alsace. After the war, some blinded soldiers used the German Shepherd as a guide dog.
During World War II, the German Shepherd was admired and used by the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler owned several German Shepherds, including a dog named Blondi, who Hitler reportedly had great affection for, but tragically had killed with cyanide, before he and his wife committed suicide in the same way.
In 1950s, the colours white and apricot were reportedly determined to be undesirable in the German Shepherd breed, as they were thought to be linked to genetic disease, and falsely linked to albinism. In Germany, dogs with greater than 50% white were considered undesirable. In modern German Shepherds, the colour white is not considered desirable by any breed standards.
White Shepherds are not albino – they have a white or apricot coat, but dark skin, nose, lips, eyelids, eyes and footpads. In character and temperament they are similar or the same as the German Shepherd, and in recent years, the white shepherds have regained recognition under the name White Swiss Shepherd (Weisser Schweizer Schäferhund in Germany, and Berger Blanc Suisse in Switzerland).
Unfortunately for the German Shepherd it became mistakenly ‘fashionable’ for a time to breed for a dog with excessively deep angulation of the hind legs, which lead to an excessively sloping topline, and excessive curve of the back. Thankfully, this bad breeding practice is currently being rectified by kennel clubs and breeders.
In modern times the German Shepherd performs a diversity of functions, from a family pet, to military or police duty, protection, rescue, therapy, and guide dogs for the blind.
The style of the German Shepherd can vary between country and breeder, although the breed standard is still based on the original, as described by the German ‘Verein für Deutsche Schäferhund’ (Club for the German Shepherd).
The German Shepherd is a large dog, with a body that is longer than it is tall, and a smooth outline. The head is wedge-shaped with a long muzzle that is straight on top. The nose should always be black, and the eye colour should be as dark as possible. The ears are erect, medium-sized, parallel, taper to a point, and open to the front. The mouth is strong, with a scissor bite where the upper incisors closely overlap the lower incisors.
The forelegs should be straight from all angles, and parallel when viewed from in front. The croup is long and slightly sloping (23° to horizontal). The chest should be moderately broad and deep, but not too broad or too narrow. The hind legs, when viewed from the rear, should be parallel, with strong well-muscled thighs. The rear pasterns should be perpendicular to the ground, under the hock joint. Tail should extend at least to the hock joint.
Male dogs are generally larger than females. The males should be between 60-65 cm in height, and weigh 30-45 kg. The females should be 55-60 cm in height and weigh 22-32 kg.
The German Shepherd has a thick double coat that is weather proof. The outer coat is harsh and the undercoat is soft and dense. The normal coat is called the ‘Stock Coat’, which is comprised of an outer coat that is short, dense, harsh and close lying. There is also a ‘Long Stock Coat’ variation, where the outer coat is long, soft, and not closely fitting, with a bushy tail and breeches, flags below the tail, feathering of the outside of the ears, and the coat around the neck is almost like a mane - long and heavy. The undercoat is for both coat types is light grey in colour.
The outer coat has several colour variations:
- Black and reddish tan
- Black and tan
- Black and gold, to light grey marking
- All black
- Grey (sables) with dark shading
- Black saddle and mask
In movement, the German Shepherd is described as having a roomy, smooth, ground-covering gait, with an unbroken topline.
Many German Shepherds from approved breeders will have a tattoo in the ear (usually the right ear) that identifies the breeder. Microchipping is now being used as an alternative to tattoos.
Character & Temperament
German Shepherds are bred for their steady temperament, calm firmness, high trainability, and their capacity to perform a wide variety of tasks. German Shepherds are highly intelligent, which also means they need to be kept occupied and entertained, and also sometimes means that they require clear and firm instructions when it comes to being taught what is desirable and undesirable behavior.
German Shepherds have been described as courageous, confident, loyal, guardians, gentle, aloof, alert, full of life, resilient, robust, instinctive, observant, adaptable, and versatile.
A balanced German Shepherd is normally good with people and animals, and can make excellent family pets, as long as they are given plenty of opportunity to exercise both their body and their brain.
The Verein für Deutsche Schäferhund (Club for the German Shepherd) emphasizes the fact that German Shepherds are highly intelligent, and that their training needs to begin from a very young age, as they will mature very quickly. The club compares the growth and maturity of the German Shepherd pup, to humans, in the following way:
- At 6 months of age, the dog is equivalent to a 10 year old child.
