German Shepherd Dog 101: Breed Information, Traits, Facts & Pictures

The handsome, noble German shepherd is a member of the herding group, and he is currently the second most popular dog breed in the U.S only behind the labrador retriever.

German shepherds are big dogs that need plenty of space, so one of these pups won’t suit you if you live in a small apartment without a garden. As he was bred to be a working dog, the German shepherd needs lots of exercise and games to keep his body and brain occupied. So, be warned, these pups are not couch potatoes!

The German shepherd is an excellent choice of dog for you if you enjoy spending time in the Great Outdoors. These dogs also do well in families with kids, as they’re a loyal and loving breed. Your German shepherd will be the happiest living indoors as a family member.

In this article, we take a detailed look at the German shepherd. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll know whether one of these pups would make the perfect pet for you.

So, let’s learn more about the highly intelligent, trainable German shepherd!

German Shepherd History

German Shepherds have been around for quite a long time and come from, you guessed it, Germany. Although initially used as guard and herding dogs, their intelligence and friendliness have made them very popular pets.

The origins of the German Shepherd is traced to Europe in the middle of the 19th century. The 19th century is credited for being the origin of most standard dog breeds as before this, they weren’t commonly domesticated. It was common not to know what kind of dog you had as you got whatever breed that happened to be nearby.

Dogs back then were bred based on traits that were desirable for specific jobs. For example, in Germany, farmers needed their dogs to protect their livestock, as well as herding said livestock in and out of their pens. This required a good deal of agility, intelligence, strength, and a good sense of direction and smell. Isolating these traits took multiple generations, but eventually, the German Shepherd emerged.

Still, the breed was far from perfect. There were a lot of variants between different dogs. Although they were good at herding sheep, were intelligent and robust, their individual abilities needed to be standardized to eliminate the worst of the breed and bring out it’s best.

Phylax Society

The first major contributor to mass German Shepherd breeding was due to the Phylax Society. This committee formed in Germany in 1891 with the mission to standardize dog breeds throughout the country. They wanted to make dog breeds easily identifiable with minimal variance between individuals.

This allowed pet owners and commercial dog sellers to choose animals based on their skill and physical attributes. The standardization of dog breeds meant that consumers were more likely to purchase animals as they knew there was little difference between one dog to another.

The Phylax Society disbanded after three years due to disagreements on what traits should be given to which breed, how they should be bred, and which breed should be bred with whom. Even though they were short-lived, this helped to spark the dog breeding industry throughout Europe.

Gold Standard

Max Von Stephanitz, a founding member of the now disband Phylax Society, decided to take matters into his own hands. He believed that dogs were supposed to be working animals and should be bred to have traits to reflect that. In 1899 while Max was at a dog show, he found a dog that matched his standard of the working dog – the strong, intelligent, large, and agile German Shepherd.

Impressed with the amount of work the dog could handle, he bought the dog immediately. He then went on to found the “Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde,” or the Society for the German Shepherd Dog. Max’s dog Horand became the very first German Shepherd, as the breed was added to the dog register that same year.

Max’s dog Horand, experienced a lot of attention as he became the main focus of multiple breeding programs. People were amazed by the breeds physical strength and characteristics. He was bred with a large amount of dogs which created various different dog breeds that are still around today.

It was common in the days of early breeding for inbreeding to occur to isolate desired traits. Hektor, the most successful of Horand’s offspring fathered 84 dogs in total.

Increasing Popularity

The breeders got busy quickly. The handsome, versatile German shepherd soon became noticed in other countries and is thought to have first come to the U.S. in 1906. In 1913, the German Shepherd Club of America was formed.

Although the UK Kennel Club at the time didn’t accept the German Shepherd until 1919, they were instrumental in helping the dog breed become domesticated. In 1919 there were only 54 of them registered. 7 years later, in 1926, there were over 8,000. The breed was becoming internationally known, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons.

World War I led to a drop in the German shepherd’s popularity, as the dogs were associated with the enemy. Throughout the war, the German shepherd earned his reputation as a brave, tough cookie by braving land mines, tanks, and artillery fire to bring supplies to the German forces fighting in the trenches.

Due to “German” being apart of the breeds name, many thought there was an association with Germany and German soldiers and were thus seen as an enemy. The breed was swiftly named to the Alsatian to try to silence the negative association. However, soldiers that returned home from Germany managed to help the reputation of the breed by saying how friendly, strong, and loyal they were.

