The German Shepherd Dog (GSD)—or simply ‘Shepherd’—consistently ranks among the top ten most popular breeds in America, second only to the number one Labrador Retriever since 2010. His unfailing loyalty and intelligence earn him this distinction, together with his majestic and imposing canine presence. Like all dogs, he comes with challenges, and as such may not make the best first dog for a novice. Are you ready for a German Shepherd? Here are answers to 11 oft-asked questions about this rewarding, but occasionally difficult dog.
1. What kind of temperament do German Shepherds have—are they aggressive?
Although Shepherds are stereotyped as aggressive or out-of-control dogs, this idea lacks merit. One way to predict the general temperament of a German Shepherd Dog—or any dog—is understanding what he was bred to do. For the GSD, a dog originally developed for long days herding, you can expect intelligence, trainability, loyalty, and an impeccable work ethic, in a sound dog. And soundness is what the aggression question really boils down to—when a German Shepherd comes from good genetic stock, he’s likely to possess a sound temperament and a thoroughly endearing personality. But the GSD is also naturally protective, and may be trained to guard—an aptitude which has made him valuable historically and now, for police work and as a member of the armed forces. If you’re considering bringing home a German Shepherd, buy from a responsible breeder, or adopt from a rescue organization where temperament testing is routine, or where the dog has been in foster care long enough for a family to observe his demeanor, so you’ll have a better idea of where his personality falls along the continuum.
2. Were German Shepherds bred as police dogs?
No. German Shepherds emerged around the turn of the 20th century as sheep herding dogs in Germany, hence their name. But when industrialization rendered the GSD’s herding work a bit obsolete, the dog’s original developer—one Max von Stephanitz—began selecting for traits that catered more to police and military work. In time, after he observed a decline in the personality and health of the dog he worked so hard to develop, von Stephanitz brought the GSD back into alignment with his original standards. Still, the Shepherd had proved his moxie as a police dog and member of the military in the First World War, and he continues to shine in those roles, along with the exceptional work he does in search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, and as a service dog. He still makes a reliable helper with livestock on the farm or ranch, but is as happy to herd and watch over his human ‘siblings’ at home.
3. What are some common health problems in the German Shepherd?
Like all breeds, German Shepherds are prone to a few health problems, including these; consult a veterinarian to learn more.
- Canine hip dysplasia, a malformation in the hip joints where the femur does not fit properly into the hip’s acetabulum, can occur in German Shepherds and in most large dog breeds; genes and lifestyle can influence the likelihood of hip dysplasia in a GSD. Elbow dysplasia also occurs in Shepherds, but is genetic. Look for Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) certifications for hips and elbows in both parents of the dog you’re considering. Hip dysplasia in dogs is often manageable.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is a lack of digestive enzymes, and is relatively common in German Shepherds. Symptoms can include diarrhea and weight loss; EPI is potentially life-threatening, but responds well to treatment once it’s diagnosed.
- Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can occur in German Shepherds—pancreatitis can be an isolated event, or a chronic problem. A dog who is fed an especially high-fat meal when he’s unaccustomed to it is most vulnerable; symptoms include a loss of appetite, vomiting, and belly pain, among others. Pancreatitis is manageable, and the prognosis for a dog who has it is good.
- Bloat, or gastric torsion, can be a problem in a German Shepherd, or in any deep-chested dog. During bloat, the dog’s stomach twists, preventing food from passing through the esophagus to the stomach, or through the stomach to the intestines. Consider bloat an emergency: If your Shepherd’s abdomen is enlarged, his breathing labored, he is drooling excessively, vomiting, or has a weak pulse or paleness in the nose and mouth, get him to the veterinarian immediately for treatment. Keeping your shepherd calm about an hour before and after a meal can reduce the chances of bloat.
- Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive degeneration of the spinal cord triggered by the autoimmune system, and is seen in Shepherds; it begins in the dog’s hind limbs, progressively weakens his entire body, and is ultimately fatal.
4. How long do German Shepherds live?
The life expectancy for German Shepherds is seven to twelve years. While generally a healthy breed, mobility or health issues may mean a shorter lifespan. Always choose a breeder who follows recommended breeding practices and screens for common conditions to reduce the likelihood of serious health concerns.
