- Height: 22 to 26 inches at the shoulder
- Weight: 50 to 90 pounds
The German Shepherd Dog is a natural protector and so adaptable and intelligent that he has performed just about every job known to dog. If he had opposable thumbs, he would be unstoppable. Rin Tin Tin, a pup found in a World War I battle zone, became the world’s first canine movie star, forever marking the German Shepherd Dog as one of the most easily recognized breeds. From his imposing size to his erect ears and dark, intelligent eyes, he has achieved legendary status as the ideal canine. A versatile, athletic and fearless working dog, the Shepherd has done just about every job a dog can do, from leading the blind and detecting illicit drugs to bringing down fleeing criminals and serving in the armed forces. An energetic, loyal and devoted companion, the German Shepherd isn’t a breed but a lifestyle.
The abilities of this breed go far beyond its origin as a herding dog. The German Shepherd has made a name for himself as a police and military dog, guide and assistance dog, search and rescue dog, and detector dog. He has excelled in every canine sport, including agility, obedience, rally, tracking and, of course, herding. German Shepherds still work livestock on farms and ranches around the world, including the United States. If you have horses, they will trot alongside you while you ride and help you put the horses back in the barn when you’re done.
It takes some dedication to live with a German Shepherd. Be prepared to provide plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. A half-hour walk twice a day, plus a vigorous play or training session, is a good start.
The protective but loving German Shepherd is a great choice for families with children, but singles and couples who love the outdoors also match up well with this breed. With sufficient exercise and opportunities to use their considerable athleticism and brains, these versatile companions can handle anything from a small city apartment to a vast ranch. They’re not suited for life in the backyard or a doghouse, but need to live indoors as a member of the family.
Other Quick Facts
- The German Shepherd is highly intelligent and will not be content to live life as a couch potato. He’s a dog of action, and he needs to live with an active person who will give him a job worthy of his talents.
- German Shepherds love children and make great family dogs when they are given early socialization and training.
- Most of us think of the German Shepherd as a black and tan dog, but they can also be sable and solid black. Dogs with white, blue or liver-colored coats are frowned upon by breeders, so don’t fall for marketing claims that those colors are “rare” and command a higher price.
- A German Shepherd should never be shy, nervous or aggressive.
The History of German Shepherds
As his name suggests, the German Shepherd originated in Germany, where he was created in the nineteenth century primarily by Captain Max von Stephanitz, who wanted to develop a dog that could be used for military and police work. The result was a dog that encompassed striking good looks, intelligence and versatility.
The adaptable and attractive dogs soon drew the attention of dog lovers in other countries. While Rin Tin Tin is the most famous of the early German Shepherds, he was not the first to come to the United States. One is known to have been brought to the U.S. in 1906, and the American Kennel Club registered a German Shepherd in 1912. The following year, people interested in the breed formed the German Shepherd Dog Club of America.
World War I put a dent in the breed’s burgeoning popularity because the dogs were associated with the enemy. German Shepherds braved artillery fire, land mines and tanks to supply German soldiers in the trenches with deliveries of food and other necessities.
After the war, movies featuring Rin Tin Tin and fellow German Shepherd Strongheart brought the breed back into favor. American audiences loved them. For a time, the German Shepherd was the most popular breed in the United States.
One of the best known modern German Shepherds was the first and so far only member of the breed to win Best in Show at Westminster Kennel Club, in 1987. His name was Ch. Covy Tucker Hill’s Manhattan, ROM, nicknamed Hatter. Hatter drew crowds wherever he went and loved meeting his fans, especially children.
These days, the breed’s star is rising again. Current AKC rankings place him second only to the Labrador Retriever.
German Shepherd Temperament and Personality
The ideal German Shepherd is direct, fearless and confident. When he comes from parents who have good temperaments and has been socialized to become familiar with many different people, sights and sounds, he is an intelligent, easy to train, devoted, protective and fun-loving dog.
The German Shepherd is naturally protective of his home and property and will always alert you to strangers or intruders, but if you welcome someone into your home, your German Shepherd will accept them, too. He will also get along with other pets, especially if he is brought up with them from puppyhood. German Shepherds are smart and learn quickly that cats rule!