The United States is a big reason for the increased popularity of the breed, as animal actors were often German Shepherds. The first registered in the US was named Queen of Switzerland. However, due to bad breeding, her offspring didn’t survive. This crippled the popularity of the breed, but it did find a rebirth later on in the century.

The Return of the Shepherd

Sieger Pfeffer von Bern became a local legend in the competition circuit. This German Shepherd became a winner in the American Kneel Club shows multiple times over many years. People were reminded of the sheer majesty of the breed.

Due to the second World War, the popularity decreased again due to the same reasons as the last World War. The rise of the Nazi regime led to a lot of anti-German propaganda which also affected the Shepherd, along with other German specific dog breeds. At the time, no one wanted a dog that was associated with the enemy. Owners of the Shepherd commonly lied about the breed to keep them safe.

By the ’60s this association was lifted, and the popularity increased once more. By 1993, the German Shepherd became the 3rd most popular breed, and as of 2009, they are now the second most popular. It is common to see this breed take the top five spots on dog registries worldwide.

Today, the German shepherd is number two on the American Kennel Club’s chart, second only to the ever-popular Labrador Retriever and just a few spaces ahead of the Golden Retriever in popularity.

Part Wolf: An Ongoing Question

Many people believe that the German Shepherd we know and love today has a history of cross-breeding with wolves. The very first official breeder of German Shepherds, Max von Stephanitz of Germany, was said to have used wolves in his cross-breeding process to perfect the genes of the breed. Some even suggested he was able to use wolves from the zoo to do so.

However, the word “wolf” was used so often by breeders interchangeably with the word “sable” that no one can be absolutely sure if this is true or not.

But we do know that most dogs are descendants of the gray wolf, so we can confirm that German Shepherds do have some wolf in them. And, in fact, some of the breeds used in the original cross-breeding of the German Shepherd were more directly descended from the gray wolf, making the GSD more closely related and thus, more wolf-like.

This is important to note because a closer relation to the gray wolf has given GSDs certain traits that we can attribute to some of their behaviors.

The GSD is a huge chewer, as we have already noted. Part of this comes during the puppy stage where teething happens. This is normal is all puppies, of course, but German Shepherds are especially bad.

Not only does teething hurt and chewing relieves that discomfort, but this breed has it in their nature to chew. Their sharp teeth and strong jaws are a result of their wolf ancestry, making it their instinct to work, gnaw, and tip things apart.

It’s apart of their nature to survive. They need to maintain a strong bite and sharp teeth, and chewing and gnawing help them accomplish this. For that reason, it’s important to get the right toys to feed this instinct and keep your pup happy.

Health

The average lifespan for a German shepherd is between 10 and 13 years, although many live longer. Despite being robust and resilient dogs, German shepherds can be prone to several health problems, including:

Hip Dysplasia: Hip dysplasia is an inherited condition where the head of the thigh bone does not fit correctly in the hip joint socket. Eventually, the bone starts to wear away, ultimately causing painful arthritis.

Hip dysplasia can be managed with medication, and there is also a surgical treatment option. However, surgery is not always successful and will also cost you many thousands of dollars.

Degenerative Myelopathy: Degenerative myelopathy is a similar condition to multiple sclerosis in people. The disease causes a slow onset paralysis of the dog’s hindquarters. Degenerative myelopathy is untreatable, although the progress of the disease can be slowed down with drugs. Eventually, an affected dog will lose his mobility altogether, and ultimately, the only option is euthanasia.

Heart Disease: As is the case with many of the large breeds, German shepherds can be affected by a whole range of heart diseases, including enlarged hearts, heart murmurs, and valve diseases. For that reason, you should have your vet examine your German shepherd’s heart as part of an annual health check for signs of problems.

Checking your German shepherd puppy’s health certification:

You should always ask the breeder for details of your puppy’s parents’ and grandparents’ health certification. Many of the health problems that affect German shepherds are inherited, so it’s vital that you know that your pup’s parents have been tested and are clear of these conditions.

Also, temperament is hereditary. A German shepherd with an aggressive, unbalanced temperament is a very dangerous animal, so be sure to ask if your puppy’s parents hold a “TT” certificate issued by the American Temperament Test Society.

Before a German shepherd can be included in the Canine Health Information Center database, he’s required by the German Shepherd Dog Club of America to hold elbow and hip certification from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, and he must also have GSDCA temperament test scores on file. Optional CHIC tests include thyroid and cardiac evaluations too.

