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Breed Spotlight: The German Shepherd

Updated: Mar 15

The German Shepherd Dog (or GSD) was developed by Max von Stephanitz using various traditional German herding dogs from 1899. Originally bred as a herding dog, it has since been used in many other types of work, including disability assistance, search-and-rescue, police work, military service, and guardian of both persons and capital. It is commonly kept as a companion dog, and according to international kennel clubs it had the second-highest number of annual registrations in 2013.



German Shepherds are medium to large-sized dogs. The breed standard height at the withers is 60–65 cm (24–26 in) for males, and 55–60 cm (22–24 in) for females. German Shepherds can reach sprinting speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Shepherds are longer than they are tall, with an ideal proportion of 10 to 8+1⁄2. The AKC official breed standard does not set a standard weight range. They have a domed forehead, a long square-cut muzzle with strong jaws and a black nose. The eyes are medium-sized and brown. The ears are large and stand erect, open at the front and parallel, but they often are pulled back during movement. A German Shepherd has a long neck, which is raised when excited and lowered when moving at a fast pace as well as stalking. The tail is bushy and reaches to the hock.



German Shepherds have a double coat which is close and dense with a thick undercoat. The coat may sometimes be seen in a longer variety, but this variety is not accepted in the US as it is present in so many GSDs with health issues and the only way to pass on that coat is to incorporate less healthy dogs into your breeding program. The FCI accepted the long-haired type in 2010, listing it as "Variety B," while the short-haired type is listed as "The Variety." Faults in coat include soft, silky, too long outer coat, woolly, curly coats. The coarse coat is functional to the breed.


Most commonly, German Shepherds are either tan/black or red/black. Most color varieties have black masks and black body markings which can range from a classic "saddle" to an overall "blanket". Rarer color variations include sable, pure-black, pure-white, liver, silver, blue, and panda varieties. The all-black and sable varieties are acceptable according to most standards; however, the blue and liver are considered to be serious faults and the all-white is grounds for instant disqualification from showing in conformation at All Breed and Specialty Shows. All-white should not be selected for when breeding, as it is correlated to multiple health issues including heart deformities and epilepsy.



Aggression

Many enthusiasts of the breed excuse the aggression exhibited by their German Shepherd as the dog being dominant. As pointed out by the owner of The German Shepherder, who is himself an extremely experienced trainer, this is a lie. "It is unfortunate that people do not know any better than to explain their dog’s aggressive behavior in this way, because what that unintentionally does is create an excuse for the dog to continue behaving in this manner, while also giving the owner an excuse to continue allowing the behavior."


Some behaviors of a dominant dog, from The German Shepherder:

  • One-upmanship: He will go to great lengths to show he’s the fasted kid in class. He’ll outdo other dogs when playing fetch and he will move another dog aside for your attention.

  • Shows his strength: He will never give up on a game of tug of war, be it with you or another dog. He will show that he is stronger than the next dog or person each and every opportunity that arises.

  • Stare downs: He is all about eye contact, but not as a sign of affection. His intent is to show you that he will not budge and that you should seriously consider submitting to him. He will do this with both people and other dogs.

  • Mounting: He may, bluntly put, mount anything that he can. He will not discern between male and female, as this is not an attempt to mate, but more a showing that he is in control.

  • Stealing food and toys: He may steal toys and food from other dogs just because he can and to show that he’s in charge.


None of these can really be said to be exhibitions of aggression, per say. They will often even be carried out with an air of playfulness, such as getting between you and another dog so that he is the recipient of your affection and not them; with a wagging rear end and a silly smile on his face.


"An aggressive GSD is coming from an entirely different place psychologically than a dominant one. While dominant behavior is exhibited by a dog to show everyone who’s boss, the root of almost all aggression is fear. So when a GSD displays aggressive behavior, it is not trying to show that he’s the boss, although it may appear that way. Instead, there is either a primal instinct or learned fear from a past experience that is traumatized the dog and causing it to lash out with aggression."

