German Shepherd

German Shepherd dog
John Walton
Written by John Walton

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing German Shepherds is a proud, focused, intelligent, keen, fearless and confident canine. They are an intelligent breed that can learn and do anything. For decades now they have served in military and police, therapy and guide dogs, herding, search and rescue and the list goes on.

They are a versatile breed that requires plenty of attention, companionship as well as daily physical activity and mental stimulation. They are a fantastic addition to the active family and usually get along with children, dogs and other animals as long as they have been properly socialized. They are also suitable for apartment living as long as they are exercised sufficiently.

Breed characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
Health and GroomingHigh
All Around FriendlinessHigh
Exercise NeedsHighest

Dog Breed Group:Herding dogs.
Height:22-26 inches tall at the shoulder.
Weight:49-95 lb.
Life Span:10 to 14 years
Main Highlights
  • The German Shepherds originated in Germany as herding dogs.
  • They are a very versatile breed and found in military and police service, competitive obedience, search and rescue, guide dogs, drug detection and herding.
  • They were present after 9/11 as search and rescue dogs as well as providing comfort to families and rescue workers.
  • The breed is well known for their shedding, they shed year round and blow their coat twice a year, they are probably not the best choice of breed for people with allergies and asthma or individuals who can’t keep up with the cleanup.
  • The breed is not the ideal choice for novice or inexperienced owners.
  • The German Shepherds require plenty of daily mental and physical activity.
  • They are suitable for apartment dwelling as long as they are sufficiently exercised.
Breed History

The breed’s history dates back to 1899, when Max Von Stephanitz decided to create a new breed of herding dogs that embodied strength, intelligence, stamina and great work ethic. Up until then the farmers used dogs who embodied one or two of these traits but who were of no distinct breed or bloodline. Max Von Stephanitz felt that there is a great demand for an excellent herding breed and he embarked on his passion of finding that breed.

His search took him to dog shows around Germany and study of the British breeding techniques that produced excellent herding dogs. At one of the dog shows he found Hektor Linksrhein who was later renamed Horand V Grafeth, Von Stephanitz was so impressed with the dog’s appearance and intelligence he decided to found a breed from him.

After the need for herding dogs in Germany decreased, Von Stephanitz convinced the German Government to use the breed he developed in a military and police application. In World War II, the German Shepherds were actively involved in the war efforts as scouts, rescuers, Red Cross dogs, guards, messengers and supply carriers.

Although the allies were impressed with the breed, their popularity decreased due to their German origins to the point where the AKC renamed them to being simply called Shepherd dogs in 1917, the British Kennel Club adopted the same practice in 1977 and renamed them to Alsatian, a name they are still known to go by in the United Kingdom and some parts of Europe.

Despite being stigmatized, there was no denying the German Shepherds were a fantastic addition to the police. Military forces and the American police and military began importing the breed from Germany as American bred dogs were repeatedly failing performance and health tests.

To this date, there is a distinction between German breeders and American breeders. The German breeders test their dogs prior to breeding to make sure the parents possess all the physical and mental attributes that the German Shepherds are known for. As a result the dogs are known to be more focused, energetic and driven.

The American breeders were focused more on the looks of the breed, resulting in the dogs being calmer but they do tend to develop many behavioral issues. In the last couple of decades there has been an active effort amidst the American breeders to restore their dogs to the German Shepherd standard and keep the bloodlines pure, developing the mental attributes as well as the physical appearance.

Today, the German Shepherds are one of the most known breeds in the world, ranking 2nd most popular breed in the United States and 4th most popular breed in the United Kingdom.


The German Shepherd males measure at 24-26 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 66-95 lb. The females are usually smaller and measure 22-24 inches tall at the shoulder, weighing 49-71 lb.

Personality and Character

It’s impossible to discuss the German Shepherds without touching on their intelligence. The breed is considered one of the smartest breeds in the world — they ranked 3rd in Stanley Coren’s dog intelligence trials.