Note that the thyroid tests on the puppy’s parents must have been carried out within the past 12 months, and the eye examination within the last two years. Check out the CHIC website to see if your puppy’s parents are listed there.

Exercise

A German shepherd needs plenty of exercise, both to keep him in good physical condition and to stimulate him mentally.

If you’re an outdoorsy family, a German shepherd could be the perfect companion for you. These dogs love long walks and games of fetch with a ball or Frisbee too. You’ll need to make time to give your German shepherd two good walks every day, and you should include a couple of playtime sessions also.

Training

The athletic, brave, and super-versatile German shepherd still works in many different occupations today. The breed is widely used by the police and military, provides assistance and guidance to people with disabilities, works as a search and rescue dog, and some shepherds are trained as detection dogs, searching for contraband, drugs, and illegal stowaways.

German shepherds still work on farms and ranches across the world as herding dogs. In leisure, German shepherds excel in virtually all canine sports, including tracking, rally, agility, obedience training, dock diving, and flyball.

German shepherds are highly trainable and soak up new information like sponges!  It’s a good idea to take your puppy to training classes as soon as he’s old enough. German shepherds are big dogs, and you want yours to be obedient from the word go. You’ll want to start early so you can avoid them becoming nervous and engaging in bad behavior.

Because they are so adept at learning new skills and are such hard workers, they are often used as police dogs like their distant cousin, the Belgian Malinois.  They are also often compared to other dogs like the doberman that and also compared to the rottweiler similarly guard dogs in nature.

Size & Living Conditions

German shepherds are big dogs! An adult German shepherd can grow to between 22 to 26 inches at the shoulder, weighing in at between 50 to 90 pounds. Female German shepherds are generally smaller than their male counterparts.

In theory, a German shepherd could live outside your home, as long as you provide him with a waterproof, well-ventilated, cozy dog crate. The breed has a double coat with fluffy underfur that will keep your pup warm in winter.

However, German shepherds are fiercely loyal to their human family, and your pup may become stressed and feel isolated if he’s separated from you. So, although a German shepherd could live outside, he would much prefer to stay with you indoors!

Nutrition

Like all dogs, German shepherds are primarily meat eaters. So, your German shepherd’s diet should comprise relatively high protein levels. Protein is an essential dietary component for muscular development, energy requirements, and healthy growth.

Your dog’s diet should also contain an amount of fat to keep his skin and coat in good condition.

As your German shepherd grows from a puppy to adulthood, his diet will change according to his activity levels and age.

German shepherd puppies actually need more nutrition than their adult counterparts. These pups are livewires who spend their days checking out their environment, playing, and generally getting into mischief! These high activity levels demand lots of fuel to fulfill the puppy’s energy requirements, as well as supporting healthy growth and development.

Once your German shepherd puppy is one year old, you should gradually move him onto an adult diet that’s formulated specially for the needs of large breed dogs.

When you collect your puppy, it’s a sensible idea to ask the breeder what food they recommend for your pup and keep to that brand of food for at least the first six months.

For more information on what to feed your German shepherd, ask your local veterinary clinic for more advice.

Coat and Colors

Most German shepherds are basically black and tan. However, you can also find solid black german shepherds and sable colored dogs.

You may see puppies with white coats, liver-colored, or blue coats. These pups are often advertised as “rare” and are consequently for sale at high prices. Don’t be fooled! If you want to show your German shepherd, these colors are frowned upon and won’t win you any prizes.

The German shepherd is double-coated. That means the dog has a fluffy undercoat that has evolved to keep him warm in the cold mountain environment where the breed initially worked.

The German shepherd’s outer coat is straight, dense, and coarse. These flat “guard” hairs lay close to the dog’s body, providing a layer of water repellent fur. The undercoat is soft, fluffy, and thicker than the guard coat.

German shepherds have four specific coat lengths:

German shepherds with undercoats shed moderately all year round.

Grooming

German shepherds are nicknamed “German shedders”! That should give you a big clue about the breed’s grooming requirements!

Your German shepherd will need brushing at least three times every week, and daily during your dog’s twice-yearly shedding periods that occur in the spring and fall.

Shedding takes place to rid the dog of his thick winter coat so that he won’t get too hot when the summer weather arrives. The fall shedding is necessary to remove the summer undercoat, replacing it with a thick, warm layer of fluffy fur to keep the dog warm in the wintertime.

