The German Shepherd is the second most popular breed in the USA, and there are many good reasons for this popularity.
German Shepherds, also known as Alsatians, are considered the finest all-purpose working canines for all dog breeds.
These beautiful dogs are highly intelligent and incredibly capable workers.
German Shepherds are among the top preferred canines for tasks and services, including herding, rescue, police or military service, guide work, drug detection, search operations, and also for competitive obedience purposes. But they are also perfect pets and faithful and devoted companion dogs as well.
These large-sized, strong, and agile dogs are smart, loyal, brave, and hard workers, so no wonder that they are America’s second top preferred breed! Read on to find out everything you need to know about the German Shepherd breed.
- Canine breed group: Herding dogs
- Height at the shoulder: 24-26 inches for males, 22-24 inches for females
- Average weight: 65-90 lbs. for male dogs and 50-70 lbs. for females
- Average lifespan: 10-14 years
- Coat color: the double coat is medium to long in length. The outer coat can be wiry or wavy but stays close to the body. It can vary in color – from black and tan, black and silver, black and cream, black, red, blue, gray, sable, silver or white.
Overview of the German Shepherd breed
German Shepherds have a beautiful and noble figure with graceful curves and a free and easy natural gait that can quickly transform into a sprint of high speed.
Overall, these dogs are among the most recognizable breeds in the world.
Known for their extreme loyalty and willingness to sacrifice their own lives for that of their humans, the German Shepherd dogs are considered at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to canine royalty.
Their willingness to learn, their natural intelligence, and their versatility makes them a highly popular dog breed for all purposes, including as companion dogs.
They can be the gentlest of pets and loyal watchdogs for your family.
One of the most famous dogs in the history of show business, Rin Tin Tin was brought to the USA from France after WWI ended by Corporal Lee Duncan, and became an international movie star and celebrity over the years, starring in 26 movies, and adored by fans in the US and around the world.
But apart from being a successful movie star, the German Shepherd can be just about anything else too. This versatile and hardworking dog can successfully become a guide dog for people with disabilities, excellent police and military dog, a dog for drug-sniffing, a search and rescue helper, a therapy dog, a herding dog, and so on.
It comes as no surprise, that it was mainly dogs of this breed which were used in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. These rescue dogs not only helped find survivors and the remains of those who died but became the best comfort for all of the families of the victims and for the rescue workers alike in those difficult times for America.
The breed was originally developed to herd sheep and cattle which means that these dogs have high energy levels and need a lot of activities and exercises. This makes them suitable pets for people who are active and don’t mind spending a lot of time outdoors with their canine friends.
Without the necessary daily exercise and physical and mental stimulation, the German Shepherd can become bored and express its boredom by chewing on your furniture or by barking constantly.
Keep in mind, that German Shepherds are also pretty aloof and can be suspicious of strangers, so if you love entertaining guests, you will need to spend a lot of time socializing and training your dog from a young age, to prevent incidents later on.
If you have the time and patience to expose your German Shepherd dog to as many situations, people and dogs from an early age, you shouldn’t have trouble with its behavior towards strange humans or dogs in the future.
You should know that there are differences in the dogs from this breed depending on where they were bred and for what purposes.
American breeders often aim to make champion dogs for competitions and shows, so they emphasize more on the looks rather than on the traits of the animal. While as the German breeders emphasize the character and working abilities of the dogs they produce rather than focus on improving their distinctive look.
Even though American bred German Shepherds tend to be calmer than those from German breeders which are more energy driven and energetic, they may lack some of the multiple talents typical of their breed as well and can even be prone to some untypical characteristics and behavioral problems for the breed such as separation anxiety.
So, make sure you check out the lineage of your German Shepherd puppy and if possible spend time with it before taking it home in order to know what to expect as it grows up.
Overall, even though the German Shepherd is one of the most intelligent and loyal dogs in the canine world, this breed is not suitable for every owner or household. You will need to be able to provide a dog of this breed with daily physical and mental exercise, and also refrain from leaving it alone, or living outdoors only, if you want the dog to be happy and stay away from annoying barking and destructive behavior and from aggression.
