Introduction to the German Shepherd

Noble, courageous, and loyal, the German Shepherd originated in Germany a little over 100 years ago.

Officially known in the U.S. as the German Shepherd Dog (or “GSD” to his friends), the German Shepherd has been one of the most popular breeds in the country almost since his arrival to these shores partly owing to the breed’s frequent stardom in films.

German Shepherds are exceptionally intelligent and easy to train. They have excelled as police dogs, military dogs, and in most dog sports. They usually make a very good family dog, but they do need plenty of regular exercise.

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History of the German Shepherd

The German Shepherd derives from dogs used for herding sheep and other animals in the 19th century. The dogs were very good at doing their job with intelligence, speed, and strength, but there were differences in appearance. In 1891 a group of breeders called the Phylax Society joined together to standardize the appearance of some breeds in Germany. The group only stayed together for three years but they inspired breeders to work toward their goals. One of the breeds that developed out of this group was the German Shepherd, looking similar to the dog we have today.

Within a few years in Germany, as cities grew, fewer people needed dogs to herd sheep. However, the other great qualities of these dogs were still greatly admired such as their intelligence and versatility. One former member of the Phylax Society – Max von Stephanitz – set about breeding dogs for their working abilities. Seeing a dog named Hektor Linksrhein at a dog show in 1899, Von Stephantiz purchased the dog immediately. Hektor was already the result of generations of selective breeding. Von Stephanitz liked his strength, intelligence, looks, and loyalty. He changed the dog’s name to Horand von Grafrath, created the Society for the German Shepherd Dog, and declared Horand to be the first German Shepherd Dog. After that, Horand was the focal point of breeding for the Society and sired many pups. Von Stephanitz is credited with being the father of the German Shepherd Dog.

The breed was immediately successful, thanks to Von Stephanitz’s supervision and insistence on working qualities in the dogs. They were accepted into the Kennel Club in Britain in 1919 and into the AKC in 1908. Some German Shepherds were brought back to the U.S. following World War I by returning soldiers who admired the dogs. One dog in particular – named Strongheart – became an early star of silent era films. He was soon followed by another canine star named Rin Tin Tin. These heroic German Shepherds did much to establish the early image of the German Shepherd in the United States as brave, intelligent, loyal dogs and the breed’s popularity has not wavered much since those early days, with only a slight dip following World War II. Today the German Shepherd is ranked as the second most popular dog in the United States, behind the Labrador Retriever.

German Shepherd Health-Related Issues

There is always some controversy when it comes to the German Shepherd, their appearance, and health issues. People with show and working-line German Shepherds disagree to a great extent about how the dogs should look and move, for example. There are also disagreements between Americans and Germans about how the dogs should look. Even the British are involved in controversy over the breed. The British Kennel Club is engaged in a dispute with the German Shepherd breed clubs in Britain over soundness, the slope of the breed’s topline (spine), and the gait of the breed.

In the United States, German Shepherds at dog shows are sometimes criticized for these same issues. German Shepherd show dogs are sometimes criticized because they appear to “walk” on their hocks and can have a very sloping topline, making them look different from working German Shepherds. If you have had a pet German Shepherd, you may be surprised when you attend a dog show and see that the dogs look a little different.

In health matters, German Shepherds can have some health problems. As a breed, they can be prone to gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV or bloat and torsion). Hip and elbow dysplasia can occur in the breed, which can lead to arthritis later in life. According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), currently 19 percent of German Shepherds are rated abnormal for hips (rank 40th), with over 110,000 dogs x-rayed.

German Shepherds can also develop degenerative myelopathy which is a neurological disease. It is now possible to screen for the disease now with an inexpensive saliva DNA test. Von Willebrand disease, which is similar to hemophilia in humans, is also present in some German Shepherd bloodlines. A degenerative disease of the pancreas called exocrine pancreas insufficiency (EPI) can also occur in German Shepherds.

Some German Shepherds can also have a sensitive digestive tract and/or food intolerances or allergies.

You can learn more about German Shepherd health by visiting the German Shepherd Dog Club of America health page.

Remember that most dogs do not major have health problems. Breeders work diligently to test and screen their dogs so they produce healthy puppies. But no one can completely guarantee that every dog will be healthy throughout their lifetime. If you are interested in getting a puppy or dog, be sure to talk to the breeder about their dogs, the health tests they have done, and their health guarantees.

German Shepherd Temperament

In temperament, German Shepherds are devoted and loyal. They usually make good family dogs and they generally like children. They are reserved with strangers and tend to be protective of their families. However, they are not mean or vicious dogs. Proper socialization and training will ensure that these dogs have good manners and accept visitors when they are welcome.

German Shepherds are exceptionally intelligent and they enjoy training. They often excel at obedience, agility, rally, flyball, and other dog activities. Many people still enjoy herding activities with their German Shepherds. They are good at patrolling sheep meadows, for instance, and they can herd animals. German Shepherds also make excellent search and rescue dogs, detection dogs (arson, drugs, cadaver, explosive and mines, and other things), and they are often used for police and military work. The breed is also very good at tracking. While the majority of guide dogs used today are Golden and Labrador Retrievers, a certain percentage are German Shepherds. They can also make good service dogs for people with other disabilities. German Shepherds are extremely versatile and willing to please.

Owners say that German Shepherds have a sense of humor and that they like to express their opinions. They can get along well with other pets, but they usually have to be the boss. If you have a cat or another dog, it’s best if they don’t mind being bossed around by your German Shepherd.