As Pets

So, based on what you’ve learned so far, would a German shepherd make the perfect canine companion for your family?

Here are the most salient points about the breed that will help you to make your decision:

  • German shepherds are big dogs, so you’ll need a house with plenty of space, and ideally, you’ll have a large back yard too.
  • Most German shepherds shed continually and have two major seasonal shedding periods each year.
  • So, you’ll need to be prepared to devote many hours each week to grooming your German shepherd.
  • Because German shepherds are shedders, the breed would not be the best choice for a home with allergy sufferers.
  • Well-socialized German shepherds get along with other pets, including cats.
  • German shepherds are very protective of their human family and make great watchdogs.
  • German shepherds typically get along very well with kids of all ages.
  • However, do bear in mind that these are big dogs and could easily knock a small toddler off his feet, albeit unintentionally.
  • German shepherds need lots of exercise and variety to keep them happy. Don’t take on one of these pups if you don’t enjoy walking!
  • Although, in theory, you could keep a German shepherd outside in a kennel, he would be so much happier indoors with you and your family.

So, a German shepherd would make the perfect pet for an active household with kids, and ideally where there’s someone at home during the day. Also, you’ll need to be a keen groomer and not be too precious about shed dog hair on your furniture or carpets.

Getting a Puppy

A good place to start your search for a German shepherd puppy is on the website of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America.

Always choose a breeder who respects the club’s code of conduct that doesn’t allow the sale of puppies through brokers, commercial dealers such as pet stores, or at auctions.

When you buy a puppy, a good breeder should provide you with a written contract that guarantees that they will take the dog back at any time during the animal’s lifetime if you’re unable to keep him. You should also receive written confirmation that the puppy’s parents and grandparents have the requisite temperament and health certificates.

Look for a breeder whose dogs have won titles in sports, rather than just in the show ring.

Puppy Costs

The price of a German shepherd puppy varies depending on where you are in the country, the sex of the puppy, what titles are held by his parents, and whether the pup has been bred for the show ring or for a forever pet home.

Good quality, well-bred puppies typically cost from $800 to $1,500. However, some animals with an excellent show pedigree in their bloodlines can command prices of up to $4,500.

Puppy Mills

Cheap German shepherd puppies are often offered for sale by puppy mills. Never buy a puppy from a puppy mill!

These operations are purely run on a commercial basis, producing many puppies as cheaply and quickly as possible. Usually, the breeding animals have not been health screened, and puppies from these enterprises often have inherited health conditions and may even be carrying disease or a heavy worm burden from day one.

Note that many pet stores buy their puppies for a cheap wholesale price from puppy mills.

Rescues

If you are happy to rehome a German shepherd from a rescue shelter, you may want to check out this link to the GSDCA’s rescue arm. Also, Petfinder is a very useful resource where you might find your perfect pet.

Be careful to find out as much as you can about the German shepherd you’re considering adopting. Many dogs from rescue shelters don’t come with any history, so, to some extent, you’re taking pot luck.

It may be possible to take an adult dog from a shelter on a trial basis. If the dog settles well and you’re confident he’ll make a great addition to your family, you can go ahead and adopt him. If not, you have the guarantee of being able to return the dog to the shelter.

Popular German Shepherd Mixes

Because of their popularity, German Shepherds have become extremely popular as “designer dogs” meaning that they are often crossed with other purebred dogs to obtain a “new breed” of dog.  Some people may consider these “mutts” but designer dogs are becoming a more popular phenomenon.  Here are some popular GSD mixes you may come across.

Some Famous German Shepherds

  • Rin Tin Tin, dogs who starred in the classic TV shows and movies
  • Clipper, U.S. First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy’s dog
  • Buddy, the first Seeing Eye Guide Dog and owned by Morris Frank
  • Strongheart, star of movies, including a 1925 movie, White Fang
  • Gandalf, a search and rescue dog who found a missing boy scout in 2007
  • Orso, owned by US General Norman Schwarzkopf
  • Ork, owned by singer/songwriter, Amy Grant

Final Thoughts

If your ideal family canine companion is a large, loyal, intelligent, athletic dog, a German shepherd could be the perfect pet for you.

You’ll need to enjoy spending time exercising and grooming your dog, and you mustn’t be too precious about vacuuming up dog hair every day, as these pups are super-shedders!

German shepherds can suffer from a range of congenital health conditions, so always insist that the breeder shows you the certification that clears your puppy’s parents and grandparents of the problems that commonly afflict the breed.

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