Like all other dogs, socializing and proper training of the dog since day one is an absolute must if you want a well behaved, balanced and good pet at home.
Also, keep in mind that the German Shepherd is a dog which sheds quite a lot all year long, so be prepared to brush it on a regular basis, as well as to vacuum and clean your home more often than before if you add a dog of this breed to your family.
Never leave a German Shepherd outdoor all of the time. It will feel at its best in a house with a fenced backyard where it can roam during the day, and then come in for a good night’s sleep inside with its human family.
History of the German Shepherd breed
Contrary to common belief, the German Shepherd breed is not a very old breed. In fact, it was first started by a German cavalry captain named Max von Stephanitz in 1899. The goal of the career captain was to create the ultimate herding German dog breed.
Prior to Stephanitz, nobody had developed a single herding breed in the region, so when he retired from military service in 1899 he devoted his life to creating this perfect distinct herding dog breed himself.
He thoroughly studied the experience of the English herding breeders and traveled throughout Germany to observe and pick the most exceptional German herding dogs. As he worked on his newly developed passion, the retired captain found some exemplary dogs which were intelligent, others which were incredibly athletic and third which were exceptional herders. His goal became to create a breed that encompasses all of these traits in one single dog.
Finally, in 1899 Stephanitz stumbled upon an exceptional dog at a dog show and immediately proceeded to buy it. The name of the dog was Hector Linksrhein, but he renamed it to Horand v Grafeth and was so amazed of its intelligence and capabilities, that he proceeded to found a dedicated society named the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde which had a goal to establish an entire breed based on the decedents of this dog.
With the industrialization of Germany, the need for herding dogs in Germany decreased, which is why Stephanitz began developing a more rounded working dog breed which would suit the needs of the army and the police. Using his connections with the military, Stephanitz convinced the German army to start using the dogs from his working breed. So, the ancestors of today’s German Shepherd began to be used as military guards, rescuers, messengers, supply carriers, Red Cross dogs and for other purposes by the army during World War I.
The first dogs from this breed were brought to the USA before the war, and once they started being used by the German army gained huge popularity on the other side of the Atlantic too.
When the American servicemen noticed how intelligent and brave these dogs were during WWI, many of them proceeded to take puppies home with them when the war ended.
One of these pups was a German Shepherd which became an internationally famous movies star later on – Rin Tin Tin. The celebrity dog took part in over 25 movies and kept receiving thousands of fan letters every week for the rest of its life.
Needless to say, Rin Tin Tin played a huge role in popularizing the German Shepherd breed in America.
During the war when the allies stigmatized everything German, the breed was renamed to Shepherd dog by the AKC in 1917, and in England, the breed was renamed to Alsatian Wolf Dog.
In 1931, the AKC restored the original name of the breed, and the British Kennel Club did the same but much later on – in 1977.
Von Stephanitz continued working closely with the breed until the end of his life. In 1922 he noticed that the breed had begun developing some negative traits including poor temperament and premature tooth decay, which led to his introduction of strict control for breeding German Shepherd dogs.
All breeders were required to ensure that their German Shepherd dogs have passed the required intelligence, athleticism, health and temperament tests before breeding them.
In the US, the breeders did not need to undergo such strict control, and they focused more on developing beautiful looking show dogs with impressive gaits, rather than focusing on their talents and capabilities.
After the end of World War II, the difference in the dogs of this breed produced in the US and Germany began to differ so much that the US military and police were forced to import German shepherds from Germany in order to get the best out of these working dogs and because the homebred ones were failing the performance tests and were much more prone to various health problems.
Thankfully, in the past several decades, the German Shepherd breeders of the US have begun paying more attention to improving the capabilities and performance of their dogs rather than focusing on their looks only. After importing a lot of German –bred dogs to ensure that breed restores its original talents, intelligence, athleticism and good health, today, the German Shepherds bred in the US are much closer to the original breed developed so passionately by the father of the breed – Captain Von Stephanitz.
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The size of the German Shepherd
German Shepherds are medium to large sized dogs. The males usually reach a height at the shoulder of 24 to 26 inches, and the females are about 22-24 inches tall. The weight of these athletic and strong dogs is 75 to 95 lbs. on average.
