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The German Shepherd Dog

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A German Shepherd dog.

The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) is a large dog which belongs to the Pastoral Group1, according to the Kennel Club (UK2). The Pastoral Group is defined as 'Herding dogs that are associated with working cattle, sheep, reindeer and other cloven-hoofed animals'.


As the name suggests, German Shepherd Dogs originated in Germany, on the Alsace-Lorraine Border, hence the alternative name of 'Alsatians'. In the late 19th Century, Max von Stephanitz, a Captain in the Cavalry, began breeding local working dogs in order to try to standardise traits he admired in them. As a result, he is widely regarded as the 'creator' of the German Shepherd Dog. He was also responsible for seeing that the traits and versatility of the German Shepherds could be used in other ways, such as rescue or messenger dogs during the Second World War. Some dogs were then taken back to the UK and USA by troops who similarly admired them, and from there, their popularity exploded. Although, after both World Wars, their popularity waned somewhat and it also prompted the name change to Alsatians in the UK.

The breed was officially recognised by the Kennel Club (KC) in 1919. Surprisingly, so far, there have only been three German Shepherds who have been crowned Supreme Champion at Crufts - in 1965, 1969 and 1971. Because they are courageous, versatile and easy to train, the breed has had various jobs throughout their relatively short history. Von Stephanitz first recognised this, and since then they have been trained to perform a wider variety of roles in society.


The German Shepherd Dog is striking, giving the impression of strength, nobility and agility. It is a deep-chested dog, with a gentle slope to its back from the base of the neck to the tail. Carriage of the tail is also important: it is bushy, with a slight hook at the end and carried below back level. The shoulder height for a male is 24-26 inches, and 22-24 inches for a female. The body length (measured from the shoulder to the buttock) should be longer than the shoulder height (at a ratio of 10:8.5 or 10:9).

German Shepherds have the distinctive 'saddle back' markings, although the pattern of black hair can be more extensive. This may be referred to as a 'blanket back'. The coat tends to be mainly black and tan, but can come in other shades:

  • Pure black
  • Bi-colour (lighter shades on legs only, black over rest of the body)
  • Black and red (a deeper shade of tan)
  • Black and cream (a lighter shade of tan)
  • Agouti (aka Sable or Wolf Grey). Individual hairs have more than one colour on them, the tip of which can be black. Coats have areas of silver, grey or gold in them
  • Blues. The black pigment in the skin has been replaced with varying degrees of blue/grey pigments, and the coat has the appearance of being 'dusty' or covered in flour. The nose will be grey, the eyes light
  • Livers. The black pigment in skin has been replaced with varying degrees of brown/liver colours, the dog's nose is therefore brown and the eyes are light
  • Pure white. These can be either albinos (without pigmentation and having a pink nose), or White Shepherds with black noses and dark eyes

The blues, livers and albinos are relatively rare. The true colour of a German Shepherd's coat may not be known until three years of age, and to paraphrase von Stephanitz - there's no such thing as a bad colour on a good dog.

The German Shepherd has a double layered weather-resistant coat, consisting of a thick insulating layer next to their skin, covered with a longer, coarser, straight top layer, sometimes known as guard hairs. There are two lengths of coat3:

  • Short coated
  • Long coated — longer hair on their hind legs, chest, tail and around the ears

The head should have a long muzzle which is parallel to the slope of the forehead when in profile. A German Shepherd's ears should be in proportion to their head and be able to stand erect. Pups' ears should be erect at two-three months, some may take longer, some may not achieve this at all (known as soft ears). Preferably, the eyes should be dark brown and almond-shaped. The lighter eye colours tend to be seen more in the blues/livers.

In the White Shepherds, the eyes will still be dark. In the USA in 1999, the United Kennel Club (UKC) recognised these dogs in a separate register for White Shepherds. The UKC was originally started as a registry of working dogs, as opposed to the breed standards conformation of the AKC and the KC (UK). Currently, the White Shepherds, blues, livers and albinos are disqualified from showing under the American Kennel Club and the UK Kennel Club rules.


According to Coren4, they are the third most intelligent breed behind Poodles and Border Collies. They are self-confident, but approachable, alert and courageous. A German Shepherd may perhaps not greet strangers with the unbounded enthusiasm of other breeds (eg Labradors), and need a short time to get to know strangers. However, they are very loyal and protective of their pack when the situation demands it. Good obedience training and control are required with this powerful dog, as is an owner with some previous experience.

