The German Shepherd: A Guide for Owners

Updated on April 1, 2020
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He has 15+ years of experience with dogs and various pets.

The German Shepherd: A Guide for Owners.
The German Shepherd: A Guide for Owners.

Throughout the world there exists only a handful of dog breeds that can consistently be characterized as loyal, family-friendly, and highly intelligent. One of these dogs includes the German Shepherd. Although a relatively new breed in the realm of canines, the German Shepherd has proven itself to be an excellent companion and working-class dog due to its remarkable intelligence and energetic nature. This work examines the German Shepherd and provides an in-depth analysis of the dog’s behavioral patterns, temperament, and general characteristics. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of this remarkable animal will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

Scientific Classification

  • Common Name: German Shepherd
  • Binomial Name: Canis lupus familiaris
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: lupus familiaris

Traditional coloration of the German Shepherd.
Traditional coloration of the German Shepherd.

History of the German Shepherd

The German Shepherd was first introduced in the late 1800s by Captain Max von Stephanitz and Herr Artur Meyer in Frankfurt, Germany. Originally bred as a shepherd-dog capable of herding (or guarding) flocks, the dog was later used for police work and military duty during the First World War. Bred from a highly selective pool, Horand von Grafrath (later designated SV1) was the first German Shepherd to be registered by the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde. The dog was later recognized by the AKC in 1907.

Function

The German Shepherd is classified as a working dog, and was originally bred to work closely with its owner (or handler) in the role as a herder. Due to its muscular body and remarkable level of intelligence, however, owners soon realized that the German Shepherd was capable of much more. In the decades that followed, the breed began to take on a variety of new roles, including police work, search and rescue, and guiding the disabled. Beyond these roles, it was also discovered that the German Shepherd made for a great companion and family dog due to its natural affinity for children and sense of loyalty to its owner.

German Shepherd during its puppy stages of development.
German Shepherd during its puppy stages of development. | Source

Appearance

Body

  • Height: 24 to 26 inches (males)
  • Weight: 65 to 90 pounds (males)

The German Shepherd is well-known for its strong, well-balanced, and muscular appearance. Considered a relatively large dog (at nearly 26 inches tall, and upwards of 90 pounds for males), the German Shepherd possesses a long body, deep chest, and smooth curvature that accentuates its muscular tone. Both the forequarters and hindquarters should be proportionate and harmonious in size with this breed, with strong deviations viewed as deformities by professional breeders.

Head

The skull of a shepherd takes on a “chiseled” and “noble” appearance, with males and females having distinctly masculine or feminine features depending on the gender (akc.org). Accentuating the head is a pair of dark medium-sized eyes with an almond-like shape, as well as two pointed ears that are open to the front and which sit atop the skull perpendicular to the ground. Completing the German Shepherd’s facial features is a long, wedge-shaped muzzle that runs parallel to the “topline of the skull” (akc.org). Topping the muzzle is a black nose, a firm set of lips, and jaws containing 42 teeth (20 upper teeth, and 22 lower).

Forequarters

Shoulder blades of the German Shepherd are both long and angled, with the upper arm joints conjoined at a 90-degree angle. The dog’s forequarters are well-toned and muscular in appearance, with the front legs appearing in a straight manner that runs perpendicular to the ground. Attached to the dog’s medium-sized legs is a pair of short feet with high-arched toes (for speed and agility). Pads for the feet are both thick and firm to the touch.

Hindquarters

The hindquarters follow many of the same characteristics of the forequarters, showcasing a muscular and toned appearance from the German Shepherd’s thighs all the way to its hind legs. The only major difference with the hindquarters is that they follow a slightly angular appearance which provides the dog with greater agility and acceleration.

Coloration and Coat

Shepherds possess a medium-length coat of fur with two distinct layers. Hair along the head, legs, and paws is usually short, while the neck, rear, and forelegs possess longer strands of fur. The German Shepherd’s coat is considered extremely beautiful in the dog world, and comes in a variety of color patterns, including: tan and black, solid black, and sable.

