A brief history of the breed
Believe it or not, the German Shepherd actually does originate from Germany. Captain Max Von Stephanitz, a retired German cavalry officer, at the end of the 19th century (1899 to be precise) wanted a strong, intelligent working dog. He admired the herding abilities of the various continental shepherd dogs but could not find one that had all the performance traits he imagined an expert working dog should have. So, he began his quest to research into how to breed the ultimate German herding/working dog and eventually achieve standardization of the breed.
One day, while at a dog show in Germany, he spotted an impressive dog that resembled a wolf. He was so impressed with its appearance and form that he bought it and began the breeding programme that produced the now easily recognized German Shepherd dog, as we know it today.
Are German Shepherds’ part wolf?
Folklore hints at German Shepherds being part wolf. Even one early name used in the UK, Alsatian Wolf Dog, hints that they are. Despite having similarities in appearance with wolves, they are not!
Fact: It is believed that the domestic dog is a genetic divergence from grey wolves and it was humans, possibly nomadic hunters that domesticated dogs in Europe some 15.000 years ago. Not many domestic dog breeds continue to have the appearance of what their ancestors may have resembled like the GSD does.
This German Shepherd breed was officially recognised by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1908
What are the main characteristics of a German Shepherd Dog?
Loyalty and companionship: German Shepherds can make the most wonderful and loyal companions, as they are trusty and like company as they are pack animals.
Reputation: Yet, of all the hundreds of dog breeds, the GSD is often misunderstood and can be thought of as an aggressive and dangerous dog that is better suited to being a police dog or guard dog, than becoming a family pet. The fact is that any dog that is not treated well or trained properly can have behavioural problems. The German Shepherd dog can fit in well within a family setting when treated with respect and affection.
Popularity: The German Shepherd Dog is one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. It ranks as the 2nd most popular dog in the US. It is sometimes still referred to as an Alsatian dog or the Alsatian wolf dog, in the United Kingdom, although The Kennel Club (UK) reverted back to using its original name in 1977.
Trainability: Best to train early in the puppy years. An easily trainable, purebred dog with excellent herding capability, it’s a highly-disciplined breed with a good work attitude and memory. It will follow instructions naturally and execute with military precision..
Power and intelligence: It is a very powerful and intelligent working dog with sharp instincts and shows great strength when required.
Early socialization and discipline is strongly recommended with this breed. This will familiarize them with different situations, people and surroundings. They are known to display great loyalty to their master and can easily fit into family life, as they love attention and active play.
Sociability: Doesn’t make friends easily but once it does it’s your friend for life, providing you treat it well.
Purpose: Do not mistake their cute appearance for weakness. GSDs are of strong character, hard-working, thrive on having a purpose and like to please. This makes them highly suited to multi-disciplined working environments: working dogs for the police, search and rescue, drug identification teams, guard dogs and acting as skilled service dogs for visually or hearing impaired people. They will be protective and show strength if threatened and protect their master with their own life if necessary.
Behaviour: Obedient and focused. Likes to be stimulated and does not like to be inactive or left alone for long periods of time. Bores easily and will bark, even howl, or chew things if not sufficiently occupied and exercised. This breed was developed to be the ultimate herding dog and is used to following orders. They will behave as commanded when trained properly and enjoy doing so.
Physical Features & Behaviour
|Size||Medium to large-sized||Medium to large-sized|
|Height||22-26” (60-65cm)||22-24” (55-60cm)|
|Weight||66-88lb (30-40kg)||49-73lb (22-33kg)|
|Lifespan||9-13 years||9-13 years|
|Litter Size||4-9 puppies/litter|
Coat: Medium length, Rough double outercoat with a soft undercoat
Color Range: depending on parent mix– Tan with Black saddle, Sable, Bi-color, and Solid Black/White (learn more about German Shepherd colors)
Temperament: Depends on the parent mix, can be aloof but usually friendly in the right environment. If trained as a puppy, they will interact well with people and other dogs, enjoy play and adore rough and tumble fun. It is important to remember that they are natural working dogs with a high energy level and will focus their attention on work commands first and foremost. They need to be kept occupied a lot of the time and may even sulk if not given the attention they feel they deserve!
Feelings and signals: It’s all in the tail! They are known for having great bushy tails that are not only attractive but used as a signal for how they are feeling. Most dogs communicate with their tails and no more than the GSD.
‘Tails up and wagging’ is a good sign – of contentment, agreement, happiness or excitement
‘Tails down’ is not a good sign – the dog may feel threatened, need to retreat or have lost an encounter with another dog and signal its surrender. This act is an attempt of backing off by making itself appears smaller. In other words it means just leave me alone and at this point you should do just that and not be tempted to approach a dog with its tail down or tucked in, especially a GSD. This example is sometimes used as an example in human conversation – ‘Tail between the legs’.
