The German Shepherd is a large and handsome breed of dog that is highly intelligent, active and versatile. The German Shepherd can be trained to perform a variety of tasks and has subsequently been used in a diverse array of professions, from Hollywood movie stars to a military assistant, and, of course, a much-loved family pet. Introduced in the late 1800s, the German Shepherd has a long, interesting history, originally used to protect and move livestock, used heavily by the German Army during WWI, and, of course, today, used as a police dog, as well as a rescue, therapy, and guide dogs given their astute intelligence.
The German Shepherd requires a large amount of exercise, moderate amounts of grooming, and a large amount of mental stimulation. The overall breed has a great temperament with high intelligence and trainability, making them loyal and adoptable pets.
About & History
The German Shepherd, or Deutscher Schäferhund, was first established as a breed in Germany in the late 1800s, where it was created by combining the characteristics of a variety of shepherd dogs. Shepherd dogs were widely used in Germany for protecting and moving livestock and were bred for characteristics such as intelligence, a calm demeanour, and the capacity to work independently with the livestock, often without human direction. Some of the German Shepherd ancestors were wolf-like, whilst others were heavier boned and lop-eared, and some had pale-coloured coats. The modern German Shepherd looks like a wolf but is no more related to the wolf than any other breed of domestic dog.
Max von Stephanie
Max von Stephanitz is the man attributed with establishing and promoting the German Shepherd breed. He first came to admire the shepherd dogs while serving in the military, where he had the opportunity to observe the shepherd dog at work. Von Stephanitz then went on to purchase several shepherd dogs, including a dog named Hektor Linksrhein, who von Stephanitz considered being the ‘ideal’ type. Hektor Linksrhein was renamed to Horand von Grafrath, as Grafrath was the name of Stephanitz’s kennel. Horand von Grafrath was to become the foundation dog of the German Shepherd breed. A comprehensive history of Max von Stephanitz and the establishment of the German Shepherd breed can be read here.
From a genetic point of view, the German Shepherd breed did not have an ideal start, because Horand von Grafrath was often bred with his daughters and granddaughters in an effort to best replicate the characteristics of the stud dog, a practice that is now well known to narrow genetic diversity and lead to increase risk of genetic disease. Horand von Grafrath was responsible for 53 litters of puppies, and 149 of these offspring were subsequently registered.
The German Shepherd was widely admired for its athleticism, loyalty, intelligence and temperament (and also probably for its intimidating appearance) and with time came to be used by the police forces and military. The German Army used thousands of German Shepherds during World War I. Some of these dogs were captured by French and British forces, who also admired the characteristics of the German Shepherd, and the dogs were taken home with the soldiers.
In the UK, the German Shepherd has been renamed the Alsatian, and it was not until 2010 that the Kennel Club (UK) officially renamed the breed to German Shepherd. The French used the name Chien Berger d’Alsace. After the war, some blinded soldiers used the German Shepherd as a guide dog.
In modern times, the German Shepherd performs a diversity of functions, from a family pet to military or police duty, protection, rescue, therapy, and guide dogs for the blind.
World War II
During World War II, the German Shepherd was admired and used by the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler owned several German Shepherds, including a dog named Blondi, who Hitler reportedly had great affection for, but tragically had killed with cyanide, before he and his wife committed suicide in the same way.
In the 1950s, the colours white and apricot were reportedly determined to be undesirable in the German Shepherd breed, as they were thought to be linked to genetic disease, and falsely linked to albinism. In Germany, dogs with greater than 50% white were considered undesirable. In modern German Shepherds, the colour white is not considered desirable by any breed standards.
White Shepherds are not albino – they have a white or apricot coat, but dark skin, nose, lips, eyelids, eyes and footpads. In character and temperament, they are similar or the same as the German Shepherd, and in recent years, the white shepherds have regained recognition under the name White Swiss Shepherd (Weisser Schweizer Schäferhund in Germany, and Berger Blanc Suisse in Switzerland).
