Modern Dog Training and Behaviour Advice
Breed: German Shepherd
Breed Group: Pastoral/Herding
Country of Origin and Original Function:
The German Shepherd is a relatively new breed, dating back to 1899, and he owes his existence to one man: Captain Max von Stephanitz, a career captain in the German cavalry with a goal of creating a German breed that would be unmatched as a herding dog.
Centuries before von Stephanitz came along, farmers in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, relied on #dogs to drive and protect their herds. Some dogs were legendary for their skill, and sheepherders would travel days to breed their female dogs to a notable sire. However, as von Stephanitz noted, no one had developed the herding dogs of the region into a distinct breed.
In 1898, von Stephanitz retired from military life and began his second career, and what would prove to be his passion: experimenting with dog breeding to create a superior German herding dog. Stephanitz studied the breeding techniques of the British, noted for their exceptional herding dogs, and traveled throughout Germany, attending dog shows and observing German-type herding dogs.
Von Stephanitz saw many fine herding dogs, dogs who were athletic, or intelligent, or capable. What he didn’t see was a dog who embodied all those traits.
One day, in 1899, von Stephanitz was visiting a dog show when a wolfish-looking dog caught his eye. He immediately bought the dog, named Hektor Linksrhein. Later renamed Horand v Grafeth, the dog’s powerful physique and intelligence so impressed von Stephanitz that he formed a society — the Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde — to found a breed out of Horand’s descendents.
Although he had intended for his breed to work as herding dogs, as Germany became more and more industrialized, von Stephanitz saw the need for such dogs fading. He was determined that his breed would continue as a working dog, and he decided that the dog’s future was in police work and military service.
Making good use of his military connections, von Stephanitz convinced the German government to use the breed. During World War I the German Shepherd served as a Red Cross dog, messenger, rescuer, guard, supply carrier, and sentry.
Although German Shepherds made their way to the United States before the war, it wasn’t until the war that the breed became popular in the U.S. Allied servicemen noted the dog’s bravery and intelligence, and a number of dogs went home with these soldiers.
One such dog was a five-day-old puppy plucked from a bomb-riddled kennel in France by an American corporal from Los Angeles. The corporal took the puppy home, trained him, and turned him into one of Hollywood’s most recognizable four-legged stars: Rin Tin Tin, who appeared in 26 movies and helped popularize the breed in America.
Although the Allies were impressed by the German dogs, they weren’t so happy with the dog’s German roots. During wartime all things German were stigmatized, and in 1917, the American Kennel Club (AKC) changed the breed’s name to the Shepherd Dog.
In England, the dog was renamed the Alsatian Wolf Dog, after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The AKC went back to using the original name of German Shepherd Dog in 1931; it took until 1977 for the British Kennel Club to do the same.
Von Stephanitz stayed closely involved with the development of the breed, and as early as 1922, he became alarmed by some of the traits that were turning up in the dogs, such as poor temperament and a tendency to tooth decay. He developed a system of tight quality control: Before any individual German Shepherd was bred, he needed to pass numerous tests of his intelligence, temperament, athleticism, and good health.
American breeding of German Shepherds, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly so regulated. In the United States, the dogs were bred to win dog shows, and breeders put more emphasis on looks and on the dogs’ gait, or way of moving.
After World War II, American- and German-bred German Shepherds began to diverge dramatically. At one point, the U.S. police departments and military began importing German Shepherd working dogs, because homegrown German Shepherds were failing performance tests and plagued by genetic health conditions.
In the past few decades, some American breeders have begun to put the emphasis back on the breed’s abilities rather than just appearance, importing working dogs from Germany to add to their breeding program. It’s now possible to buy American-bred German Shepherds that live up to the breed’s reputation as a capable working dog.
The German Shepherd Dog is well proportioned and very strong. The GSD has a sturdy, muscular, slightly elongated body with a light, solid bone structure. The head should be in proportion to its body, and the forehead a little rounded. The nose is most often black, however, blue or liver still do sometimes occur, but are considered a fault and cannot be shown. The teeth meet in a strong scissors bite. The dark eyes are almond-shaped, and never protruding. The ears are wide at the base, pointed, upright and turned forward. The ears of puppies under six months may droop slightly. The bushy tail reaches below the hocks and hangs down when the dog is at rest. The front legs and shoulders are muscular and the thighs are thick and sturdy. The round feet have very hard soles. There are three varieties of the German Shepherd: double coat, plush coat and longhaired coat. The coat most often comes in black with tan, sable or all black, but also can come in white, blue and liver, but those colors are considered a fault according to most standards. The white GSD dogs are recognized as a separate breed by some clubs and are being called the American White Shepherd. A piebald color has also occurred in a single GSD bloodline that is now being called a Panda Shepherd. A Panda is 35% white the remainder of color is black and tan, and has no white German Shepherds in its ancestry.
The German Shepherd personality is aloof but not usually aggressive. He’s a reserved dog; he doesn’t make friends immediately, but once he does, he’s extremely loyal. With his family he’s easy-going and approachable, but when threatened he can be strong and protective, making him an excellent watchdog.
This highly intelligent and trainable breed thrives on having a job to do — any job. The German Shepherd can be trained to do almost anything, from alerting a deaf person to a doorbell ring to sniffing out an avalanche victim.