One major contributing factor in GSD aggression is a lack of proper socialization. From an early age all dogs should be exposed toa wide variety of circumstances so that they can see the world is not something to be fearful of. When a German Shepherd is kept in his family's home and only leaves to be taken to the veterinarian for vaccines, this often creates a negative association with the world outside of the bubble in which he and his family live. The result is an aggressive (from a place of learned fear) German Shepherd that will have to be muzzled and tightly restrained by multiple technicians just so he can get an exam. He will try to bite, he will try to run, he will bark...all of which only heightens his fear and makes the process of basic care more complicated. This is preventable, but it's the owner who has to prevent it. Waiting until the problem presents itself to try to fix it simply isn't good enough. If you are getting a GSD puppy, fix this before it starts.


There are a plethora of types of aggression and their causes vary. For more information, check out The German Shepherder's article on the topic.


Nutrition

Since German Shepherds are meant to be an active breed, and because of the way that it is muscled, it is extremely important to understand that they require a higher protein intake than many other breeds. Foods formulated for active sporting dogs are often adequate, and a popular choice is Purina Pro Plan Sport 30/20. This food is specifically formulated with athletes in mind and can deliver the necessary protein that your GSD will need to stay healthy long-term. Feeding more basic diets, such as things often found in the pet section of a grocery store, is not going to suffice. It may save you a few dollars now, but the health issues it can contribute to over time can break the bank in veterinary care.


If you go a different route and opt for homemade raw, understand the risks. It's also worth noting that many do-it-yourself raw diets are not properly balanced for domestic canines, lacking sufficient carbohydrates (important for energy) and lacking grain (correlated with a healthier heart). Some say that they are descended from wolves and wolves eat only meat, but this is not only untrue (wolves have been observed eating things other than meat) but unrelated. Domestic dogs have evolved alongside humans, eating what humans eat, and have thus developed dietary needs that are different than wolves; specifically, the ability to digest various nutrient sources that would be undigestible in a wolf. Furthermore, claiming that wolves eat only meat therefore dogs should eat only meat because dogs are related to wolves is like saying humans should walk to everywhere they are going because Neanderthals didn't have cars. Additionally, finding the appropriate balance in at-home canine nutrition can be extremely difficult, and you run the risk of giving your dog too much of some things and not enough of others. If you go this route, do exhaustive research and pay very close attention to your dog to watch for signs that may require diet alteration. To be on the safe side, it is best to do this with the help of a canine nutritionist.


An increasingly popular and available option if prepared raw and freeze-dried foods. Both typically contain a nutrient profile remarkably similar to kibble, but they contain much more moisture which can be very beneficial. They tend to also not incorporate most common preservatives, none of which have been proven to be generally detrimental in either dog or human foods but some of which some people prefer to avoid nevertheless. One of the main purposes of preservatives is to increase food safety by halting the growth of harmful microbes, including bacteria, yeast and mold. Regardless, certain individuals (this applies to both dogs and humans) may exhibit a sensitivity to certain preservatives. It may be worth taking things like this into consideration if you find yourself on the more cautious side of things. Overall, prepared raw (that which is purchased already formulated and mixed from a pet store) is more uniformly reliable nutrition than at-home raw.


Exercise

These dogs require lots of exercise. They are built for activity, and should be worked extensively to expend the energy they inevitably build up. As I've said many times, a tired dog is an obedient dog. Proper exercise makes obedience and training a million times easier for the both of you, and it makes quiet time in the home much more peaceful. Ideally, a GSD would be vigorously exercised outdoors in a securely fenced area for approximately 2 hours per day. This doesn't have to be all at once. In fact, especially on hotter summer days, this should be broken up into short chunks. Games like fetch, tug of war, swimming, obedience training (this really gets the mind working too), or simply even running around like an idiot are all viable options!


Baby Got Back

Let's talk about "roach back." This is a fairly common term assigned to the hyper-sloped back of a poorly bred GSD. It is also a fairly common term assigned to the correctly sloped back of a well-bred GSD. The differences between the two are almost always very confusing for people who are unfamiliar with breed standards and dogs shows. In the simplest way I can think to explain it, German Shepherds are supposed to - by design - have a certain amount of rear slope. This, in conjunction with the proper muscling of the hind legs, hips, and proper form in the paws and pasterns (the "shock absorbing" portion of the lower leg between the hind foot and the hock) result in proper gait and a powerful launch when setting off into a run. It also aids the dog in quick turnabouts when working it's intended job as a herder, which would otherwise be made somewhat difficult given its large size in comparison to most other herding breeds, such as the Border Collies. There is a function. And if properly executed, there should be no ill effect on the dog as a result of this in the long term. However, the GSD is predisposed to hip and elbow dysplasia, but rates of degenerative disease and dysplasia may actually be higher in dogs that are built squarer and with little to no hind slope.


