German Shepherds are one of the best all purpose working dogs. They are highly trainable and used in many areas such as search and rescue and for guard dogs, police and military dogs. They are very intelligent and confident, and are faithful to protect their family. Around strangers they are usually reserved, but not generally aggressive.
Male adults reach a height of 24 to 26 inches, and females a height of 22 to 24 inches. Males weigh 66 to 88 pounds at maturity, and females 49 to 71 pounds.
In 19th century Germany, the Continental Shepherd Dog was the dog most used for guarding homes and herding livestock. However breeders differed in which characteristics they would focus on when breeding. So many different types of personality, behavior and temperament were around. Max von Stephanitz was an ex-cavalry dog breeder who believed they should be bred for working, and was looking for certain qualities which were hard to find. In 1899 he went to a dog show where he met what he felt was the perfect sheepdog – so he bought him and started breeding him. He then founded the Society for the German Shepherd Dog, and this dog became the first German Shepherd.
After being paired with other dogs that also had good traits, many puppies were born to this German Shepherd, and the offspring were mostly inbred with each other to fix the traits firmly in their genetics. The breed was re-named by many kennel clubs to ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ because of the anti-German feelings that were around because of World War II. After many years it eventually returned to its original name. Adolf Hitler had a German Shepherd as a pet, called Blondi. He reportedly tested some cyanide pills on her to save her from the Russians, which killed her.
German Shepherds are confident and courageous dogs that are easy to train and obedient. They are often used as police dogs, for search and rescue operations and for guide dogs because of their intelligence, obedience and focus. They can get aggressive and bite – but this is often if they are not socialized very well and become over protective as a result.
The German Shepherd is a strong, muscular and alert dog with a characteristic tan and black, or red and black, double-layered coat, with some other color variations that are more rare. They often have a black face. The hair on their coat is most often medium length, but can also be long.
Moderately inactive indoors, German Shepherds will adapt to apartment living so long as they have enough exercise. Ideally a large yard would be available for them to roam in. Their double coat helps them to tolerate cold weather well, including rain and snow.
German Shepherd Dogs are often aloof when they don’t know you well, but once they get to know you they become devoted. They are usually not aggressive with strangers, but rather reserved. However if they are not socialized enough they can become overprotective and more aggressive, so they will need some training to understand which visitors are welcome and which ones aren’t. Their natural instinct to be protective makes them excellent guard dogs. They love their family and are great with kids if they have had plenty of socialization with children and are trained well. It may be difficult introducing them to other pets in the house if they were not brought up alongside them.
Some people call this breed ‘German Shedders’ – so it won’t be a surprise to learn that they shed all year round, and quite heavily. Twice a year their shedding is more heavy than usual. Brushing them a few times a week will keep the hair level down around the house. A bath can be given occasionally, when needed – they are generally clean dogs. Their nails should be trimmed monthly, and their ears wiped clean and checked weekly to help prevent any infections. Chewing will help keep their teeth clean, but regular brushing is also good for them.
German Shepherds are one of the easiest breeds to train and are known for the ability to be trained to do almost anything. However they can become dominant if their owner is not firm and consistent. They can be trained to do a variety of sports such as agility competitions, and are also happy playing a game of Frisbee. Because of their herding instinct, they can make small nips at people, and have the potential to attack if they feel there is a threat.
Bred to be a working dog, the German Shepherd Dog is quite active and should get regular exercise. At the very least they should have a daily walk. But they also love to go along on hikes, go running, and take part in family outdoor activities. They should be kept on a leash, however, so they don’t go off running after something, or threaten a smaller dog. They also do well with mental stimulation since they are highly intelligent. You should be careful not to exercise them too much when they are puppies though, as they are prone to bone disorders. They also shouldn’t run or jump around on hard surfaces like concrete until they are around 2 years old.
High quality dog food is generally fine for German Shepherds, but be careful with giving them scraps from the table as they can cause an upset stomach – especially if there is a high fat content. If they have a health condition such as Hip Dysplasia or Arthritis then you might want to consider feeding them a lower calorie diet to keep the weight off their joints.
German Shepherd puppies should be given a low calorie diet with high quality food that will help them not to grow too fast. They should be fed by their mother till about 8 or 10 weeks old. Then they can be gradually weaned and given three or four meals a day until about 6 months old. It is best to start them with wet food so they transition over gradually from their mother’s milk. Around 3 months old you can start moving them over to dry food gradually. Then they can be switched over to two meals a day at 6 months old.
Food allergies can develop – so watch out for itching. Ingredients that may cause allergies include beef, chicken, dairy, soy, corn and wheat. If there are a lot of problems it may be worth trying a raw or homecooked diet, but you should run it by your vet first and make sure that your dog is getting all the nutrition and vitamins he needs.
Recommended daily feeding amount: 3 to 4 cups of high quality food every day, divided into two meals.
Some dogs will need more food than others, depending on their metabolism, age and activity level. The way to tell whether they are getting enough food is to put your hands over their rib cage. If you can feel their ribs then they are not too fat. If you can see their ribs, however, then that means they are underweight.
Common Health Concerns
German Shepherds were inbred frequently early on to set their intelligence traits firmly in their line. However this also led to genetic health conditions being more prevalent. Hip and Elbow Dysplasia are common problems – this can lead to pain and arthritis as the dogs get older.
As with many other large breed dogs, German Shepherd Dogs are prone to Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (Bloat). This usually happens when they gulp in air with food, or if they are exercised too soon after eating. Too much air gets into their stomach, causing it to twist and cut off the blood supply to important organs. This condition can be fatal, so it’s important for you to know the symptoms and get your dog help straight away if you suspect they have it. Symptoms include retching without actually throwing up any food, a distended abdomen, lethargy and restlessness. You can help to prevent bloat by giving your dog two meals a day instead of one, and not exercising him too close to eating.
German Shepherds are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many German Shepherds in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don’t see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a German Shepherd rescue.