Types of German Shepherds: A Guide to Dog Breed Variations
Many Different Types of German Shepherds
You have probably noticed during your research about this breed that there are many different types of German Shepherd dogs (sometimes called Alsatian or abbreviated GSD). Unlike some breeds that seem to have a very homogeneous body style, coloration, and personality amongst their purebred set, purebred German Shepherds come in many different sizes, colors, coloration patterns, and body styles.
German Shepherd Show and Working Lines
While these are all considered the same breed, each is its own “line.” These lines usually indicate the heritage of the dog, and the differences between the types of German Shepherds usually stems from how these dogs were bred and for what purpose these dogs were bred. While there are technically seven different lines, there are only two general lines: show lines and working lines.
Show lines, from America, Canada, and West Germany (just Germany now), were bred for body type, color, and coloration pattern over healthy and personality, while working lines are more typically bred for personality and health, instead of to achieve a specific “look.”
Here are the most recognizable types of German Shepherd dogs and their defining features and characteristics:
American and Canadian Show Lines
These are dogs who have diverged largely from their German origin, having been bred just with other American dogs for at least the last fifty years. This isn’t a requirement to be considered an American or Canadian show line German Shepherd, breeders have preferred to breed from North American stock, rather than importing dogs from overseas, to retain a consistent body style, coloration pattern, and coloring.
The AKC and the CKC both have fairly strict regulations when it comes to what they want their dogs to look like—not act like, but look like. They want “extreme rear angulation,” and what’s known as the “flying trot” gait. They also want the tan legs with a black saddle coloration. The dogs should be short-haired, and while some breeders do try to maintain strong personality traits, many breeders forgo protecting the typical breed temperament, in favor of looks and gait.
With recent breeding practices, there seems to a trend trying to eliminate the “Schutzhund” characteristics. Schutzhund refers to defense or protection dog, which means the personality trait that makes a German Shepherd great at working jobs. What makes this dog breed excellent as military or police dogs. Those breeders only want this specific breed type to be used for showing.
Testing for health problems like hip dysplasia and temperament issues is not a primary objective for many breeders. Even for some breeders of American show line dogs who claim to be certified by the American Kennel Club. They are often just searching for the perfect body shape (slope) and color patterns.
Always check if breeders follow responsible breeding ethics and practices. Health and decent personality traits are important if you want to keep these dogs as pets. This is something you always have to watch out for, but especially when buying a show line dog.
American-bred Pet Lines
The American pet lines are closely related to show line types. They are bred as pets, but they on average have the same body type and personality traits as their for show counterparts.
You'll often find them at amateur (backyard) breeders instead of professionals. The owners often want to raise a litter of their own or sell a couple of puppies for some easy money. Although there is nothing wrong with this per se they generally don't adhere to responsible breeding practices.
You'll have to be very careful in selecting a breeder and have a look at the parents of the litter. You should look for confident and strong dogs. If you notice fearful or nervous behavior in the parents or in the puppies it's better to stay away and not encourage the backyard breeding. Health and a loyal and strong personality should be paramount when selecting a German Shepherd as a family dog.
West German Show Lines
Like American and Canadian show lines, these dogs are bred to have a specific appearance and gate. They are, however, often required to prove that they are just as skilled at “working” as they are at being shown. While there are many dogs that just barely pass the agility and obedience trials, there is usually a better attempt at breeding dogs that are both loyal, obedient, and intelligent, as well as dogs that just have the right look.
These dogs have very similar body styles to the American and Canadian German Shepherd types, but it is preferable that this dog be red with a black saddle, rather than tan.
West German Working Lines
These dogs are considered to be true to the dogs bred when Max von Stephanitz, the founder of the German Shepherd breed, was alive. Von Stephanitz believed deeply that the best dogs would have the right personality and temperament first, and the right looks second. This means that his dogs (and this line, by extension), are bred for their ability to work, learn, and listen, rather than for a specific coloring or color pattern.