Unfortunately for the German Shepherd, it became mistakenly ‘fashionable’ for a time to breed a dog with excessively deep angulation of the hind legs, which lead to an excessively sloping topline, and excessive curve of the back. Thankfully, this bad breeding practice is currently being rectified by kennel clubs and breeders.
The style of the German Shepherd can vary between country and breeder, although the breed standard is still based on the original, as described by the German Verein für Deutsche Schäferhund (Club for the German Shepherd).
The German Shepherd is a large dog with a body that is longer than it is tall and has a smooth outline. The head is wedge-shaped with a long muzzle that is straight on top. The nose should always be black, and the eye colour should be as dark as possible. The ears are erect, medium-sized, parallel, taper to a point, and open to the front. The mouth is strong, with a scissor bite where the upper incisors closely overlap the lower incisors.
The forelegs should be straight from all angles and parallel when viewed from in front. The croup is long and slightly sloping (23° to horizontal). The chest should be moderately broad and deep, but not too broad or too narrow. The hind legs, when viewed from the rear, should be parallel, with strong well-muscled thighs. The rear pasterns should be perpendicular to the ground, under the hock joint. The tail should extend at least to the hock joint.
Male dogs are generally larger than females. The males should be between 60-65 cm in height and weigh 30-45 kg. The females should be 55-60 cm in height and weigh 22-32 kg.
The German Shepherd has a thick double coat that is weatherproof. The outer coat is harsh and the undercoat is soft and dense. The normal coat is called the ‘Stock Coat’, which is comprised of an outer coat that is short, dense, harsh and close lying. There is also a ‘Long Stock Coat’ variation, where the outer coat is long, soft, and not close fitting, with a bushy tail and breeches, flags below the tail, feathering of the outside of the ears, and the coat around the neck is almost like a mane – long and heavy. The undercoat is for both coat types and is light grey in colour.
The outer coat has several colour variations:
- Black & Reddish Tan
- Black & Tan
- Black & Gold
- All Black
- Grey with Dark Shading
- Black Saddle & Mask
In movement, the German Shepherd is described as having a roomy, smooth, ground-covering gait, with an unbroken topline. Many German Shepherds from approved breeders will have a tattoo in the ear (usually the right ear) that identifies the breeder. Microchipping is now being used as an alternative to tattoos.
Character & Temperament
German Shepherds are bred for their steady temperament, calm firmness, high trainability, and their capacity to perform a wide variety of tasks. German Shepherds are highly intelligent, which also means they need to be kept occupied and entertained, and also sometimes means that they require clear and firm instructions when it comes to being taught what is desirable and undesirable behaviour.
German Shepherds have been described as courageous, confident, loyal, guardians, gentle, aloof, alert, full of life, resilient, robust, instinctive, observant, adaptable, and versatile. A balanced German Shepherd is normally good with people and animals and can make excellent family pets, as long as they are given plenty of opportunities to exercise both their body and their brain.
The Verein für Deutsche Schäferhund emphasises the fact that German Shepherds are highly intelligent, and that their training needs to begin from a very young age, as they will mature very quickly. The club compares the growth and maturity of the German Shepherd pup, to humans, in the following way:
- At 6 months of age, the dog is equivalent to a 10-year-old child
- At 1 year of age, they are the equivalent of a 20-year-old person
Training should involve plenty of positive encouragement and rewards. Harsh words and punishment are usually unnecessary and can be counterproductive. German Shepherds can be trained to do almost anything – from protector, to guide dog, to a tracker, to happy family pet.
The German Shepherd has an average life expectancy of approximately 10 to 12 years. As with all purebred dogs, German Shepherds are prone to some genetic health issues and, in fact, are known to have more predispositions than most.
German Shepherds are known to be very susceptible to developing hip dysplasia, and a trend to breed these dogs to have ‘sloping backs’ has not helped. Most dogs that are affected will start to show symptoms at the age of six months. Initially, signs may be subtle, such as decreased exercise tolerance or sitting with their knees out. Some will display a characteristic running stance called a ‘bunny hop’, whereby both back legs move in unison.
