Five Questions About German Shepherds, Answered

By: Orvis Staff


Photo by: Flaurentine, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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 for the last six years. 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 five 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 still shines in those roles, along with the exceptional work he does in search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, and as a service dog leading the blind. 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. 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. 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.

5. 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 top coat, 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.

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.

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