These dogs are considered very high quality, with a drive to work and a desire to please their owners, which makes them unparalleled working animals and family pets. They usually have a uniform black body, with brown legs, though specific colors and patterns can vary wildly from dog to dog.
East German Working Lines
This line has its origin in the 1940s and 1950s, when East Germany was separated from West Germany. These dogs were bred not for their appearance, but rather for their workability. In East Germany, breeding of these dogs was heavily regulated, to ensure that large, strong dogs were the result. The focus on ensuring clean genetics and an obedient, loyal temperament created a very “pure” lines of dogs.
The East German working lines are usually darkly colored—black or sable mottled with brown—and have more wolfish features that dogs bred for show. They also have longer back legs and a more stereotypical “dog” gait, instead of the flying trot so typical of show dogs. This is one of the German Shepherd breed types that individuals looking for a sturdy working dog will usually turn t, though they can also make great family pets with the right training. Because they are bred for their working drive, however, it is usually best to make sure they have plenty of activities or they will become bored and potentially destructive.
Czech Working Lines
Czech German Shepherds are definitely the most wolfish among their cousins. With coloration and body style that varies drastically from the show lines of American, Canada, and Germany, these dogs were bred specifically to patrol the Czech border before the Iron Curtain fell. One single kennel in Czechoslovakia was responsible for creating these dogs, that focused specifically on agility, working drive, and trainable temperament. While these dogs are less common than the other German Shepherd types, they still make excellent family pets and are an excellent choice for police departments, search and rescue teams, and other working dog occupations.
Difference Between Working Line and Show Line Types
Dogs that were bred to work, rather than to show, usually have fewer health problems, fewer temperament issues, and more variation in color and coat type. German Shepherd dogs that are bred for show are bred to conform to a very specific set of standards and the dogs in a litter that do not adhere to those standards are generally not used for further breeding. This is not true of working stock, who can look exactly the same as a show dog, with the typical black saddle and tan body, or can be completely black or even completely tan. Sable is the most common color for working stock German Shepherds since sable is the dominant color gene in this breed.
When it comes to temperament, these dogs often have more intense personalities than their show counterparts. This often because breeders of these types focused on energy and loyalty when selecting individuals to breed. They love working and some owners might find that if they do not find some sort of job for their dog, that they will start acting out. Not every working dog will demand to be a drug sniffer or a security guard, but they will often demand to be near their owners almost constantly. These dogs will love to learn tricks and even some more advanced tasks like fetching specific items or opening doors.
No German Shepherd wants to be a couch potato. They are not a laid back breed and they are usually happiest when their owners are not laid back, either. Contrary to popular belief, however, they are very gentle with children and they do not get rattled or annoyed easily. You’ll find them patient with ear-pulling toddlers, as well as loud teenagers, as long as they get their daily exercise. More on the breeding history of these work dogs can also be found in the classic book of Max von Stephanitz.
Which Line Should I Choose?
Which line you choose really depends on what your German Shepherd is going to be doing. Adopting a champion or the child of a champion from a show line simply to have the title may not be the best option if the dog does not have the proper temperament for a family setting. Some of these dogs have issues with anxiety or fear, which are a sign of weak genetics in the dog breeding world. However, if you are trying to find a dog to show, a German Shepherd from the American, Canadian, or West German show lines from a reputable breeder is a great option.
On the other hand, if you want a dog as a family pet or to train in some sort of job, an animal from the working lines may be a better option, since these dogs are bred specifically for their trainability, loyalty, obedience, and intelligence, which are all important when it comes to having a German Shepherd as a pet or to do a specific job.
It is, of course, possible to get a dog from a show line that is just as intelligent, trainable, and healthy as from a working line, if you source your dog from the right breeder—one that cares about a dog’s health, rather than just getting the right look. A well-bred German Shepherd, of any type, will be caring, loving, protective, and intelligent—those are the characteristics to look for, as well as looking for a certain coloration, pattern, or body style.
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