As the condition progresses, animals develop an altered gait when walking and can struggle to stand from lying down. Their hind limb muscles can atrophy (waste away), resulting in a slimmer outline. X-rays of the hip joints can be taken under deep sedation or an anaesthetic and can quickly diagnose the condition.
For those who are more severely affected, operations, such as total hip replacements, may be indicated. In milder cases, lifestyle changes and medication can help to alleviate symptoms. Sadly, this is a progressive disease that can greatly impact an animal’s quality of life and can result in a shortened lifespan. Kennel clubs require close monitoring of this defect by breeders to minimise genetic tendencies and advise that only those breeding parents with a low hip score are mated.
As well as hip dysplasia, German Shepherds are known to develop elbow dysplasia more often than the average dog, especially the form that consists of an Ununited Anconeal Process (UAP). As the joint does not form normally and the bones do not glide smoothly as they should, over time, the constant rubbing leads to osteoarthritis and local pain. While genetics play a large role in the development of this condition, it is also affected by diet, exercise and trauma.
Affected animals will limp on their forelimbs and may have a ‘head bob’. Lameness improves after rest and is worst after intensive exercise. X-rays are not particularly sensitive for the diagnosis of elbow dysplasia, and sometimes a CT Scan or Arthroscopy will be more informative. Orthopaedic surgery may benefit some patients, while others may only require conservative management.
Young, rapidly-growing dogs are over-represented when it comes to Panosteitis, and it is a condition that is colloquially referred to as ‘growing pains. Most begin to show symptoms in their first year of life and will suffer from varying degrees of lameness, which can shift from one leg to another and may be accompanied by a fever.
Signs come and go and there may be periods lasting several months where dogs seem to be unaffected. X-rays will show bones that are brighter (more radio-dense) than they should be. Thankfully, this is a self-limiting condition that will resolve with time. During flare-ups, dogs require pain relief and exercise restriction.
Haemophilia A is a blood clotting disorder that interferes with the dog’s ability to stop bleeding. Interestingly, this is a sex-linked condition that is passed on from bitches (who act as carriers) to their sons. As it is largely only males that are affected, most Kennel Clubs advise screening all stud males. It is important to know if a dog is affected, particularly before any elective surgical procedures, in order to prevent excessive bleeding.
Von Willebrand’s Disease
Von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD) is another blood clotting disorder that is passed down genetically, although this condition is not sex-linked. Dogs with vWD lack a protein (von Willebrand Factor), which allows platelets to clump together and stop a bleed. A simple test called the ‘Buccal Mucosal Bleeding Test’ can be performed in a conscious animal within the consulting room to screen for this condition.
This is an opportunistic fungal infection that can either be localised within the nose (Nasal Aspergillosis) or can spread throughout the body and get into organs (Disseminated Aspergillosis). The Aspergillus fungus can be found in most places and the majority of dogs are exposed to it frequently but do not become ill.
Dogs with the nasal form may have chronic sneezing and nose bleeds. For some, their nasal skin will lose its pigment and become pink. The symptoms of the disseminated form are subtler and varied, though can include lameness, fever and weight loss. Those affected are likely to have some sort of underlying issue and a weakened immune system, which should be investigated further.
One of the most frustrating conditions to treat, atopic dermatitis can cause chronic itching and discomfort for the duration of the animal’s life. Most will start to show symptoms in their first few years, though it is not impossible for animals as young as six months to be affected. Dogs may scratch excessively, chew at their skin, lick their paws and rub their face. They may be reacting to a variety of things, from pollens and grasses to food and house dust mites. Many dogs will be allergic to more than one thing.