The German Shepherd needs a job. While many German Shepherds are raised successfully in kennel situations, these are working dogs who have demanding and interesting tasks to do that give them the needed exercise and mental stimulation.
If your Shepherd is a family companion, he needs to live indoors with your family and receive opportunities to exercise his brain such as learning tricks, helping you around the house by picking things up and bringing them to you or serving the community as a therapy dog. He will enjoy going for walks or hikes, chasing a ball, or getting involved in a dog sport. He doesn’t need to live in a large house with a yard, but if you live in an apartment or condo, you must be able to give him plenty of walks or other daily exercise and opportunities to relieve himself during the day. Otherwise, he’ll be lonely, bored and destructive.
German Shepherds are smart, active dogs who will do best with smart, active owners able to give them focused attention, exercise, training, and lots of one-on-one time. There are few dog breeds whose fans don’t call them “intelligent,” but in the case of the German Shepherd Dog, that’s probably an understatement. They are extremely intelligent and famously trainable. Their intelligence means they don’t suffer fools – or wimpy owners – gladly, which means consistent training from an early age is not optional. Those brains, if not put to work in constructive ways, will find plenty of destructive alternatives.
German Shepherds can also be way too much dog for even the most well-meaning of people because they were created and bred to work for many generations. Their genes tell them to be a guardian, a police dog, a guide dog, a search and rescue dog – almost anything other than a couch potato. If you aren’t ready for that level of commitment, find another breed.
Many people want a German Shepherd for purposes of protection. But almost no one really needs a trained protection dog — most people or families simply need a watchdog and a deterrent. The German Shepherd’s size, body language, reputation and instinctive protectiveness are all that’s needed to accomplish those goals, so don’t get a “trained protection dog” that you don’t need and probably can’t handle. A socialized, well-mannered German Shepherd who lives with his family will protect them as part of his nature. A German Shepherd will always keep you within sight and sound. He might lie at your feet or he might position himself 15 or 20 feet away from you, but he will never let you go out of view. That’s part of his heritage as a herding dog. If you don’t want a dog who, well, dogs your footsteps, don’t get a German Shepherd.
Does a German Shepherd come this way ready-made? No. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, food stealing and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained or unsupervised. And any dog can be a trial to live with during adolescence. In the case of the German Shepherd, the “teen” years can start at six months and continue until the dog is about two years old. Start training early, be patient and be consistent, and one day you will wake up to find that you live with a great dog.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
Be aware that a German Shepherd’s temperament can vary depending on his background. German Shepherds from working lines have an extremely strong drive to work and may be more dog than most people can or want to handle. If you want a family companion, a dog from a conformation breeder may be a better choice.
The perfect German Shepherd Dog doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his environment and breeding. Whether you want a German Shepherd as a companion, show dog, canine competition dog or all three in one, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
What You Need to Know About German Shepherd Health
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines. Here’s a brief rundown on what you should know about the German Shepherd’s health.
The German Shepherd has a reputation for being prone to hip dysplasia, but breeders are working to decrease the occurrence of this genetic malformation. When a dog has hip dysplasia, the head of the thigh bone doesn’t fit properly into the hip socket. Over time, the bone begins to wear away, eventually resulting in painful arthritis. Depending on the severity of the condition, hip dysplasia can be managed with medication or the hips can be surgically replaced, at a cost of thousands of dollars per hip. It’s impossible to know if a dog has hip dysplasia simply from examining him or watching him move.
Degenerative myelopathy is one of the most devastating of the conditions that can affect GSDs. This neurological disease is similar to multiple sclerosis in humans and results in a slow, creeping paralysis of the dog’s hindquarters. It’s untreatable, and eventually the dog won’t be able to move on his own. Watch your dog carefully for signs of pain and discomfort that come on gradually rather than suddenly, and check his nails at least once a month to watch for signs of uneven wear. While DM in dogs is incurable, the course of the disease can be slowed with treatment. Breeders who have tested their stock for this condition are likely to be among the most conscientious of breeders, so ask to see the results of the DNA-based DM Flash test, conducted by the University of Florida or the University of Missouri, as submitted to the OFA.