The most common behavioural problems of German Shepherds are aggression-related. Poor breeding and poor training are thought to be big contributing factors. Although the breed has had the reputation of being an aggressive dog, along with various other large breeds, this may not be the full story. An attack from a large dog is more likely to require hospital treatment than a nip from a small dog. As a lot of previous reports have largely been based on medical statistics, this inevitably skews the results. A survey in 2008 in the USA found that it was smaller dogs which were the more aggressive, with the German Shepherd somewhere in the middle. Thorough and careful socialisation as a puppy with different people, places and animals appears to be key in reducing potential aggression. A well socialised German Shepherd can be an outstanding family pet.

As they were originally bred from working stock, they do like to have a job to do, even if it's only guarding the house, or being a companion to owners who have the time to spend with them in activities. Otherwise they can get bored and be destructive. Generally known as a trotting dog (rather than the all-out sprints/marathons of Border Collies), they none-the-less require a lot of exercise, so agility classes can be enjoyable for owner and dog. Genes will out, and German Shepherds will sometimes try to 'herd' the family on walks. Or it may 'follow ahead': the dog walks in front, but turns round to make sure everyone is going in the right direction.

The first guide dogs for the blind in the UK (in 1931) were German Shepherds before the Labradors took over. One train of thought suggests that due to their fierce loyalty, some dogs suffered separation trauma when handed over to their new owner following training. Now they work more as police dogs, where they are trained to maintain public order, track suspects and to trace evidence. They are used as Search and Rescue dogs, often seen at disaster sites, scenting for survivors. German Shepherds also work for the RAF and the Army, and for guarding. The German Shepherd's instinct for guarding comes from their original purpose - herding livestock. Unlike the Border Collie, they 'worked the furrow', or patrolled the boundaries to ensure no animal escaped and no predator entered the area they were responsible for.


The German Shepherd requires a moderate amount of grooming because of the dual coat, the top layer of which sheds all year round.

  • Brushing should be done 3-4 times a week, but will require daily brushing when it 'blows' the undercoat (twice a year). This seasonal moulting means the downy undercoat will fall out in clumps over about two weeks
  • Ears are prone to infection, so inspect weekly. Clean outer area with gauze but do not use cotton buds to clean further down
  • Eyes should be inspected daily and wiped as required. Debris can build up in the edge of the eyes and conditions there are perfect for bacteria breeding
  • If the German Shepherd gets plenty of exercise on suitably hard ground, nails will be naturally worn to optimal length. Inspect the nails every two weeks, and arrange for a professional to trim them if you are unsure of how to do it. As a rule of thumb, if you can hear the dog's nails on the kitchen floor, it's time for trimming
  • Teeth do need to be brushed; many dogs (approx 80%) have dental disease - cavities, gingivitis - by three years of age. Halitosis can often be a sign of dental disease. Use dog toothpaste, not human toothpaste. Additionally, there are dog treats on the market which will help to decrease plaque build-up
  • Baths are not required more than two or three times a year, unless the dog rolls in something nasty. Bathing too much can dry out the skin and strip oil from the coat. Dog shampoo is a must as human shampoo has a different pH and can irritate the skin
  • Haircuts5. There's no need, unless there's long hair around the paws


Along with common canine conditions in general, German Shepherd Dogs may have the potential for more breed-specific health problems. Some are more serious than others.

Skeletal System

  • Probably the most well-known problems are Hip Dysplasia (HD) and Elbow Dysplasia:
    • In HD, the ball and socket joint are deformed and do not have a snug fit, leading to inflammation and cartilage damage. Progressive wear of the joints can cause lameness and arthritis. Signs of HD may appear in young dogs or later in their lives. The earliest age dogs can be hip and elbow scored is at one year old (via X-ray), so it is important that the breeder has histories of both parents available. Hip scores can range from 0-106 (none to very severe). According to The BVA/KC 6 HD scheme in 2008, the average score from over one thousand German Shepherds was 19. Treatment comprises analgesia, appropriate exercise and surgery in more severe cases
    • Elbow Dysplasia is the abnormal development of the elbow joint. Elbow scoring was introduced by the KC in 1998, who recommend that breeding is preferable in dogs with a score of 0-1 (on a scale of 0-3, 3 being severe)
  • Panosteitis is common in larger breeds of dogs, including the German Shepherd. The rapid growth of bone in the limbs causes pain and lameness in dogs of approximately 6-18 months, is usually self-terminating, but can recur in short bouts up to the age of three years. 'Pano' has been likened to growing pains in humans. Lameness can occur in any or all limbs even when there have been no previous injuries. Bouts tend to last up to three weeks. Rest is essential during this time, as is appropriate analgesia
  • Other orthopaedic problems include slipped discs

Gastro-intestinal System

The German Shepherd is prone to 'bloat', where the stomach becomes filled with excess air. The stomach can then partially twist (tortion), or fully twist (volvulus). This is a medical emergency. The dog may attempt to vomit, but be unable to, nor will it be able to pass wind. Rapid abdominal swelling and shock develops. Death can follow quickly if not treated in time.