GSDs are highly sensitive to the character of others and will react accordingly to give those closest to them a clue of any approaching situation that might impact them.
What type of training is required?
It is advisable to begin training early. (They say you cannot teach old dogs new tricks!)
There are several of types of training required – obedience, discipline, agility and socialization.
All are important to enable your GSD to adapt to its intended role and future surroundings. The wider the training, the more versatile and adaptable this breed of dog will be. This is important if the dog is likely to be exposed to different social interactions and settings.
How do you begin to train a GSD puppy?
All puppies are excitable and want to keep playing; however in order for you to be able to take them out in public and socialize with them, they need to learn how to behave. It will take time and patience but it will be worth it in the end.
If you are not going to use a professional dog trainer:
1) Develop basic command words: Find your keywords such as Sit, Wait, Stop and be consistent each time you use them.
2) Crate – Buy a crate and get puppy used to going into it. This will eventually become its nest and sleep there. You will have to lock the cage in the early days so it knows it has to sleep there and it’s useful experience if transporting your pet.
3) Potty training – may be hit and miss as a new puppy will get easily excited with no control, however there are products available, such as mats and odour sprays to attract the puppy go to the same spot each time.
4) Walking on a leash – using your voice commands and road awareness.
What is the difference between German Shepherd working dogs and show dogs?
It largely depends on whether they descend from German breeders or American Breeders, and their breeding purpose.
In short American breeders of German Shepherds will focus on appearance over their herding talents with a view to producing show dogs, while the German breeders of German Shepherds will focus on their working ability over looks.
Germany – The origin of the German Shepherd, refined in Germany, was to breed the ultimate powerful working dog to be used for herding and protection activities. Strength, agility and its hard working talents were developed over appearance.
North America – The German Shepherd here is specifically bred as a potential show dog champion may have a softer demeanor, distinctive coloring and a slightly smaller frame, than its German bred counterpart.
Health and Risks
As with many in-bred large dog breeds, in the attempt to reach perfection there can be congenital health consequences. The GSD has its fair share of health issues. The most common health conditions for GSDs include:
Hip Dysplasia – this is common in an estimated 19% of GSDs. It’s a genetic fault resulting from years of inbreeding to create the agile power machine we have today. Hip dysplasia is a mal-formation of the hip joint, where the ball at the top of the leg does not fit properly into the socket and the ligaments attaching it are weak. This allows excess movement of the fitting which can eventually lead to stiffness and pain for the dog.
Continuous use, wear and tear from this naturally overly active dog can lead to hip degeneration in one or sometimes both hips causing pain and a limit on the dog’s mobility. Even with early diagnosis and treatment it can lead to further issues such as arthritis, extreme pain and even osteoarthritis.
Early warning signs are visual stiffness then walking, a reluctance to get up when prompted and a difference in walking style. It can occur early in the puppy years or not until later much later in life. The only way to be sure is to trace the health history of the natural parents.
There is no cure for hip dysplasia;
It is a case of pain management where anti-inflammatories may be prescribed by the Vet. Care must be taken not to allow the dog to jump too much or risk slipping or falling and be mindful of the possible pain causes by exertion.
Elbow Dysplasia – this is a similar condition with the same prognosis as Hip dysplasia, except located in the dog’s elbows. Again, this is a genetic condition prevalent in GSDs that causes inflammation, pain and reduced mobility in the front legs.
Early signs are reduced movement and stiffness. The dog may become over protective of its front legs, sometimes adopting a cradling position for comfort and struggle to get up.
It is recommended to control the dog’s weight as any extra weight will exacerbate the pain and wear on the limb along with adopting a more moderate exercise regime.
Degenerative Myelopathy – is a genetic, auto-immune based neurological disease common in GSDs that compromises the spinal cord. It is a progressive, degenerative disease that weakens the rear limbs, causes pain and eventually leads to paralysis. It is sometimes only identified at autopsy.
Gastric Dilatation-volvulus (Bloat) – this can affect many deep chested, larger dog breeds that like to eat large volumes quickly, drink too much water after eating or even eat too close to exercising.
Any of these factors can cause excess gas to build up in the stomach and if the dog is not able to pass the excess air, the stomach can twist and reduce the blood flow to the heart, which can result in death.
These include restlessness after eating, a bloated stomach and an inability to reject the air and excess food through ineffective retching. The dog may become listless and uncomfortable with a faster than usual heartbeat. If this happens medical attention is required urgency to dispel the gas.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) – another genetic disease, where there are insufficient enzymes being produced in the pancreas and food absorption and digestion is compromised as a result.