The personality of the German Shepherd
The German Shepherd is famous for its loyalty to its owner or family. The dogs from this breed are approachable, easy-going and gentle with their human families, but tend to aloof and suspicious of strangers. Still, they are not usually aggressive dogs.
These amazing dogs do not make friends easily, but once they establish a friendship with a human or another dog, they remain immensely loyal.
When threatened, the dogs from this breed can become quite protective, which makes them superb watchdogs.
In order to be happy and to thrive, every German Shepherd dog needs to be kept busy and to be given a job – any kind of job.
These capable working dogs were initially bred to be herders, so it comes to no surprise that they have inherited the high energy levels of their ancestors.
A German Shepherd needs to be stimulated both physically and mentally in order to be happy and to stay away from trouble which can happen once it gets bored.
If you don’t pay too much attention to your dog and do not provide it with the walks, play and training it needs on a daily basis, it can become destructive and very noisy.
Also, these dogs do not like being left alone for long, so keep this in mind if you are gone all day from home or if you travel a lot.
Like with all other dog breeds, German Shepherds must be socialized meticulously form an early age. This can be achieved easily by taking them to different places, exposing them to different settings and sounds, and meeting them with as many people and dogs as possible.
Health care and common health problems for the breed
Overall, German Shepherds are healthy and strong dogs, when produced by responsible breeders who have ensured that the parents and ancestors are all screened for the most common genetic conditions affecting the dogs from this breed – including hip and elbow dysplasia.
As with all other dog breeds, there are certain health problems and conditions to which these dogs are prone to. Even though they can be genetically inclined to suffer from one or more of these conditions, there is no need to worry that every single German Shepherd will definitely become ill during its lifetime.
Still, if you are planning on adopting a German Shepherd, it is good to know what types of health problems you should watch out for.
This is a common condition, especially among the larger dog breeds. It is a hereditary condition which causes the femur bone to not fit well into the pelvic socket of the hip joint. This condition can cause pain as well as lameness in the rear leg or both legs on the back. Later on in life, arthritis can develop and make the movement of the dog even more difficult and painful.
This is why, breeders are required to perform screening of their dogs for hip dysplasia done by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, or by the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement program, in order to prevent dogs with this condition to be bred.
Similar to the dysplasia of the hip, elbow dysplasia is a hereditary condition which is common among large dogs, including the German Shepherds.
This is a condition where the dog develops joint laxity of the elbows on its front legs, which can cause pain and lameness. This condition should also be screened by breeders, but it can be managed with prescription medication, and in some cases with surgery.
Bloat is a common name for a dangerous condition called Gastric Dilatation – Volvulus. It is more common among large chested dogs and is commonly caused by rapid eating of a large single meal per day, or by the dog drinking a lot of water following a meal, as well as by the canine performing vigorous exercise right after eating. Bloat includes the development of gas in the stomach which causes it to twist. This leads to pain as the dog is unable to free its stomach from the trapped air, and can lead to the blood supply to be cut out. If left unattended, the blood pressure of the dog can drop rapidly and it can go into shock and may die. This is why, if you notice any symptoms that the dog may be suffering from bloat, you need to seek emergency medical attention immediately!
The common symptoms of bloat include excessive salivating or retching but without vomiting, a distended abdomen, restlessness, lethargy, weakness, increased heart rate or depression.
Also, to prevent the occurrence of bloat, feed your dog several smaller meals a day instead of a single large one. Plus, you should stop the dog from starting to run or play right after eating as well as from drinking too much water immediately after eating.
This is a genetic, progressive disease of the dog’s spinal cord which causes a break in the connection between the dog’s brain and its hind legs. This can lead to the inability to move or use the hind legs. Often this condition cannot be reversed, but there are cases in which it can be helped with vitamin supplements such as vitamin E and vitamin B-12.
EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency)
This is a hereditary disease which affects the functioning of the dog’s pancreas. EPI causes the destruction of the pancreatic cells responsible for producing enzymes essential for digestion. This can cause the dog to stop being able to digest and absorb food and nutrients. The first symptoms of EPI include a loss of appetite, weight loss, gas production and a change of the stools. When the dog is unable to absorb the essential nutrients it will become very thin and hungry. Thankfully, the condition is easy to be diagnosed with a simple blood test and can be treated easily by adding the missing enzymes to the dog’s food.
German Shepherds can suffer from various types of allergies, including contact, food or drug allergies. The allergens can cause severe itching and scratching, licking of the paws, rubbing of the face and more.
Always ask your vet for advice if you suspect that your dog may be allergic to something.
The easiest way to manage allergies is by limiting the contact of the dog to the allergen, as well as via medications.
Caring for the German Shepherd
As mentioned above, the German Shepherd was originally bred to herd sheep and cattle all day long, which is why it is in the genes and in the nature of these dogs to be as active for as long as possible.
This means that you will need to ensure that your German Shepherd gets sufficient exercise and playtime every day. This may include long walks, cycling or running with the dog, hiking, playing catch or throwing Frisbees and so on.
Being a naturally smart animal, the German Shepherd also needs to be stimulated mentally.
Make sure you take the time to play with and train your dog to learn new commands or perform certain tasks regularly. The German Shepherd will absolutely thrive if given a job to do.
Being herders, German Shepherds are prone to barking, which is why training the dog and teaching it to stay quiet from an early age is essential if you want to avoid the annoyance of your dog’s incessant barking later on in life.
The German Shepherd does not like to be alone, so do not leave it home alone for long, and definitely, don’t keep it crated or kenneled outdoors all day long. The separation anxiety can cause destructive behavior, barking and other behavioral problems in your dog.
Since the dogs from this breed love to chew, you should be careful about what they use for satisfying their love for chewing. Provide your dog with safe chewing toys or bones, and keep any hard or dangerous objects out of their reach to avoid them damaging their teeth or choking.
So, if you don’t mind spending a lot of time outdoors, going on long walks or staying active every day, then a German Shepherd can be the best dog for you!
With the proper training, socializing and care, the dogs from this breed can become the best and most loyal friends you have ever had!
Feeding the German Shepherd
Being a large-sized and highly active breed, the German Shepherd needs to be fed a properly formulated and portioned diet. Ask your vet for the best nutritional advice for your dog. The quantity and type of food you feed a German Shepherd depend on its activity level, its age, size, and its health.
As the dog grows up from puppyhood, the diet will need to be adjusted accordingly. Older German Shepherds do not need as many calories as young dogs.
Because they grow very quickly when they are young, the dogs from this breed are susceptible to bone disorders if not fed or exercised properly from the age of 4 months up to 7 months of age.
To ensure that your German Shepherd pup grows up healthy and strong, make sure you feed it with high-quality food with a lower caloric value. This will prevent the dog from growing too rapidly.
Also, prevent your young German Shepherd pup from running, playing or jumping on hard surfaces, until it is at least two years old when the joints become fully developed.
The best playground for the puppy is on soft grass or ground.
Just like with all other dogs, make sure you do not let your dog become overweight or obese because this can lead to numerous health problems including problems with the bones, diabetes, heart disease and others.
You can keep your dog in top form by feeding it a well-balanced diet, limiting the treats and keeping it active.
Always choose age-appropriate dog food for your German Shepherd. Do not be tempted to feed it with human food scraps and avoid brittle cooked bones or high-fat foods.
If you are providing your dog with high-quality dog food, you do not need to add any more mineral or vitamin supplements to its diet.
You may safely add some vegetables, eggs or yogurt to your dog’s diet, but make sure you check which human foods are good for the dog and which are not before feeding them to your dog.
Because as large dogs German Shepherds are prone to bloat, divide their daily meal into two smaller portions instead of one, and do not allow the dog to gulp up the food and start drinking water or jumping around immediately after eating.
Always ask your vet if you have concerns about the weight of your German Shepherd or its diet.
Grooming the German Shepherd
The original habitat of the German Shepherd was in harsh climatic conditions which is why the dogs from this breed have medium length double coats which act as protection from the cold, rain or snow.