None of this has stopped people from claiming that purpose breeding the GSD to the standard is abusive and harmful. Most of these claims are either baseless or intentional lies, however. Lets talk about the most common one; one you may have seen if you are on the dog side of Facebook.



This photo collage purports to be a representation of German Shepherd structure throughout the years, begining with normal healthy dogs in 1899 and 1925, and ending with abominations in 1998 and 2009. However, 5 of the 6 photos were taken on 2010 and the person with an agenda edited them to make them look as though they are from different time periods and make the dogs look less similar. Some of them are even the exact some dog. The photos were taken by a GSD breeder and uploaded online to demonstrate how a proper stack (the art of positioning your dog's feet and body in a certain way to best display their appearance for a show) can drastically alter the way they look. By the way, the dog featured in the 1899 photo is not even technically a German Shepherd. It is far more accurate to say he was the first dog registered as a German Shepherd. The dog's name was Hektor Linksrhein and he was a mix of several dogs that was part of someone else's breeding project. Max von Stephanitz (the aforementioned creator of the GSD) was shown this dog at a dog show in 1899 and loved the dog so much that he purchased him immediately and made him the start of his GSD development project. He changed the dog's name to Horand von Grafrath and the rest is history. On into the 1950s people kept improving the form of the GSD to best suit the job for which it was created, and to achieve optimal health.


A German Shepherd Dog Champion, 1955
If you would like to see the modern GSD in action and witness healthy gaits and the show stack mentioned above, check out the below video of the 2019 German Shepherd Dog Breed Judging at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Pay close attention to how they stand, and then how they move. These are well-bred examples.
For further clarity, or perhaps more confusion, take a look at the next video. This is from the German Shepherd Dog breed judging in 2016 at the Crufts Dog Show overseas. These are NOT well-bred examples of the breed and their permittance at the show sparked quite the controversy, and the dog that was awarded Best Of Breed was stripped of the title. The difference should be rather obvious. They are not only of poor structure, but of poor temperament.

Where to Find a GSD Puppy

If you're searching for a GSD puppy, you're in luck because they are everywhere. If you are looking for a well-bred GSD puppy, you have your work cut out for you because unethical breeders are everywhere. We discuss things to look for in our post about well-bred puppies and ethical breeding, but a few to keep at the forefront of your mind would be making sure the breeder health tests all of their breeding dogs and can show you the results (all you need is the dog's registration number, which any breeder will give you so that you can look up the testing results on the OFA website). Also, tracking pedigrees on a website such as German Shepherd Dog Database (pedigreedatabase.com) is a great sign. And it allows you to check out the lineage in great detail to help you ensure the pedigree is healthy. A good breeder will never be guarded when discussing these things. Good breeders are proud of their health testing and the work they do FOR their breed.



A good GSD breeder is hard to find. And a well-bred GSD puppy is likely to cost you around $2,000 or more. If the GSD puppy is $800, there's a reason and it's mostly because the breeder didn't invest anything into the litter, and they just want to make money. Beware. This is a popular breed, and the more popular a breed is the more vigilant you need to be when vetting potential breeders.


Recommended Health Tests from the National Breed Club:

  • Hip Evaluation

  • Elbow Evaluation

  • Temperament Test


The above health tests are easy to verify. Any breeder who health tests will be eager to show you proof of health testing, usually by sending you a link to the parent's profiles on the OFA website. Any breeder who gets cagey about health testing or says they did the tests but didn't send them in to OFA for certification is not on the up-and-up and should be avoided.


And for those very special circumstances, rescue can be a great option! A rescue GSD isn't for everyone. Rescued dogs come with baggage. For many breeds, that's a hurdle but not necessarily a danger. But for the GSD, baggage usually means fear and a scared GSD is a dangerous one. Proceed with caution. There are tons of German Shepherds that end up in shelters, mostly because people underestimate the breed's requirements and end up in over their heads. If you are able to handle whatever comes with a rescued GSD, adoption is definitely worth it. Afterall, they didn't ask to be born in their bodies, with their predispositions, or to be surrendered toa shelter. They deserve love too. But always put your safety first, and definitely consider reaching out to a professional dog trainer so you have help with any issues that may arise.


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