German Shepherd Breed Characteristics
Breeding Varations Despite Standardization
Unlike many other breeds that are very standardized, the German Shepherd dog (also called Alsatian or abbreviated "GSD"), despite standardization attempts, has quite a few variations. These are largely geographical and have to do with the breeding philosophies in the different locations that these dogs are bred.
However, there are some German Shepherd breed characteristics that run through every type, no matter where they are bred. These are the characteristics that a dog must have in order to be considered a German Shepherd. Here is the most widely agreed upon dog breed information:
Coloration and Fur Type of the German Shepherd
In the United States, most typical pure breed German Shepherd dogs are tan with a black saddle across their back. They may have black on their nose and snout and sometimes on their feet. They will usually have tufts around their neck that vary from tan to black.
Ears are tipped in black and the head may be black with brown around the eyes. Besides a little bit of black on the legs or feed, they should be mostly tan or caramel colored on their legs, with tails that are topped in black, with tan or brown along the bottom.
Of course, this is not how every German Shepherd in the world looked. In fact, if you were to source a dog from Germany, where the breed standard varies greatly from the American standard, you may get a dog that has none of stereotypical German Shepherd dog colors.
Some dogs, even those that are full breed German Shepherd dogs, will be completely black or will be tan with very little black at all. Others will be a mix of gray, sable, black, and tan.
Most of these dogs have soft, dense fur that is ideal for colder climates and working outdoors in harsh weather. However, some dogs may also have fluffier, denser fur, while others may have shorter, silkier fur, depending on their lineage. Dogs that are bred for showing will usually have sleek, flat-lying fur, while working dogs will often have shorter fur.
German Shepherd Body Style
Typical German Shepherd body shape is a large, powerful head with a long snout that contains strong jaw muscles. The head slopes into massive shoulders, with straight forelegs. The back continues to slope to the hide legs, which are shorter (causing the sloped back), but powerful. A long, fluffy tail sits right in between the legs. Depending on how the dog is standing, the tail usually reaches or almost reaches the ground.
Like with coloration, body shape varies from dog to dog. Dogs that are in the working lines of this breed do not have as sloped backs as their show dog brothers and sisters.
Their tails will often be shorter, but their faces, shoulders, ears, and forelegs will often look exactly the same. If you just catch a glimpse of a working German Shepherd, you might think he is a wolf among the sheep, as many of the working dogs have a body shape and coloration similar to a wolf’s.
Personality and Temperament
The founder of this breed, Max von Stephanitz, was very concerned with this breed’s personality. It was the personality, not just the look of the first German Shepherd that he wanted to duplicate by standardizing the breed. These dogs are widely loved because of their even temperament and loyal, caring personalities.
German Shepherds Are Excellent Working Dogs
The stereotypical German Shepherd is seen as brave, obedient, and strong. They are large dogs by biology, but if they are appropriately trained and cared for, they are designed to become working dogs that can just as easily pull a sled as they can herd sheep. The first choice of search and rescue, police, and military patrols, these dogs are chosen because they are strong enough to take down an attacker, as well as pull a person to safety.
Intelligent and Loyal Dog Breed
It is their intelligence that has made them a prime working dog throughout history. They are so easy to train because they are smart and because they are so eager to please their masters. This breeds obedience, as long as the dog gets plenty of exercise to work out his natural energy.
This dog represents much of what the German people themselves represent: fierce loyalty, fearlessness even in adversity, self-confidence, and even, on occasion, aloofness. While a German Shepherd can appear aloof, they are simply slow to make friends outside of their own pack. Once they are shown that someone is not going to harm the pack, they are sweet and protective.
Protectiveness Can Cause Issues
It is this protectiveness that makes a German Shepherd great as a family pet and sometimes causes issues if the dog is not properly trained. Like all dogs, they cannot easily tell the difference between welcome and unwelcome visitors. They may even bark at people that they know. These dogs have loud, forceful barks, which, when coupled with their size and strength, can make them intimidating, even if the dog has never shown signs of real aggression.
German Shepherds Are Not Born Agressive
Aggression is not a natural trait in pure breed German Shepherds, but neither is timidity. While both of these can be signs of unethical breeding, they are more likely a sign of improper training regimens. Socialization will be extremely important with so they can get used to being around people and dogs who are not necessarily of their own “pack,” which will eliminate fear and territorial aggression.
Purposes and Jobs for Active Dogs
The first German Shepherds were bred as working dogs and that is still what most want to do today. While not every dog has to get a job outside of the home—like working with police or search and rescue units—it may be worthwhile to find your dog a job inside the home.
This could be as simple as keeping an eye on children as they play outside (these dogs would be amazing at this, as they are naturally protective and excellent at sensing danger), or as complicated as learning how to open doors, turn off lights, fetch the mail, and complete a number of other tasks around the house.
These dogs love to work. They love to have a purpose and feel like they are fulfilling their masters’ expectations. Make sure he has something to do and you will never have to worry about him acting out because of boredom or as a play for attention.
German Shepherd Lineage
There are some dogs today whose owners can trace their lineage back to the very first Max von Stephanitz German shepherd. However, most healthy, active German Shepherds are not of so-called “royal” lineage. A shepherd does not have to be a direct descendant from this dog in order to be considered a pure breed German shepherd dog.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Sam Shepards