- At 1 year of age, they are the equivalent of a 20 year old person.
Training should involve plenty of positive encouragement and rewards. Harsh words and punishment are usually unnecessary, and can be counter productive.
German Shepherds can be trained to do almost anything – from protector, to guide dog, to tracker, to happy family pet.
The German Shepherd has an average life span of approximately 10-12 years. As with all purebred dogs, German Shepherds are prone to some genetic health issues.
Recent research has found that early neutering (spay or castration) of German Shepherds is linked to some health risks (Hart et al, 2016). The study found that neutering young dogs before 1 year of age increased the risk of the dog developing one or more joint disorders (particularly cruciate ligament disease). Early neutered dogs were also more prone to some types of cancer, and female dogs were more prone to developing urinary incontinence.
The following health problems have been reported in German Shepherds.
- Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia – kennel clubs require close monitoring of this defect by breeders to minimize genetic tendencies.
- Haemophilia and Von Willebrand Disease – bleeding disorders
- Aspergillosis – A fungal infection that can spread throughout the body and get into organs (i.e. kidneys) and bones. Likely related to a deficiency in the antibody IgA.
- Atopic Dermatitis – allergies causing itchy and inflamed skin
- Anal Furunculosis– an immune-mediated disease causing inflammation and ulceration of the tissues around the anus in middle-aged to older dogs.
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (pancreatic acinar atrophy) – causes weight loss due to an inability to digest fats.
- Intestinal diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Lymphocytic-Plasmocytic Enteritis (LPE), and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).
- Congenital and Acquired Megaoesophagus
- Canine Pituitary Dwarfism (Combined Pituitary Hormone Deficiency) – LHX3 mutation.
- Degenerative Myelopathy – on average affects 9 years old, causing weakness and in the hind legs.
- Urinary calculi, including Hyperuricosuria (urate stones, a genetic test is available) and silica-containing stones.
- Congenital heart disease
- Ventricular arrhythmia and sudden death – inherited disease seen in young dogs between 3-18 months of age.
- Other heart diseases – Mitral valve prolapse, Atrial Fibrillation.
- Azathioprine Hepatotoxicosis
- Hereditary multifocal renal cystadenocarcinomas and nodular dermatofibrosis.
- Panda White Spotting – recent genetic mutation from a female dog born in 2000. Symmetrical white markings on forelegs, muzzle, chest, ventral abdomen, collar and tip of tail’ – a genetic test is available
Exercise and Activity Levels
German Shepherds are extremely active dogs and require a minimum of 2 hours of exercise per day, including some on lead walking, as well as off lead. They are strong and agile, and enjoy all manner of canine sports, including walking, jogging, swimming, agility training, etc. It is very important to give German Shepherds a sense of purpose, so agility training is ideal to keep them mentally stimulated and challenged. Chasing balls, catching frisbees, riding alongside you as you bicycle – these are all great activities for this active breed. Without the correct exercise and mental stimulation, German Shepherds can become bored and sometimes destructive in the home.
German Shepherds are heavy shedders and should be brushed regularly if you would like to avoid having too much hair shed around the house. As with other breeds, bathing should only be as necessary, as too many baths diminishes the natural oils of the skin and can also cause irritation. Ears should be checked regularly and cleaned if necessary and nails should be trimmed if needed, however, regular walking along pavement should do this naturally.
Famous German Shepherds
Here we provide a few examples of German Shepherds in popular culture.
- Strongheart was a German bred German Shepherd who was sent to America after WWI, and became one of the first canine film stars in America.
- Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd who was born in France during WWI, and was rescued as a puppy, along with his mother and the rest of the litter, by an American soldier. Rin Tin Tin was taken back to America and subsequently went on to have an extensive ‘career’ in Hollywood films.
- Inspector Rex (Kommissar Rex) was a long running TV series set in Austria, with a German Shepherd named Rex as the main character.
- Other movies that have featured German Shepherds include: I Am Legend, K-9, Rin Tin Tin, Sultan, Ace of Hearts, The Hills Have Eyes, and many more
- Many individual German Shepherd have been recognized for acts of bravery in real life situations
German Shepherds have been crossed with a variety of breeds including the Golden Retriever, Labrador and Chow Chow, however, few ‘official’ cross-breeds exist, except perhaps for the Alaskan Shepherd, a mix of German Shepherd and Alaskan Malamute