Tail

Completing the German Shepherd’s appearance is a relatively long and bushy tail that extends past the hock joint and which displays a slight curvature.

Up-close photo of the German Shepherd's head.  Notice the dog's straight ears that sit perpendicular to the ground.
Up-close photo of the German Shepherd's head. Notice the dog's straight ears that sit perpendicular to the ground. | Source

Are German Shepherds Right for Your Household?

General Characteristics

  • Energy Level: 4/5
  • Exercise Needs: 5/5
  • Playfulness: 3/5
  • Affection Towards Owners: 4/5
  • Friendliness Towards Other Animals: 3/5
  • Training Difficulty: 1/5
  • Grooming Level: 2/5

Note: Scale of 1 to 5 (1 = Lowest, 5 = highest)

Temperament

The German Shepherd is renowned for its fearless nature, approachability, confidence, and alertness; all traits that make it an excellent candidate for herding, guarding, protecting, or companionship. Potential owners should also be aware that the German Shepherd aims to please their owner in every way possible due to their extreme loyalty and protective instincts. Such qualities can also prove harmful, however, as this breed can display extreme levels of aggression to strangers if not properly trained and acclimated to others (including other pets) at an early age.

Aggression in German Shepherds is often triggered by specific reasons, including boredom, lack of exercise, or perceived threats. Unfamiliar settings (or individuals) can also trigger these aggressive feelings as the dog’s protective instincts (for their owner) are often engaged. Although these behaviors are easy to fix due to the dog’s remarkable adaptability and intelligence, owners will still need to closely monitor their dogs throughout their lifetime to prevent flareups.

Are German Shepherds Good with Children?

Yes! Following proper training guidelines, the German Shepherd is ideal for families with children (of all ages) due to their obedience, loyalty, and protective instinct. Due to the dog’s natural affinity for exercise, children are often great for the German Shepherd as they provide the animal with plenty of activity and mental stimulation on a regular basis. This is crucial for the dog, as German Shepherds are prone to boredom which can, in turn, lead to destructive behaviors if not addressed.

How Smart are German Shepherds?

German Shepherds are regularly classified as one of the smartest dog breeds in the world (behind only the Poodle and Border Collie, respectively). Bred specifically for their intelligence, it is well-known that a German Shepherd is capable of learning a new task after only five repetitions with a success rate of 95-percent or more (PetHelpful.com). Shepherds are also quite adaptable to a variety of roles and situations, as their intelligence is based largely on experience and trial-and-error. Owners seeking a smart breed of dog can’t go wrong with the German Shepherd.

Grooming Requirements

The German Shepherd possesses a long and thick coat of fur. For this reason, the dog requires regular grooming on a weekly basis to keep its fur from matting and to maintain a sense of cleanliness. Shedding for this breed usually occurs once or twice a year. During these times, owners should increase the frequency of brushing to remove excess hair before it ends up on furniture or household items.

German Shepherd owners should exercise restraint in the number of baths given to their pet as excess water can strip the dog’s coat of its natural oils leading to dry skin and irritation. With regular brushing, baths are only necessary every 4 to 5 months (unless your pet spends a lot of time outdoors in the dirt). Nails should also be trimmed every month to prevent injury to your pet’s feet (or others).

Training

As with all breeds, early training during the puppy stages of development is crucial for the German Shepherd. Obedience training is especially helpful for the German Shepherd, and will go a long way in preventing the development of bad (or destructive) behaviors before they can become long-term habits. As a highly intelligent breed, owners will find that the German Shepherd is incredibly easy to train. Consistency and rewards (such as doggie treats) often yield positive results with this breed, and will also help owners to form a close bond to their new pet.