At home German Shepherds are affectionate and loving. They like to be with their families and they can be silly and playful when they are relaxed.

Since they are a large, active dog, German Shepherds need regular exercise. They enjoy running and romping. They can adapt to urban living but they do best if they have more room.

German Shepherd Grooming

German Shepherds have a double coat and the outer coat tends to shed a lot. It is important to brush your German Shepherd frequently to help remove the dead coat. Otherwise, you will have a lot of hair shed all over your house. Coats are medium or long in length, though the longer coat is rarer. (The long coat is considered a fault by the AKC.)

The German Shepherd comes in a variety of colors, most with a black mask. Many have some black body markings. The most common colors are tan/black and red/black.

German Shepherd puppies are often very fluffy in appearance before their adult coat grows in.

Besides regular brushing, grooming for the German Shepherd is usually basic. You can use a hound glove and a bristle brush to keep the coat looking good and remove dead hair. They should be bathed regularly which will help loosen dead hair and keep the skin clean. Gentle conditioning of the coat is sometimes helpful, especially in winter. Some people blow dry the coat.

As with all dogs, you will need to check and clean your dog’s ears, keep his nails trimmed, and maintain his teeth in good condition.

German Shepherd Fun Facts

  • Strongheart was one of the first canine movie stars in 1921.
  • Rin Tin Tin, another great German Shepherd film star, was rescued from a battlefield in Germany as a puppy in 1918 by American soldier Lee Duncan and brought back to the United States. Rinty, as he was nicknamed, appeared in 27 movies. His descendants – in the 12th generation now – are service dogs and continue to make public appearances today. Both Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart have their own stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • German Shepherds were one of the first breeds to be trained for police work, starting in Belgium in 1900.
  • In the past, the German Shepherd was called the “Alsatian Wolf Dog” or Alsatian in Britain because of German unpopularity following the wars. The name was eventually changed back to German Shepherd.

Common German Shepherd Mixes

While you can usually find many shepherd mixes if you visit your local shelter, German Shepherds are not usually one of the breeds popular as a cross for hybrid dogs. You can find occasional mixed breed puppies online that are a cross between a German Shepherd and a Labrador Retriever, or a German Shepherd and another breed, but these are usually accidental litters. This is probably because German Shepherds shed a lot, which might make them less desirable as a breed for crossbreeding.

  • Alaskan Shepherd – Alaskan Malamute and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Chinese Wolf Shepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Wolf and Chow Chow Mix
  • Chow Shepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Chow Chow Mix
  • Euro Mountain Sheparnese – Bernese Mountain Dog and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Gerhounter – Pointer x German Shepherd Dog and Greyhound Mix
  • German Sheppit – Pit Bull and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Golden Shepherd – Golden Retriever and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Great Shepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Great Dane Mix
  • Labrashepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Labrador Retriever Mix
  • Miniature Pinscherd – German Shepherd Dog and Miniature Pinscher Mix
  • New Shep – German Shepherd Dog and Newfoundland Mix
  • Saint Chowperd – Saint Bernard x Chow Chow and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Saint Shepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Saint Bernard Mix
  • Shepadoodle – Poodle and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Shepkita – German Shepherd Dog and Akita Mix
  • Shug – German Shepherd Dog and Pug Mix
  • Siberian Shepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Siberian Husky Mix
  • Spanierd – German Shepherd Dog and English Springer Spaniel Mix
  • Tervard – Belgian Tervuren and German Shepherd Dog Mix
  • Weimshepherd – German Shepherd Dog and Weimaraner Mix

German Shepherd FAQs

What is a German Shepherd’s Life Expectancy?

According to a health survey conducted by the Kennel Club in the UK in 2004, the median lifespan for the German Shepherd is 10.95 years. The breed’s lifespan is estimated to be about the same in the United States (11-13 years). This is typical for dogs of this size.

Are German Shepherds easy to train?

Yes, German Shepherds are very intelligent and very easy to train. They enjoy pleasing their owners and they enjoy training. They will pay attention and continue trying to get a command right as long as you are willing to work with them. They try very hard to do things right. They are great overachievers. According to the book The Intelligence of Dogs, the German Shepherd ranked 3rd in intelligence based on how fast they learned new commands and how often they obeyed a command the first time – right behind the Border Collie and the Poodle.

Do German Shepherds shed a lot of hair?

Yes, they shed year-round. So, if you are interested in getting a German Shepherd, make sure you have a good vacuum cleaner. And brush your dog often to help remove the dead hair before it falls out.

Do German Shepherds make good apartment pets?

If you are dedicated to making sure your German Shepherd gets plenty of regular exercise, then yes, he can make a good apartment pet. However, these are large, active dogs and they usually do best if they have plenty of room to run outside.

Are German Shepherds good with Children?

German Shepherds are usually very good with children. They are affectionate and protective. As always, do not leave small children unsupervised with dogs. It’s always possible for an accident to happen very quickly. Teach children how to interact safely with dogs.

Carlotta Cooper

Carlotta Cooper is a freelance writer and a long-time contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine, Dog News. She is the author of The Dog Adoption Bible, the Dog Writers Association of America Adoptashelter.com award-winner for 2013. Additionally, Carlotta is the author of Canine Cuisine: 101 Natural Dog Food & Treat Recipes to Make Your Dog Health and Happy, as well as other books about pets. She is a guest writer for numerous website and blogs and a frequent pet food reviewer.

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