The German Shepherd is a breed that brings different views from people. Some say they are fearsome, threatening dogs that should be banned - and, unfortunately, in some areas this has been the case. However, those who have had a German Shepherd see the same breed with much different eyes.
The German Shepherd is often aloof - they don't often walk right up to a stranger but size them up, as if silently figuring whether you are worth their time. Some dogs take longer than others to warm up and create a bond, but once that bond is made is a dog that will face any threat imaginable to protect their family.
It is this loyalty and sense of duty that has made the German Shepherd a dog that willingly guided the blind, works as law enforcement, herds livestock, competes not only in shows but in dog sports, is a friend to the military and performs countless duties in homes throughout the world.
In the late 1800s cavaly officer Capt. Max Von Stephanitz sought to perfect a dog for farm work. As with many animals bred for function, what was needed locally was different than the dogs available. The breed today takes the look of a defined breed but not all are the same. A dog developed as a show dog might look very different from one developed for police work, which may have a different body type from one working on the farm.
American soldiers brought the breed to the US after being introduced to the breed in the military. The breed is still today used to assist soldiers throughout the world.
By the standard, the male should be 24-26 inches at the shoulder with females 22-24. They should be longer than they are tall, with an image of power and grace. Disqualifications from show include: cropped or dropped ears, nose not mostly black, undershot jaw, docked tail and all white dogs. There are many many dogs that are larger than the standard, or all white dogs, as well as all black dogs, that are still fully German Shepherd. For those interested in details of show conformation requirements they can be found at http://www.akc.org/breeds/german_shepherd_dog/
In early development it was felt the GSD should be above everything utility and intelligence. The breed is still today a working machine...functional in the ability to cover ground easily whether after a loose cow or an escaped criminal. They are distinctive in appearance and although known by different names are the same breed throughout the world.
The GSD is one of the breeds some pet food companies have developed special formulas for. They are also many people who feed a raw meat and bones diet. An important factor in feeding German Shepherds is food selection. Do not feed for fast growth - it does not necessarily mean a bigger adult but can mean a weaker adult. High energy food that boosts fast growth should be avoided especially in the rapid growth time of 3-8 months of age. This reduces the chances of displasia later. While selection of breeding dogs and testing hips and elbows before breeding is certainly a factor, equally is diet.
Many things vary within this breed. One GSD charges fearlessly into a conflict that includes gunfire while another trembles in a thunderstorm. Some have been guilty of biting while others would never except under extreme threat threaten a human. Some are bold in any circumstance, some are borderline fearful. Handling and breeding can make an immense difference in this breed. Additionally the breeding and genetic markers for disease can affect an otherwise suitable working dog. Genetic issues affecting the eyes, skin, heart, neurological system, digestive and skeletal systems are all possible within the breed - and most are found by testing before breeding.
It is this testing and the maintaining of healthy, tested clean lines that makes a good GSD an investment. A few health issues to watch for besides the hip and elbow displasia include thyroid disorders, skin allergies, Addisons, vonWillebrand's disease, heart murmurs, cardiomyopathy, epilepsy, wobbler syndrome and spinal bifida can all affect the breed. Many problems show up at under 2 years old. A condition called EPI, Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, is another issue that can be overlooked.
A more complete list of the health issues that can affect the breed is at http://www.awsaclub.com/healthgenetics/caninegen.htm - and remember that although it can look like they are prone to every disease known to canines, many of these can be eliminated by genetics.
Although not genetic, owners of GSD should be familiar with the danger of bloat. Like many deep chested dogs, GSD is susceptible to this critical emergency that needs immediate medical attention. This condition is fast-striking and fatal.
Do not be deterred by the list of health issues in the breed - instead, use that to choose your dog wisely. Understand that without testing you have the risk of losing a dog you've become attached to - and it may well be worth $700-800 for a dog that has a healthy genetic family rather than getting one of unknown background for $150 then spending thousands treating problems that are lurking unseen. For a tested, working and show type dog bred for temperament, trainability and soundness do not be shocked by prices $1,500 or $2,000 and up. Many of these come with health and soundness guarantees.
Dogs of 12-15 years are not uncommon. With a reported average litter size of eight, it's important to choose mates wisely.
The trainability of the German Shepherd is well documented. The movie "K-9" and it's sequels revolved around a German Shepherd, as did the infamous Rin Tin Tin. The first seeing-eye dog in 1928 was a German Shepherd. The GSD is one of the most intelligent dogs in the canine world, in one test just behind the border collie and poodle. John Kennedy, Roy Rogers and Franklin D. Roosevelt kept GSD.
Schutzhund, a competition not for the faint of heart, is but one thing the GSD excells at. This competition tests the dog's intelligence, soundness, tracking abilities, willingness to work, courage and trainability. While photos from these competitions show dogs scaling obstacles and making spectacular leaps to latch bites onto the arm of a "suspect" it's important to remember these dogs are highly trained. They are not vicious...they are trained to get to a suspect, restrain them and ideally get them on the ground for the safety of their handlers.
No dog, German Shepherd or otherwise, should be teased or mistreated to induce aggression. The difference between an aggressive dog and a trained K-9 is extreme. A K-9's training is based on play - an aggressive dog is based on survival, and this difference is critical to understand. It drives an aggressive dog to unspeakable acts and reflects poorly on the many great dogs of the breed that are highly trainable.
A good dog with obedience training doesn't need special training for protection. These operate from a position of defense of the home - and the bark of a GSD is often enough to change the minds of someone who thinks they want to do harm. The natural protection instincts of a good GSD is normally sufficient to deal with a threat.
It is no surprise that there are many heroes in this breed. Ceasar, a K-9 handled by Corporal Mark Sarna of the Shaker Heights Ohio Police Department, had a resume that included drug detection, tracking suspects as well as being a certified therapy dog and friendly with children. Griff, a K-9 with the Summit County Sheriff's Department, and his handler Deputy Kathy Wilmot is another awarded dog and a great illustration as to the unknown these dogs and their handlers can face. Called to a domestic disturbance where the suspect was threatening to burn down the house of a girlfriend with her and her kids in it, Griff tracked the suspect through freezing rain. While he wanted to continue, the humans insisted on returning to the command unit and before long a second call came in. The suspect returned to the home and was becoming violent. A very dangerous situation evolved with the suspect assaulting the dog and handlers, attempting to kill the dog hands on despite being tazered. Griff not only never gave up but never shifted position - he put himself between the suspect and his handler, willing to lay down his life if need be. After the incident was over it was learned the suspect had commited an armed robbery just hours before, was out on bond and had a previous stint of 13 years in prison.
In the dangerous work of police and military work many German Shepherds have paid the ultimate price for their instincts and training. They serve faithfully and have confronted the worst of humanity, not only on a daily basis but also in events such as the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombing.
Because these are bold, intelligent and trainable dogs they must have a home that will TRAIN them. Select a good, healthy dog and put the time into training them. This doesn't take 6-8 hours per day...it's teaching things in small ways on a day to day basis. Left to their own devices they will be unhappy and find their own means to entertain themselves, and you probably won't like it. A bored, untrained dog can destroy vehicles, homes and lives. Once trained then you can sit back and enjoy your beautiful, functional, intelligent and well mannered dog.
For the right home the German Shepherd is a wonderful companion and security that doesn't fail with power outages. If yours is the right home, do your homework and find the best dog for you. They're a wonderful breed with a big heart.