The German Shepherds are not the kind of breed to lounge around smelling the roses, they need a proper vent for their high stamina and energy levels, combined with constant mental stimulation. They are happiest when they have a job to do, even if it’s just fetching a ball or carrying their own water on a daily walk. They love being kept busy, learning and playing.

They are very devoted to their families, gaining their trust and friendship is perhaps a slower process than with other breeds, but once they decide to give it, there is no second in their devotion and loyalty. They are not aggressive without a good reason but if threatened or if their families are threatened, they stop at nothing to defend them. The breed is protective and makes a good watchdog but happiest when they are with their families, learning new things and playing.

The German Shepherds are suitable for apartment living but only if they are sufficiently exercised every day. Without a vent for their energy they can become bored, frustrated and destructive. Their ideal home would have a large fenced yard where they can safely romp around or a home in the country.

They are not the ideal breed for owners who are gone from the home for extended periods of time or have demanding schedules and can’t provide the breed with the much-needed companionship, mental and physical exercise.

Health and Potential Problems

The German Shepherds are usually a healthy breed, although irresponsible breeding and backyard breeders who breed only for the German Shepherd’s signature looks has left them vulnerable to health and temperament issues.

It is important to do proper research on the breeders and bloodlines prior to purchasing a puppy. Most reputable breeders and shelters make sure the puppy or dog has received a clean bill of health from the vet. Most reputable breeders test their dogs prior to breeding and also test the litter for any genetic or hereditary conditions.

Never purchase a puppy from a puppy mill as these operations are more concerned with financial profit than the physical and mental well-being of the animals in their care, most of the dogs and puppies are kept in horrible conditions.

With proper diet, regular exercise and healthy diet, your loyal companion will remain by your side for many years to come.

  • Degenerative Myelopathy: A disease that affects the part of the spinal cord that is responsible for communication between the brain and the back legs. Symptoms usually include the inability to control the back legs movement to the point when sadly the dog is unable to move altogether and has to be put down. Unfortunately, there is no known cure or treatment. In rare cases the condition occurs due to lack of vitamin 12 or vitamin E, in that instance vitamin supplement is usually added to their diet.
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency: A hereditary disorder that affects the pancreas function to produce digestive enzymes, causing inability to absorb or digest food. Symptoms may include weight loss, gas and loss of appetite. The condition is usually treated by adding pancreatic enzymes to the diet, in most cases a full recovery is possible.
  • Hip Dysplasia: A common hereditary condition in dogs, occurs when the femur doesn’t fit properly into the hip socket and may cause lameness, discomfort and arthritis in adult dogs. The condition is usually managed with pain medication or surgery in severe cases.
  • Elbow Dysplasia: A common hereditary condition that occurs because of different growth rates of the bones that make up the elbow. The condition may cause discomfort, lameness, as well as arthritis in old age. It is managed with pain medication and surgery in severe cases.
  • Epilepsy: A condition found in both humans and dogs, causing unpredictable seizures. There is no known cure or treatment but it can be managed with medication. Most dogs that are diagnosed with epilepsy go on to live full and long lives.
  • Bloat: A common condition among large breeds. It is caused by the body’s inability to expel trapped air or gas caused by drinking or eating too fast, as well as exercising right after a meal, as a result the stomach may twist on itself. Without immediate vet intervention, bloat may potentially be life threatening.
  • Allergies: Dogs as well as humans are known to suffer from allergies. The condition is usually treated by dietary adjustments, medication and environmental restrictions.
  • Von Willebrand’s disease: A disorder that affects the clotting process and is found in both humans and dogs. Common symptoms are bleeding gums, nose bleeds and bloody stool.
Care Features

The German Shepherds are naturally suspicious of strangers and sometimes come across as aloof. They require plenty of socialization. The process of introducing them to new people, children, other animals, various scenarios and environments should start as soon as possible and preferably when they are young. It is recommended to enroll them in puppy kindergarten where the introduction to the new big world is done under professional guidance.