As there are other things that can cause itchy skin, several tests will initially be performed to rule out any other cause of itchiness, such as mange infestations. For some, blood testing or intradermal testing may be carried out in an attempt to determine what the animal is reacting to. If the allergen is avoidable, such as chicken, feeding an animal a particular food may be enough to control their symptoms. In cases where the allergen is ubiquitous (such as grasses and pollens), immunotherapy may be recommended. Most dogs with atopic dermatitis, they will require several courses of anti-itch medicine, antibiotics and medicated washes throughout their lifetime.
Anal Furunculosis (AF) is an immune-mediated disease which causes inflammation and painful ulceration of the peri-anal and anal tissue in middle-aged to older dogs. This is a condition that is almost exclusively seen in the German Shepherd. Affected dogs may strain and vocalise when they defecate. They will be very reluctant to allow owners to lift their tails and examine the sore area. As an examination of the lesions can be so painful, it is commonly performed under an anaesthetic, which allows for probing of any sinuses and assessment of the anal glands.
Treatment of this chronic condition can be ongoing and frustrating, with animals showing a varied response to medical therapy. Immunosuppressive medication and hypoallergenic foods are the cornerstones of treatment. For a large number of patients, many months of medicine will be required and complete resolution is not always achieved. Hygiene is important and clipping and cleaning the area affected area can be helpful.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)
EPI occurs when the pancreas does not produce the digestive enzymes required to absorb nutrients, resulting in an animal that struggles to gain weight and has chronic diarrhoea. In German Shepherds, this condition is genetic and is caused by acinar atrophy within the pancreas. Blood tests can normally diagnose this condition. Those with EPI will require lifelong enzyme supplementation and may also benefit from vitamins and prescription diets.
The oesophagus is a tube that connects the mouth to the stomach and when it becomes abnormally enlarged, this is referred to as a ‘megaoesophagus’. As well as being larger than normal, the food pipe will not function as it should and will lack motility. As the oesophagus is not able to transport the food adequately, many dogs will regurgitate after a meal. The food will be largely undigested and will come out looking similar to how it went in. Many owners mistake regurgitation for vomiting, a different process entirely.
Signs tend to develop at the time of weaning in puppies. As puppies struggle to get enough food they tend to be underweight. Dogs with megaesophagus are at high risk for developing aspiration pneumonia, as the food they regurgitate can enter their lungs, causing a serious infection. Imaging of the oesophagus with a contrast medium, such as barium, can usually diagnose the condition. Those affected will need a specialised diet and will benefit from specific feeding chairs.
Unfortunately, there are a number of cancers that the German Shepherd is predisposed to developing throughout their lifetime. Haemangiosarcoma is one form of cancer that GSDs may develop in later life. Typically, the spleen is affected. As the tumour is inside the body, it may not be detected until it has grown to quite a large size. For many, internal bleeding is the first sign that anything is wrong. As the spleen is so vascular, these dogs can lose a significant amount of blood in a short amount of time and often need emergency surgery to remove the cancerous spleen and stop the bleeding.
For some animals, their cancer may have spread, so it is important to screen them for cancer anywhere else in the body at the time of diagnosis. Another cancer we see frequently in the GSD is osteosarcoma. This is a malignant tumour of the bone and will cause extreme pain and localised lameness. As this cancer tends to spread quickly and causes a lot of destruction, it is recommended that the limb be amputated at the time of diagnosis. Most animals will also benefit from some adjunctive therapy, such as chemotherapy.
Canine Pituitary Dwarfism
The German Shepherd can be born with pituitary dwarfism, which is caused by a deficiency of Growth Hormone. It should be noted that this is a very rare condition. These dogs have physical abnormalities that are easy to detect and can include: a reduced stature, a permanent ‘puppy’ coat, swollen abdomen and an under-bite. Hormone supplementation may be prescribed for affected dogs, with varied results. Sadly, affected dogs will have a reduced quality of life, as well as a much-reduced life expectancy.