The best way to prevent this is to provide two meals rather than one meal per day. Often with one meal per day, the dog will bolt it down and ingest air. Fresh water should always be available, but rapid gulping of a lot of water can also result in bloat (by diluting gastric juices essential for digestion, and ingesting a lot of air). So the amount of water, before and after meals, should be restricted. Vigorous exercise for one hour before, and up to two hours after a meal should be avoided, although walking is fine.

  • Other gastroenterological problems include peri-anal abscesses and diarrhoea. Diarrhoea may be a result of not being able to tolerate a diet high in fat, a change of diet, or it could be a symptom of some other health issue

Neuorological System

Degenerative Myelopathy7 can manifest like Hip Dysplasia, but in contrast, it is degeneration of the spinal cord nerves, not the bones. It occurs in older dogs, leading to weakness, ataxia (unsteady gait) and muscle atrophy in the lower back and hind legs. Ataxia may be a progressive feature, or it may come and go for short periods. The vast majority of sufferers are German Shepherds, implicating genetic inheritance, although some other big breeds can also be similarly affected.

Epilepsy is generally broken into two categories — Primary and Secondary. Primary epilepsy has no obvious cause and is thought to have a strong genetic component. Whereas, in Secondary epilepsy, a cause can usually be found. Common causes for epilepsy include, malignancies, diabetes (hypoglycaemia) and head injuries. Treatment is normally anti-epileptic medication, along with the correction of any underlying cause.

Cardiovascular System

German Shepherds are known to be affected by the inherited von Willebrand's Disease. A lack of Factor VIII (or von Willebrand's factor), greatly reduces the bloods ability to clot, and is comparable with haemophilia in humans. The most obvious signs are excessive bleeding following injuries, but bleeding can occur in other sites for no obvious reasons eg, nosebleeds, gastrointestinal bleeds and into joints. This condition also poses a large risk if the dog requires surgery. Treatment is with blood transfusion. A proportion of these dogs have hypothyroidism, so also require drugs to correct this. Cardiomyopathy has also been seen in German Shepherds.

Ocular System

The BVA/KC Eye Scheme is involved with known (Schedule A), and suspected (Schedule B) to be inherited eye disorders in dogs. Within this scheme, German Shepherds are known to suffer from Hereditary Cataracts. The genetic influence in the occurrence of Multifocal Retinal Dysplasia is also being investigated. Both can result in partial or complete blindness. Cataracts may be able to be removed by the use of ultrasound. This breaks them up, then the pieces are removed via a small cut in the eye.

Not A Lot Of People Know That...

There is a whole list of food toxic to German Shepherds or dogs in general. Most people have heard about chocolate and alcohol, but here are some others and their possible effects:

  • Grapes and raisins – renal failure
  • Macadamia nuts – muscle tremors, weakness or paralysis
  • Tomato leaves and stems – heart arrhythmias
  • Pear pits, the kernels of plums, peaches and apricots, apple core pits – cyanide poisoning
  • Milk and dairy products – diarrhoea (in some dogs)
  • Avocados – oedema in chest and heart, leading to difficulty breathing
  • Onions  – gastroenteritis, haemolytic anaemia, hepatic impairment
  • Garlic is less toxic so would need to be ingested in larger quantities compared to onions. Garlic in small quantities can be used in certain dietary supplements

And Finally

German Shepherd Dogs are ideal in town or country, and most are healthy and strong, living for approximately 10-14 years. These dogs thrive on company, stimuli, exercise and good nutrition. If they are well provided for, your dog will provide you with many years of loyalty8 and enjoyment.

1Other breeds of dogs included in the Pastoral Group include Border Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Welsh Corgies and Shetland Sheepdogs.2The American Kennel Club has the GSD under Herding/Guarding classification, whilst the New Zealand Kennel Club classifies it under Working dogs.3However, some have referred to a third length, not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle of these categories - the 'Plush' coated.4Coren, S. The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide To The Thoughts, Emotions, And Inner Lives Of Our Canine Companions. Bantam. 1995.5Just don't. Put the clippers down and step away from the dog. Have you seen what they do to the Poodle?6BVA/KC is the British Veterinary Association working with the KC in health screening schemes.7The nearest human comparison may be Multiple Sclerosis. In both, the myelin sheath which insulates nerve fibres is destroyed. Treatment includes medication, exercise and food supplements.8'No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as the dog does' - Christopher Morley.

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