Early signs are wasting – lack of appetite, weight loss, change in stool consistency and excess gas. Identification is via a blood test and if diagnosed can be cured with a replacement enzyme food supplement.
Other conditions to be aware of include – Epilepsy, arthritis, cataracts and other eye problems, Perianal Fistulas (PF), skin blemishes and allergies, itching.
How to care for your German Shepherd from puppyhood into old age.
A GSD puppy will soon demonstrate how active it likes to be and as a result will requires a lot of exercise. Regardless of how the dog will be used it will always want to be busy doing things. Puppies should not be exercised too much on hard ground as their paws are still delicate so a mix of hard and softer ground is recommended until they are at least 2 years of age.
The older GSD will require regular exercise in the form of walking, running and any other opportunities to burn off energy, especially if not being used as a working dog. At least 2 walks a day is recommended for this medium to large-sized breed. A trained GSD is happy to walk on or off lead but care should be taken to understand the rules of where the dog is walking as sometimes dog leads and dog muzzles are obligatory in certain public areas.
The GSD should be fed as a large-sized dog with quantities and type of dry specially formulated food, possibly supplemented with vitamins and minerals, as advised by the Vet appointed for its ongoing health care and check-ups. Be careful not to overfeed as additional weight can exacerbate hip and elbow problems common in the breed and cause bloating.
A medium-length haired, double-coated dog will require regular grooming, therefore a good brush is required (and a good vacuum cleaner!). Brushing is recommended at least 2-3 times a week. They typically shed hair all year round and twice a year have an accelerated shedding of their coat.
Bathing is recommended only when needed, but not too often as their coats contain natural oil, which can be stripped with over bathing. Certain shampoos have double effect of cleaning the dog coat and protecting it against fleas and insect bites.
Cleaning teeth, nails and ears:
Like humans GSDs need to look after their teeth and can develop a built up of plaque in their back molars if not managed properly. Chewing can help to break down plaque, so the use of doggie chew toys and bare bones are recommended along with specially adapted soft tooth brushes and toothpaste. Nails grow quickly due to activity level and need to be trimmed regularly, say once a month, and checked for infection. Their ears also need to be regularly checked for dirt build up and any signs of infection of infestation as they love rolling around on the ground and dirt.
What is life like for a GSD?
It should be active, active, active!
They are at their best when working, running, chasing, herding or playing. Get the message? The GSD is a very physically and mentally strong, agile dog that likes to keep on the go constantly. Originally breed for herding, they still have this organised ability and constantly need purpose and stimulation. Otherwise, with their high energy levels they may show their boredom through barking or sulking.
They’re equally suitable for herding on farms, protecting property and homes or fitting into most family environments. As a medium to large-sized dog it is not recommended they live in an environment with no outdoor space to run around, or that they live with people unable to go out with them for daily exercise. Not suited to over-crowded housing.
Rise to fame: The German Shepherd dog is one of the world’s most popular and easily recognised dogs. It has featured on screen many times, and captured the hearts of many, from playing a loveable character helping the police catch criminals through to acting in man’s best friend roles.
Possibly the most famous German Shepherd was the original character of Rin Tin Tin.
The story behind this meteoric rise to fame for the GSD was that, during World War I, Army Corporal Lee Duncan, rescued a GSD puppy from a dangerously located breeding kennel while stationed in France. When the war finished, Corporal Lee returned to his hometown in Los Angeles, USA, with the puppy in hand and successfully found him work on the big screen with the stage name ‘Rin Tin Tin’.
Hollywood fell in love with this adorable character and our interest in seeing the German Shepherd on screen has continued ever since.
A Quick guide to the Positives and Negatives of owning a GSD
- Fiercely loyal to Master and family
- Highly intelligent
- Easily trained
- Active and energetic
- Sociable and can be gentle
- Handsome and popular breed
- Loves food
- Distant, wary of strangers, territorial, makes a good watchdog suspicious nature
- Guarded, stares, plays rough sometimes
- Pack animal that will challenge others
- Destructive and noisy if alone for long times. Will bite things unless trained
- Not good in sedentary environments
- Will bark and howl if bored. Looks fierce
- Will cast hair everywhere, purebreds can be expensive to purchase
- Unless monitored can weight gain easily
Commonly asked Questions:
Q: What is the correct spelling for this dog breed? Is it Shepherd, Shephard, Sheperd, Shepard?
A: Confusion still exists when attempting to spell the name of this breed of dog.
The correct spelling is German Shepherd
Q. Is it true you should never look a GSD in the eye or grin at it?
A. Many dogs will feel threatened it you stare them in the eye or grin directly at them. They see this as a threat. They do not like to be watched eating either.