Some German Shepherds are more prone to separation anxiety than others but crate training is proven to be a highly efficient tool in that regard. It teaches them that even though their human is gone, they will come back for them every time, alleviating the stress levels that come from the temporary separation. The crate helps protect the owner’s prized possessions as the German Shepherds can get destructive if bored or left alone for extended periods of time.

Crate training is also helpful with house training. As it is considered their den, they are less inclined to soil it, provided they get consistent bathroom breaks in the same spot and time followed by praise and treats. The crate also provides them with a special spot of their own they can retire to when needing space or tired. The crate is a highly helpful tool and should never be used as a punishment.

The breed requires plenty of physical activity and mental stimulation. Failure to provide them with that is a sure way to waste their potential. They are eager to learn new things and have a job to do. Enrolling them in activities such as agility, flyball, obedience, ring sports, tracking and Schutzhund is highly recommended. Not only does it give them a purpose and a chance to get their bodies moving and brains thinking, it also helps deepen the bond between them and the owner and allows the handler a tiny glimpse into what the German Shepherds can really do when challenged.

They require a firm, consistent and calm pack leader that can set boundaries and reinforce them with plenty of praise and tasty rewards, as they respond very poorly to harsh treatment. The German Shepherds are not a suitable breed for the novice or inexperienced owner as they are a complex and multi-layered breed that require plenty of attention and a handler with a natural air of authority.

Feeding Schedule

The breed benefits from 3-4 cups of high-quality dog food a day, divided into 2 meals.

Each dog’s nutritional needs vary and depend on their age, size and activity level. Puppies for example consume more food than adult dogs to keep up with their rapid growth and development.

High-quality food, free of unnecessary additives such as grain and corn, as well as rich in meat protein goes a long way in providing the dog with a healthy coat, skin, physical and mental vitality and longevity.

It is important to keep in mind that German Shepherds, like many large breeds, are prone to bloat. A condition which occurs when the dog eats or drinks too fast or is exercised right after a meal. It is a life-threatening condition without immediate vet intervention. Many pet stores sell special dishes that are designed to slow down the consumption of food and water. Alleviating the food and water dishes might be also helpful in the prevention of the condition.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The German Shepherds have a double coat that is weather resistant. The outer coat is dense and sometimes wiry and wavy. Common colors are usually black and black and tan. There are some variations of black and red, blue, liver, sable, blue and white, but they are not very common.

The breed is not recommended for people with allergies or asthma or individuals who can’t or won’t keep up with the clean up as the German Shepherds shed quite a bit and then some. They shed year round and blow their coat twice a year. Brushing them a few times a week helps limit the hair floating around the house and helps to keep their coat free of tangles and mats.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

The German Shepherds make good babysitters and companions to children. They are gentle and protective provided they are properly socialized and have been raised around children. As with all other breeds, children need to be taught the proper way to approach animals and show them the respect they are due as well as giving them space when the dog has had enough.

An alarming number of dogs are being put down, surrendered to shelters or abandoned yearly due to the adult’s failure to educate the younger members of the family on proper dog handling etiquette and consistently reinforce them. Any tail or ear pulling must be discouraged immediately and play time between children and dogs should be supervised by an adult at all times.

The breed mostly gets along with other dogs, cats and other animals as long as they have been properly socialized or raised with them. Introducing an adult to a household with other pets might prove a little tricky. The breed is highly intelligent and with a little guidance from a professional would be able to integrate into any family. The dog’s temperament hugely depends on proper socialization, handler, training techniques and environment.

There is nothing the German Shepherds can’t do or be taught to do. They make a great addition to families and active individuals as long as you can keep up with them. They are far from lazy and are happiest when they have a job to do. The breed doesn’t trust easily but if you are lucky enough to gain the trust and friendship of the German Shepherd, there is no four-legged friend that is more loyal and devoted. They are affectionate and cheerful with their families and make a good friend to the younger members of the family as well.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.