A disease of older GSDs, Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a life-limiting condition that causes lameness of the back end that is not associated with any pain. These dogs want to stand and walk but can find it difficult. Some will walk with a ‘drunken’ gait, while others will drag their paws or cross their limbs over each other when trying to get about.
Sadly, this disease is progressive and over time animals will lose more mobility and become incontinent. Palliative care and the use of slings can prolong life, although this is an irreversible disease that inevitably progresses with time.
GSDs can develop urinary stones, such as silica stones (a rare type, not often seen in dogs), and uric acid stones. Affected animals may struggle to urinate, urinate blood and develop chronic urinary infections. Some stones can be detected on ultrasound, while others are picked up on X-rays. While medical dissolution may be achievable in some cases, others will require surgery (cystotomy) to manually remove the stones.
Certain prescription diets can be fed to prevent the recurrence of urinary crystals and stones. Similarly, dogs should be encouraged to drink a large amount of water as crystals and stones will form more readily in concentrated urine. Dogs that are known to develop stones should be regularly monitored with urinalysis tests and imaging.
There are a number of intestinal diseases that we see in the GSD breed and extensive testing is often required to differentiate between them to ensure the appropriate treatment can be initiated, as many conditions share similar symptoms. While general tests, such as blood tests and faecal exams, will be carried out initially, more invasive tests, such as endoscopic exams and intestinal biopsies, are often required to establish a definitive diagnosis.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is associated with excessive inflammation within the stomach and intestines leading to chronic vomiting and/or diarrhoea. As well as genetics, other factors, such as food sensitivities and bacterial overgrowths, can play a role in this disease.
Eosinophilic Enteritis, Eosinophilic Colitis and Lymphocytic Plasmacytic Gastroenteritis are three of the many forms of IBD that can be diagnosed, and biopsies are required to differentiate between each type. Long-term hydrolysed diets are advised in these patients and most will benefit from probiotics, antibiotics and immune-modulating drugs, as well.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
SIBO is a result of excessive bacterial growth within the gut, resulting in chronic diarrhoea and flatulence. Stools are greasy and produced in large volumes. As affected animals are not absorbing their nutrients efficiently, they are chronically hungry and usually under-weight. Blood tests will reveal low levels of Cobalamin (Vitamin B12) and high levels of Folate (Vitamin B9).
EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency) is an important differential and should be ruled out in these patients. Importantly, diagnosing EPI does not rule out SIBO, as EPI can be a cause of SIBO. Antibiotic therapy, probiotics and prescription diets can all help in the management of SIBO.
There are a number of cardiac conditions that a GSD can be born with or develop. Specialist tests, such as echocardiograms and electrocardiograms, can help to differentiate one type of cardiac disease from another.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)
DCM typically affects larger-breed dogs. All of the heart chambers become enlarged and are no longer able to pump blood around the body efficiently. Most animals will be diagnosed in their middle age and may have lethargy, a cough and an increased breathing rate. Medications can help to slow the progress of the disease and to alleviate symptoms, though there is currently no cure.
Mitral Valve Disease (MVD)
While MVD is usually thought of as a condition that affects smaller dogs, it is known to affect German Shepherds too. The mitral valve is there to prevent backflow and when it does not function correctly, blood can return back into the left atrium inappropriately. The first sign most dogs will develop is a heart murmur, which may be picked up on their yearly exam.
Further diagnostic tests, such as ultrasounds of the heart, chest X-rays and cardiac-specific blood tests, can confirm the diagnosis. Medication can be given to control the symptoms and valve replacement surgeries are a potential option for the future.
When the aortic valve is narrowed, an animal is said to be suffering from aortic stenosis. A mild narrowing may never be detected and an animal may remain asymptomatic for life, while a significant narrowing can have serious consequences. This defect is typically present at birth and will worsen with time.
A murmur will be detected if the defect is big enough and, over time, a dog will eventually develop congestive heart failure. Therapy is aimed to control the symptoms of heart failure and maintaining a good quality of life.
Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)
A defect present at birth, is a ductus arteriosus that does not close as it should resulting in improper blood flow within the heart. Unlike many heart conditions, this condition is amenable to surgery. Untreated, dogs will inevitably go on to develop heart failure.
Bloat is a condition that every German Shepherd owner should familiarise themselves with, as prompt treatment can mean the difference between life and death. Episodes of bloat can occur for no particular reason and symptoms will come on rapidly. Affected dogs will be highly distressed and may pant and retch. Owners will notice that their pet’s abdomen is suddenly very distended or ‘bloated’. On an X-ray, vets will see a stomach that is filled with air and that may be rotated.
Prompt intervention is necessary. All animals will require their stomach to be decompressed and may need shock therapy. For those patients whose stomach has rotated on its axis, they will need emergency surgery to correct this. A procedure whereby the stomach is tacked down may be performed at the same time to reduce the risk of a recurrence.
Seizures (also called ‘fits’) are relatively common in dogs. While there can be many causes of seizures, such as toxin ingestion, brain tumours or liver failure, those dogs that have seizures for no known reason are said to suffer from epilepsy. As such, epilepsy is a diagnosis of exclusion and dogs will require wide-ranging investigations before it can be confirmed that they have epilepsy.
Very mild cases of epilepsy may be simply monitored, but most animals will require daily anti-seizure medication. During a seizure, it is advised that dogs are left in quiet, dark rooms and that owners do not approach their mouths, as they may bite.
Pannus is also known as superficial keratitis and it is an immune-mediated disease that results in pink tissue growing on the surface of one or both of the eyes. Over time, lesions become more profuse and there may be extensive scarring. It is thought that UV light and cigarette smoke may worsen this condition. Most dogs are treated with steroid-based eye drops, which can halt the progression of the disease.
Recent research has found that early neutering (spay or castration) of German Shepherds is linked to some health risks (Hart et al, 2016). The study found that neutering young dogs before 1 year of age increased the risk of the dog developing one or more joint disorders (particularly cruciate ligament disease). Early neutered dogs were also more prone to some types of cancer, and female dogs were more prone to developing urinary incontinence.
Exercise and Activity Levels
German Shepherds are extremely active dogs and require a minimum of 2 hours of exercise per day, including some on-lead walking, as well as off-lead. They are strong and agile and enjoy all manner of canine sports, including walking, jogging, swimming, and agility training.
It is very important to give German Shepherds a sense of purpose, so agility training is ideal to keep them mentally stimulated and challenged. Chasing balls, catching frisbees, riding alongside you as you bicycle – these are all great activities for this active breed. Without the correct exercise and mental stimulation, German Shepherds can become bored and sometimes destructive in the home.
German Shepherds are heavy shedders and should be brushed regularly if you would like to avoid having too much hair shed around the house. As with other breeds, bathing should only be as necessary, as too many baths diminish the natural oils of the skin and can also cause irritation. Ears should be checked regularly and cleaned if necessary and nails should be trimmed if needed, however, regular walking along pavement should do this naturally.
Famous German Shepherds
Here we provide a few examples of German Shepherds in popular culture:
- Strongheart was a German-bred German Shepherd who was sent to America after WWI and became one of the first canine film stars in America.
- Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd who was born in France during WWI and was rescued as a puppy, along with his mother and the rest of the litter, by an American soldier. Rin Tin Tin was taken back to America and subsequently went on to have an extensive career in Hollywood films.
- Inspector Rex (Kommissar Rex) was a long-running TV series set in Austria, with a German Shepherd named Rex as the main character.
- Other movies that have featured German Shepherds include: I Am Legend, K-9, Rin Tin Tin, Sulta, Ace of Hearts, The Hills Have Eyes, and many more
- Many individual German Shepherd has been recognised for acts of bravery in real-life situations
German Shepherds have been crossed with a variety of breeds, however, few official crossbreeds exist, except perhaps for the Alaskan Shepherd, which is a mix of German Shepherd and the Alaskan Malamute.