Old German Shepherd Dog

Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Old German Shepherd Dog

An ancestor of the German Shepherd, the Old German Shepherd Dog, is a breed that never participated in the rigid breeding programme that led to the development of the more common modern day German Shepherd. The Old German Shepherd Dog has existed on German farms for many hundreds of years where it has diligently worked alongside farmers and their flocks.

While many of the breed bear close resemblance to long-haired German Shepherds, there is actually a large variation within the breed when it comes to physical appearance. Bred for their working ability alone, the Old German Shepherd’s intellect, stamina and obedience has always been the foundation on which they were bred.

About & History

The Old German Shepherd Dog is a classification of the German Shepherd breed in its own right and is certainly not to be confused with an elderly German Shepherd! The likelihood that you have encountered an authentic Old German Shepherd Dog is low. This breed of dog is incredibly rare nowadays, with some sources stating that they are in real danger of extinction in the near future.

Before the establishment of the German Shepherd breed, any dog in Germany that was used for shepherding was referred to by this term. However, in the late 19th century, Captain Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz formed ‘The Society for the German Shepherd’. His main purpose was to breed and document the dogs, with the aim to establish a superior animal. ‘Hektor Linksrhein’ was the first dog that the Captain took a shine to, and he chose him to be the original German Shepherd within his breeding programme. Any dog that appeared in his records, and subsequently their ancestors, were referred to as official ‘German Shepherds’, while any other dog would be known as an ‘Old German Shepherd Dog’.

Traditionally, these dogs were popular on rural, German farms, where they would move flocks of sheep around the lands. As well as this, they would act as guard dogs, defending the livestock from potential predators. Without the input of Captain von Stephanitz, these dogs were bred purely on the basis for their working ability, rather than their aesthetic appearance or conformation.

As they have never been bred for their physical looks, there is a huge variety from breed member to breed member, and they are much less uniform in appearance than the modern German Shepherd dog. Their owners sought after traits, such as intelligence, speed and hardiness. The persistent breeding of these ‘non-conforming’ shepherd dogs by herdsmen has ensured the survival of what is today known as the ‘Old German Shepherd Dog’.

Any breed standard you read will focus on capability rather than physicality, with their ability to herd being the most important factor. The focus on working competence alone has meant that this breed is less predisposed to some of the health conditions suffered by a modern day German Shepherd, and its features are less exaggerated. Generally, they most closely resemble long-haired German Shepherds. In fact, some breeders will classify any long-haired German Shepherd as an Old German Shepherd – though this is not an entirely accurate classification.

The authenticity of the Old German Shepherd Dog being a breed in its own right is very controversial, and an often hotly debated topic. Currently, there are some breed enthusiasts who are working hard to have the breed more widely recognised and accepted.


Old German Shepherd Dog Large Photo

The Old German Shepherd has never been bred to look a certain way, and so there is no true breed standard in existence. A medium to large sized athletically-built breed, dogs will measure between 55 and 65cm, while weighing anything between 22 and 40kg. Their coat colour can be black, brown, tan or grey, and often consists of more than one colour. The length and type of the coat varies between individuals, though tends to be long.

Character & Temperament

This breed is hard-working, reliable and can be independent at times. Constantly alert, they make very good watchdogs, immediately warning their owner of any unwelcome visitor. Loyal to their family, they will form tight bonds with those they trust, and are often strongly protective of them. If socialised from a young age, they can integrate well with children and other animals.


Intellectually-gifted, with the right guidance, these dogs can learn to perform a variety of tasks to a high standard. They require firm guidance, as well as consistent and interesting training. Quick to learn, these dogs can really keep a trainer on their toes. Keeping sessions interesting will prevent a Shepherd from becoming bored and disengaging with the task set to them.


Owing to the incredible rarity of this breed, relevant medical studies are lacking. It would be prudent to assume that they share many of the health issues suffered by the modern German Shepherd, as they are, of course, their ancestors. It is likely that the health issues are suffered with less frequency and severity in the Old German Shepherd due to the lack of historical inbreeding and the fact that they have not been bred to look a certain way. Conditions to be on the lookout for include:

Hip Dysplasia

Hip Dysplasia is incredibly prevalent within the German Shepherd community. While the Old German Shepherd was never bred to have sloping hips, it is likely that they are still more predisposed to this debilitating condition than the general canine population. As there is known to be a genetic predisposition to this condition, it is highly advised that all breeding parents are ‘hip-scored’ and only those with acceptable hip scores be bred from. Hip scoring is performed by a veterinarian. Dogs will normally need to be sedated or anaesthetised, and x-rays will be taken of their hips and pelvis.

When an animal does have hip dysplasia, the symptoms will become more obvious as the animal ages and the disease progresses. The osteoarthritis that ensues will vary between each individual but can often cause high levels of discomfort and immobility. Owners will need to work with their veterinarians to adequately control their dog’s symptoms. Various treatment recommendations exist, including surgery, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and medication. Many dogs will be managed with a variety of treatments throughout their lifetime.

Elbow Dysplasia

The term elbow dysplasia is used to describe a group of conditions that can occur within the elbow joint of an animal. These conditions are: Fragmented Coronoid Process, Osteochondrosis of the elbow joint (OCD), Medial Compartment Disease and Un-united Anconeal Process. If an animal suffers from any of these conditions, they will exhibit reluctance to exercise and stiffness or limping when moving. Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or CT scans, will help to confirm the diagnosis, and surgery is indicated in many cases.

Degenerative Myelopathy

This is a disorder whereby the animal suffers from nerve degeneration, resulting in a slowly progressive weakness in the hind limbs. Signs start to develop in later life and can be subtle at first. Initially, animals will seem un-coordinated or weak, and eventually, will start to drag their feet. While watching an affected animal walking can be alarming, it is not a painful condition. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for this condition, and dogs are managed with supportive therapy.

Anal Furunculosis

When the skin in and around the opening of the anus becomes ulcerated and inflamed, this is known as ‘anal furunculosis’. Affected dogs will be in pain, and often have matted, smelly fur under their tail. The draining tracts may extend to the surface of the skin, in which case, they are visible. In some cases, however, the tracts cannot be seen externally. This condition is usually managed medically, with varying success rates.

Digestive Diseases

Unfortunately, there are many disorders of the digestive system that this breed is thought to be particularly prone to. These include, though are not limited to: SIBO (Small intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency) and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease). When a dog’s digestive system is not functioning optimally, they will tend to vomit, have chronic diarrhea, lose weight and have a poor-quality coat. Determining which specific disease an animal is suffering from can be difficult and may require an extensive work-up.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Traditionally used as herding animals who would vigilantly patrol fields, tirelessly protecting their flock, the Old German Shepherd has a particularly high need for exercise. They should have access to a large, secure garden, as well as given several, long exercise walks a day. Owing to their intelligence, they excel in activities, such as agility, flyball and obedience, and require large amounts of mental, as well as physical, stimulation.


From a young age, the Old German Shepherd should be taught to stand still and remain relaxed while an owner checks their ears, eyes, teeth, coat, paw pads, claws and under their tail. They should also be habituated to claw clipping and tooth brushing. Regular grooming is a must as this breed can shed extensively.

Famous Old German Shepherd Dogs

While Hektor Linksrhein may be referred to as the first ‘German Shepherd’ included in Captain Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz’s breeding programme, technically he was an Old German Shepherd Dog.


There are no popular cross-breeds of the Old German Shepherd.

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