The German Shepherd: World's greatest dog?
The German Shepherd: World's greatest dog? | Source

Nutritional Needs

High-quality dog foods are recommended for all stages of the German Shepherd’s development, including its puppy, adult, and senior years. For this reason, owners should avoid table scraps as these foods will not provide your German Shepherd with the recommended nutrients and vitamins (daily) that he/she needs for adequate growth and health. Moreover, many human foods contain substances that are not safe for consumption by your pet (these are listed below).

The 10 Worst Foods for Dogs:

  • Chocolate
  • Fatty Meats
  • Foods with High Levels of Sodium (Salt)
  • Dairy Products (Such as milk or ice cream)
  • Raw Meats, Eggs, or Fish
  • Candy
  • Grapes and Raisins
  • Garlic or Onions
  • Foods with High Levels of Sugar
  • Avocados

How Much Food Should a German Shepherd Eat per Day?

Overall nutritional needs for the German Shepherd are largely dependent upon age and vary significantly at the different stages of their life. For newborns (less than 16 weeks old), experts suggest approximately 1/2 cup of quality food two to three times a day (transitioning to twice a day as the puppy begins to enter its ninth month of life). Between 16 weeks and 9 months, feedings should be increased to 1.5 cups of quality food (twice a day) with a gradual increase to 2 cups by the end of your puppy’s first year. At one year old, the daily recommended food should be increased to 3 cups of food (twice a day).

Water requirements are a little easier to figure, and are dependent upon your dog’s weight. For German Shepherds, experts recommend approximately 6 ounces of water a day for every 7 pounds of weight. For example, a 35-pound dog would require 30 ounces of water each day.

Signs of Dehydration in Dogs

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Lethargy (reduction in general energy levels)
  • Extreme panting
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry nose and gums
  • Thicker saliva

It should be noted that these recommendations are only guidelines and do not represent every German Shepherd. For this reason, owners should discuss nutritional needs with their local veterinarian to determine what’s best for their pet’s unique needs.

"The most striking features of the correctly bred German Shepherds are firmness of nerves, attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness."

— Max von Stephanitz

What Type of Home is Good for the German Shepherd?

German Shepherds are highly adaptable and are capable of fitting a variety of roles. Whether you are looking for a guard dog, companion, or family pet, the German Shepherd is capable of meeting nearly any household need with proper training and guidance from their owners. Nevertheless, it should be noted that households in the country (or rural areas in general) are often best-suited for German Shepherds due to their high energy levels, need for open space, and desire for exercise. While urban settings can also accommodate the needs of a German Shepherd, urban-based owners will be forced to make extra accommodations for this breed including extra walks and mental stimulation (to prevent boredom).

Are German Shepherds Good with Other Pets?

Yes. For the most part, German Shepherds get along well with other pets (both dogs and cats). However, owners should exercise caution when introducing the German Shepherd to new (or existing) pets, as friction can sometimes occur. Early socialization with other animals is often key for this breed, as it helps to establish friendly relations and companionship qualities at an early age. Even with these safeguards in place, however, owners should continue to monitor their German Shepherds with other pets (particularly smaller ones) as playful roughhousing can occasionally turn harmful.

Are German Shepherds Good Guard Dogs?

Yes! The German Shepherd is considered one of the world’s best guard dogs (particularly for families) due to their natural loyalty and dedication to owners (and smaller children). Due to their relatively large size and impressive bite, the German Shepherd can (and will) take down nearly any intruder that comes into their home (who possess harmful intentions). This is due, in part, to the dog’s natural fearlessness, alertness, and protective instincts over family members. However, recent studies have also suggested that the German Shepherd’s remarkable ability to judge and “read” individuals that it comes into contact with (i.e. deeming intruders as either friend or foe) plays a vital role in its protective qualities as well. It is for these reasons that the German Shepherd continues to hold prominent positions in both the military and police force.