The German Shepherds can have different coat types and colors.
Some of them are long-haired, but the average German Shepherd has a medium-length double coat.
The outer coat is very dense and can be wiry or wavy. It can vary in color – from black to black and red, black and cream, black and tan, black and silver, gray, blue, sable, silver or white.
The AKC does not accept white color for this breed, so white-coated German Shepherds are not allowed in conformation shows but can take part in other canine competitions.
These dogs are serious shedders and will shed their coats all year round, with two heavy shedding periods before the summer and the winter when they will bow their coats.
Brushing the coat several times a week can help limit the hair in your home, but be prepared to be doing quite a bit of cleaning of your home and your clothes if you add a German Shepherd to your household.
The German Shepherd should be bathed only when it really needs it because frequent bathing can remove the oil from its coat.
Thankfully, the dogs from this breed are quite clean and do not smell as much as other dog breeds.
You should trim the dog’s nails at least once a month, and regularly check its ears for redness, any discharge or an unpleasant smell. When cleaning the ears do not poke anything inside the ear canal of the dog! Instead, wipe the inner side of the ears gently with a cotton ball and ear cleaner once a week.
Since German Shepherds like chewing, you can ensure that your dog has clean and healthy teeth and gums by providing it with safe dental dog chew bones or toys.
You can also brush the teeth of your dog with dedicated dog toothpaste once a week to ensure that the teeth and gums are clean and healthy.
Socializing the German Shepherd with pets and children
The German Shepherd can become your child’s best playmate, but in order to safely allow your dog to play and communicate with yours or other children, make sure you socialize it to meet kids from an early age.
When socialized properly, the German Shepherd can become the perfect gentle and careful babysitter as well as a protector of your children.
Always monitor the interactions of your dog with very young children, because the German Shepherds are large and strong dogs and may accidentally injure a toddler or small child.
If taught from an early age, the German shepherd can live well and peacefully with other dogs and smaller pets at home.
Adapting an adult dog to a home where there are other dogs or cats can be a more tricky process, so if you are planning to adopt an adult dog, always ask for the professional help or advice of an expert dog trainer.
The earlier the socialization and training of the puppy begin – the better.
With regular and consistent obedience training, you can ensure that your German Shepherd grows up as a well-mannered and well-tempered dog.
Since the dogs from this breed are very smart and quick learners and can do all kinds of jobs, you need to train them only via positive and reward based methods and avoid harsh punitive actions.
German Shepherds will be at their best when living in households of active families who don’t mind taking their dog with them wherever they go.
Buying or rescuing a German Shepherd from a shelter
Since German Shepherds are one of the most popular breeds in the US, it is not uncommon for dogs from this breed to be adopted by families or owners who do not have a clear understanding of the breed, and of what is needed for properly caring for them. This is why there are many beautiful German Shepherds ending up in rescue shelters.
If you want to adopt a rescue dog from a shelter, make sure you check out your local reputable shelters as well as one of the many German Shepherd Rescue organizations and clubs in the country.
If you want to buy a German Shepherd puppy, make sure you pick a reputable breeder who is ready to provide you with detailed information about the lineage of the dog, as well as with documents certifying that the parents and ancestors have undergone health screening for hip and elbow dysplasia and other genetic health conditions.
Always ask to meet at least one of the parents of the pup, and choose a puppy which is sociable and willing to come and play with you rather than a shy or overly assertive or aggressive one.
The German Shepherd may not be the oldest dog breed in history, but it is one of the most recognizable and among the top 3 most popular dog breeds not only in the US but in the world as well.
These beautiful large-sized dogs are hardworking, versatile and smart animals, which will become loyal and faithful pets if you provide them with the care, attention, and exercise they need.
They are excellent watchdogs, and with proper training and socializing, they will fit well into all kinds of families.
Overall, they are healthy canines and do not require too much grooming or maintenance, even though they can shed quite a bit.
You will need to be prepared to provide your German Shepherd with a lot of daily physical and mental exercise and stimulation, but with its immeasurable loyalty and its ability to learn to perform just about any task or command, you will end up with one amazing companion dog!