The German Shepherd shouldn’t be left for long periods of time. Without the companionship he needs — as well as exercise and the chance to put his intelligence to work — he becomes bored and frustrated. A German Shepherd who’s under-exercised and ignored by his family is likely to express his pent-up energy in ways you don’t like, such as barking and chewing.
The German Shepherd needs a lot of early socialisation — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they’re young. Socialisation helps ensure that your German Shepherd puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.
German Shepherds shed year-round, and generally “blows” — sheds a lot of hair at once — twice a year. If you want a German Shepherd, be prepared for hair on your black pants, on your white couch, and pretty much all over the house.
There’s no magic solution to shedding. Accept it. However, brushing two to three times a week will help more of the hair come out in a brush, rather than on your furnishings. And a sturdy vacuum cleaner doesn’t hurt either.
Bathing the dog too often strips the coat of oils that keep it healthy, so start running the bathwater only if your dog really needs it. It shouldn’t be that often; despite his notoriety as a shedder, the German Shepherd tends to be fairly clean and odorless.
The nails need to be trimmed once a month, and the ears checked once a week for dirt, redness, or a bad odor that can indicate an infection, then wiped out weekly with a cotton ball dampened with gentle, pH-balanced ear cleaner to prevent problems.
German Shepherds love to chew, and the habit helps keep their teeth clean. Give them sturdy, safe dental chew toys or bones, and they’ll be fighting tartar buildup as they gnaw, especially on the back molars. Brushing their teeth with a soft toothbrush and doggie toothpaste also helps keep gums and teeth in good shape.
German Shepherds are generally healthy, but like all #breeds, they’re prone to certain health conditions. Not all German Shepherds will get any or all of these diseases, but it’s important to be aware of them if you’re considering this breed.
If you’re buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy’s parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.
In German Shepherds, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand’s disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).
Hip Dysplasia: Hip dyplasia is a heritable condition in which the femur doesn’t fit snugly into the pelvic socket of the hip joint. Hip dysplasia can exist with or without clinical signs. Some dogs exhibit pain and lameness on one or both rear legs. As the dog ages, arthritis can develop. X-ray screening for hip dysplasia is done by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program. Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred. Ask the breeder for proof that the parents have been tested for hip dysplasia and found to be free of problems.
Elbow Dysplasia: This is a heritable condition common to large-breed dogs. It’s thought to be caused by different growth rates of the three bones that make up the dog’s elbow, causing joint laxity. This can lead to painful lameness. Your vet may recommend surgery to correct the problem, or medication to control the pain.
Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus: Commonly called bloat, this is a life-threatening condition that affects large, deep-chested dogs like Golden Retrievers, especially if they are fed one large meal a day, eat rapidly, drink large volumes of water after eating, and exercise vigorously after eating. Bloat occurs when the stomach is distended with gas or air and then twists. The dog is unable to belch or vomit to rid itself of the excess air in its stomach, and the normal return of blood to the heart is impeded. Blood pressure drops and the dog goes into shock. Without immediate medical attention, the dog can die. Suspect bloat if your dog has a distended abdomen, is salivating excessively and retching without throwing up. He also may be restless, depressed, lethargic, and weak with a rapid heart rate. It’s important to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible.
Degenerative Myelopathy: Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord, specifically the part of the cord that communicates information to the brain regarding the hind legs. Dogs with DM act as though they don’t know where their back legs are, and cannot move them properly. The disease progresses to the point the dog cannot walk. Most of the time, there is no treatment and the dog is put to sleep. However, in a few rare cases, the condition is related to a lack of vitamin-12 or vitamin E. If this is the case, vitamin supplements might stabilise the condition.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency: EPI is a genetic disease of the pancreas in which the cells that produce digestive enzymes are destroyed. As a result, the dog can no longer digest and absorb food. The first signs of the condition are gas, loss of appetite, weight loss, and change in stools. The dog becomes very thin, and very hungry. EPI is diagnosed with a simple blood test, and treatment is simple, too: pancreatic enzymes are added to the dog’s food. With proper medication supervision, most dogs recover.
Allergies: Some German Shepherds suffer from a variety of allergies, ranging from contact allergies to food allergies. Allergy symptoms in dogs are similar to those in people. If your German Shepherd is scratching, licking at his paws or rubbing his face a great deal, suspect that it has an allergy and have him checked by your vet.
Children and Other Pets:
If he’s well trained and has had plenty of exposure to kids, especially as a puppy, a German Shepherd is a great companion for children. In fact, some say he’s a cross between a babysitter and a cop, both gentle with, and protective of, the children in his family.
This is a big dog, though, capable of mistakenly bumping a toddler or small child. True to his reserved nature, he’s not tail-wagging friendly with kids he doesn’t know, but he’s generally trustworthy.
The German Shepherd can also live peacefully with other dogs and pets, as long as he was taught to do so from puppyhood. Introducing an adult German Shepherd to a household with other pets can be more difficult if the dog isn’t used to getting along with other dogs or cats. You may need to hire a professional trainer to help, or get advice from the rescue organisation if that’s where you acquired the adult German Shepherd.
Information Copyright © 2008-2014 DogTime Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Pictures used with permission from our Facebook members