Health Concerns: Recommended Testing and Evaluations

Recommended medical tests and evaluations for the German Shepherd are as follows:

  • Hip Evaluation
  • Elbow Evaluation
  • Ophthalmologist Exam
  • Cardiac Exam
  • Diabetes Test

Many owners are surprised to learn about the wide array of health issues that can affect the German Shepherd. As a larger breed, however, the shepherd is prone to several issues; most notably, issues surrounding the dog’s joints and hip. Arthritis and malformations in the joints are extremely common with the German Shepherd, along with hemangiosarcoma (cancer), degenerative myelopathy, heart issues, and perianal fistulas. Bloat is also highly common with the German Shepherd and can result in a sudden, life-threatening condition in which the abdomen begins to swell.

For these reasons, owners should work extensively with a qualified veterinarian to determine preventative care options tailored to their specific pets. While generally a very healthy breed, proper nutrition and care will go a long way in helping your German Shepherd achieve a long and healthy life. If proper health is maintained, owners can expect their German Shepherd to live upwards of 11 to 13 years.

Famous German Shepherds

  • Rin-Tin-Tin (Hollywood star; saved by American soldier during First World War)
  • Buddy (First Seeing Eye Dog)
  • Bullet (Character on the Roy Rogers Show)
  • Maximillian (Starred in “The Bionic Woman”)

World's Greatest Dog?

In closing, the German Shepherd is a remarkable breed of dog due to its intelligence, loyalty, and adaptability to a variety of situations and environments. Suitable for kids and other pets, guarding, or aiding the disabled, German Shepherds are an ideal pet for a wide range of individuals. Although prospective owners should be prepared to invest significant time and energy in regard to their new shepherd, the friendship and love offered by this breed (in return) will certainly make all of the extra work a worthwhile endeavor. For these reasons, the German Shepherd will likely remain one of the most popular dog breeds in the world for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

  • American Kennel Club. The New Complete Dog Book 22nd Edition. Mount Joy, Pennsylvania: Fox Chapel Publishing, 2017.
  • Coile, Caroline. The Dog Breed Bible: Descriptions and Photos of Every Breed Recognized by the AKC. Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
  • Dennis-Bryan, Kim. The Complete Dog Breed Book. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2014.
  • Mehus-Roe, Kristin. Dog Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Dog. Irvine, California: I-5 Press, 2009.
  • O’Neill, Amanda. What Dog? A Guide to Help New Owners Select the Right Breed for their Lifestyle. Hauppauge, New York: Interpret Publishing Ltd., 2006.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds.” (PetHelpful). 2019.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The 10 Best Dogs for Children.” (PetHelpful). 2019.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Larry Slawson

    Comments

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        2 months ago from North Carolina

        Thank you for the comments everyone! So glad you enjoyed!

      • Cheryl E Preston profile image

        Cheryl E Preston 

        2 months ago from Roanoke

        My favorite dog breed. I’ve owned a few.

      • profile image

        VIDYA D SAGAR 

        2 months ago

        An excellent article Larry. Very interesting to read. My cousin had a German Shepard and it really was a wonderful dog, so intelligent, good looking and very possessive of him. It lived for 13 years and passed on recently. We were very much saddened when we heard the news.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        2 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I have always thought German Shepherds were wonderful dogs. I enjoyed all the facts you presented as some of it was new to me. Excellent article, Larry.

      • abwilliams profile image

        A B Williams 

        2 months ago from Central Florida

        Hi Larry. I can testify to the awesomeness of German Shepherds. We had one for seven years. Sadly, he had leukemia and it had reached an advanced stage before we ever even knew anything was wrong. We lost him back in September.

        He was every bit as special as you've described and then some! We miss him.

        Well done!

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        2 months ago

        Excellent article. This really provides a lot of excellent information about the German Shepard. I have relative who have had no other type of dog in their home. I enjoyed reading this article.

      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 months ago

        Another excellent and informative article Larry about these incredible animals. My brother has two of them and they go everywhere with him. They do suffer with problems in their back legs and as they are getting older they are now on a course of tablets to target this area. The puppies are adorable, although, they turn into extremely large dogs. I really want to take that puppy home. An enjoyable read.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Fantastic.

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