5. Will my German Shepherd puppy’s ears stand up on their own, or should I tape them?
Most German Shepherd puppies’ ears stand erect naturally, after teething ends. But until then, a puppy’s ears may stand erect one day, droop down the next, and then stand erect again, for as many as six months—it’s best not to do anything to your puppy’s ears during this period. Some people try to coax the ears to stand erect by taping them (they should never be surgically cropped, as they are in a Doberman Pinscher). Taping occasionally helps the GSD puppy develop erect ears, but many times fails, especially if taped incorrectly. And some Shepherds are born with genetically weak, or ‘soft’ ears, that may never stand fully erect. Unless you’re planning to show your dog, it’s best to make your peace with his ears, however imperfect—a dog with one ear up and one down, or partially erect ears with floppy tips, will win you over with his loveable looks.
6. How much do German Shepherds shed?
German Shepherds shed copiously. Their propensity to shed, in fact, has earned them the moniker, German ‘Shedder.’ The GSD has a beautiful and luxurious double coat that comes in a medium or long variety. The topcoat, or guard hair, sheds year-round. And twice yearly, in the spring and fall, the German Shepherd ‘blows’—or heavily sheds—his undercoat. Keep your vacuum in good working order, and thoroughly brush your Shepherd once weekly to help minimize the mess. ‘Fringe’ benefit: Pitch out a few handfuls of your Shepherd’s castoff hair and watch the spring robins around your yard pluck it up to insulate their nests.
7. When do German Shepherds stop growing?
Maximum physical growth for German Shepherds is usually reached between 2 and 2.5 years of age, and sometimes longer. Don’t be alarmed if your puppy seems to be outgrowing your space at a furious pace: Like all breeds, GSDs go through growth and development stages where they reach common social and physical milestones, with the most noticeable growth periods occurring before puppies turn one. After a year, growth slows—but continues—for up to two more years. Guidelines for GSD growth stages can give you an idea of what to expect, but each dog will develop on their own schedule.
Even if your German Shepherd is full-grown physically, mental maturity takes longer—closer to the three-year mark. This means grown-up, full-strength Shepherds may exude rambunctious, puppy-like energy. Provide plenty of exercise, games, and training to keep an active German Shepherd on his best behavior.
8. How fast can a German Shepherd run?
Nimble German Shepherds can sprint briefly at a top speed of 30 miles per hour or run at a sustained speed of up to 15 miles per hour, sometimes for an hour or longer. Whether they’re herding, working, or playing, that’s nothing to sniff at. Keep their top speed in mind as you’re out wandering: A startled or distracted GSD may be impossible to catch if he decides to take off running. Perfect the emergency recall command during training, and ensure he’s willing to stick close beside you before allowing any off-leash roaming, especially in unfamiliar areas.
9. How much should you feed a German Shepherd puppy?
Growing puppies should be fed based on their ideal weight, activity level, and stage of development: A veterinarian can recommend the best diet to meet a Shepherd puppy’s specific caloric needs. Split the total amount of food between four daily meals for a young puppy, and two or three meals as he gets older. A 20-pound puppy usually needs less than two cups of food per day, while a 50-pound, six-month-old German Shepherd may eat up to three and a half cups per day. Ensuring a well-balanced diet can help prevent excessive weight gain or obesity, which can impact overall health.
10. Are German Shepherds smart?
German Shepherds are intelligent, highly trainable dogs. They’re considered the third-smartest breed, according to a study that ranked intelligence based on each breed’s ability to learn and obey commands. Because they’re so smart, training is imperative. Without a solid foundation and continued training, your German Shepherd may spend his time outsmarting you rather than obeying.
One way to keep a GSD happy and thriving is to give him a job to do. Whether he keeps an eye on your backyard farm, competes in agility or advanced obedience, throws his nose into the ring for scent work games, or participates in search and rescue training, he needs activities to exercise his body and mind.
11. Do German Shepherds like water?
Many German Shepherds love water. Whether you live on the water or spend weekends dipping your toes in local streams, this athletic breed may be quick to join you for a dip. While not bred specifically for swimming like the Poodle or Water Spaniel, the German Shepherd is a hardy, muscular dog: Strong legs and a sleek, lean body give him an edge in the water.
If he’s hesitant to give the doggy paddle a try, get in the water with him, take it slow, and allow him time to learn the ropes. With patience and practice, he may learn to love the water. Not all Shepherds enjoy water—if yours decides he’d rather stay dry, opt for a few rounds of fetch on the shore instead.
Find out more about the German Shepherd Dog—or any dog—before you buy or adopt. And try our Dog Breed Selector to discover the specific breeds that may best match your lifestyle—your next canine family member is out there waiting for you.