Like many large breeds, German Shepherds can suffer from a wide variety of heart diseases, including murmurs, valve diseases and enlarged hearts. An annual heart exam is critical in catching these conditions early, as many of them respond well to treatment.
Epilepsy, vision problems, bleeding disorders, immune mediated diseases, hemangiosarcoma, digestive problems including exocrine pancreatic insufficiency – all these conditions are relatively common in the German Shepherd. Many of them have a genetic component, and a good breeder will discuss health problems in her lines.
Just like certain diseases, temperament is also heritable. Ask your breeder about independent temperament testing of her dogs. An unstable, aggressive or shy German Shepherd can be a dangerous animal. The American Temperament Test Society issues a “TT” certificate, and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America has its own temperament test. Temperament test results are a definite plus and a good sign that you’re working with a caring, dedicated breeder.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
Before individual German Shepherds can be included in the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) database, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America requires them to have hip and elbow certifications from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and GSDCA temperament test results on file with OFA. Optional CHIC tests for the GSD are OFA cardiac and thyroid evaluations, and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation. The thyroid tests on your puppy’s parents should have been done within the past year and the eye exam within the past two years. You can search the OFA and CHIC websites yourself to see if a pup’s parents are listed.
Don’t fall for a bad breeder’s lies. If the breeder tells you she doesn’t need to do those tests because she’s never had problems in her lines, her dogs have been “vet checked,” or any of the other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.
Other health concerns to be aware of are bloat and gastric torsion. German Shepherds are more likely than many breeds to bloat, a condition in which the stomach expands with air. This can become the more serious condition, gastric torsion, if the stomach twists on itself, cutting off blood flow. Bloat and torsion strike very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums and lip licking, trying to throw up but without bringing anything up, and signs of pain. Gastric torsion requires immediate veterinary surgery, and most dogs that have bloated once will bloat again. That means it’s wise to opt for the procedure known as “stomach tacking,” which will keep the stomach from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a German Shepherd at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life and relieve the aches and pains of arthritis in old age. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
The Basics of German Shepherd Grooming
The German Shepherd Dog has a thick, medium-length double coat that sheds, a lot and constantly, so much that even his fans call him a “German shedder.” The undercoat sheds heavily in spring and fall, and the German Shepherd must be brushed and bathed frequently during that time to get out all the loose hair. The rest of the year, weekly brushing is generally enough to keep him clean. If the German Shepherd is your breed of choice, purchase a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner; don’t get a German Shepherd if you have allergies or are a fussy housekeeper.
The rest is basic care. Trim his nails every few weeks, as needed, and brush his teeth frequently for good overall health and fresh breath.
Finding a German Shepherd Dog
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Choosing a German Shepherd Breeder
Finding a good breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than in making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him.
Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
For more information about the breed or to find a list of breeders, visit the website of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America. Look for a breeder who abides by the club’s code of conduct , which does not permit the sale of puppies through brokers, auctions or commercial dealers such as pet stores. Breeders should sell puppies with a written contract guaranteeing they’ll take back the dog at any time during his life if you become unable to keep him, and with written documentation that both the puppy’s parents (and if possible, his other close relatives) have the appropriate health and temperament certifications. Seek out a breeder whose dogs have working titles in sports that require athleticism and good health, not just ribbons from the show ring.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a German Shepherd puppy varies depending on his place of origin, whether he is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. A typical price range is $800 to $1,500 for puppies who have been raised in a clean environment, from parents with health clearances and show or working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Some puppies or young dogs with excellent show potential may sell for $2,500 to $4,500. Whatever you pay, puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
And before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult German Shepherd might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult German Shepherd may already have some—or a lot of—training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
Adopting a Dog From a German Shepherd Rescue or Shelter
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a German Shepherd in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the German Shepherds available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a German Shepherd. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love German Shepherds love all German Shepherds. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The German Shepherd Dog Club of America’s Rescue Network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other German Shepherd rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a German Shepherd home with you to see what the experience is like.
Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a dog. These include:
- What is his energy level?
- How is he around other animals?
- How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?
- What is his personality like?
- What is his age?
- Is he housetrained?
- Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
- Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your German Shepherd, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your German Shepherd to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.