The German Shepherd Dog is one of the most popular dog breeds in America, and that’s for a lot of good reasons. The GSD is highly versatile, extremely intelligent, and beyond courageous. You’ve probably heard of this dog over and over, in the context of his work with the military and the police, as well as search and rescue, and working with people who have disabilities.
The German Shepherd Dog, often abbreviated as “GSD” in America, is also known in Britain as the Alsatian. It’s safe to say that this is one of the most recognizable breeds anywhere in the world. In fact, in the United States, he ranks in the top ten breeds recognized by the AKC.
Now, let’s take a look back. We’ll talk more about the history of this noble breed in a bit, but first you need to know that the first GSD was actually taken from a bombed-out French breeding kennel during the First World War by a lowly corporal by the name of Lee Duncan.
You probably won’t recognize Corporal Duncan’s name, but you will know the puppy’s name – Rin Tin Tin. He was one of the most famous dogs ever, having appeared in literally dozens of movies, and at the height of his fame, receiving more fan letters than many of his human contemporaries.
Of course, over the years, the GSD had many jobs other than working as a movie star as you can tell from the introduction to this post. GSDs, in addition to their other tasks, were also very prominent immediately following 9/11, searching for survivors and also working as therapy dogs to comfort families who were waiting for word about their loved ones, as well as firefighters and police who were beyond stressed thanks to what they found – or didn’t find – in the rubble of the Twin Towers.
As to its nature, the GSD can be aloof, and even suspicious. In other words, if you want a dog that’s going to instantly welcome strangers into your home, this might not be the breed that you’re looking for. However, if you expose your GSD to a lot of different people and situations when he’s young, he’ll probably come to take them in stride.
As a breed, the GSD is pretty new. It only goes back to 1899. And although the breed gained popularity with Corporal Duncan and Rin Tin Tin, it actually owes its existence to Max von Stephanitz, who was a German cavalry captain who wanted to create a breed that would excel at herding.
German farmers, and in fact those in most other countries, have typically relied on dogs for herding and herd protection. Some dogs, simply stated, were better at it than others. Few were as good as von Stephanitz’s dogs.
When he retired from the military, Max von Stephanitz began to experiment with breeding dogs, choosing those that were smartest and most athletic. One day, when visiting a dog show, he came upon a dog that looked sort of wolfish, and basically said, “This is it!” He named the dog Horand v Grafeth, and set about breeding.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But there’s more.
Germany became more and more industrialized, and the need for herding dogs wasn’t what it used to be. So, von Stephanitz started thinking about other purposes for the breed, and he determined that the most logical course of action would be to breed dogs for military and police work.
Given his military connections, von Stephanitz knew how to make this work. So, he set about convincing the German government that his breed had value. Then, during World War I, the German Shepherd ended up being used for guarding, sentry duty, messaging and rescuing.
German Shepherds were also in use in the United States during the war, but it really wasn’t until the post-war years that they became popular. The popularity was largely due to US service personnel bringing GSDs home with them – one of those service people was Corporal Duncan.
The breed also gained popularity in Britain, and during the post-war years, von Stephanitz continued to develop and promote the breed. However, by the early 1920s, he noticed that some undesirable traits were turning up – most notably, a tendency toward bad dental health, and temperament issues. So, he developed a “quality control” system, under which GSDs were expected, before being bred, to pass tests related to health, temperament, intelligence and athleticism.
The Americans, though, weren’t quite so “on side” and they didn’t regulate breeding anywhere near so rigorously. All that Americans cared about was getting a “win” at a dog show, so they emphasized looks a lot more than behavior and temperament.
Recently, though, American breeders have begun to place more of an emphasis on ability than looks. Now, in America, you can buy “pretty” GSDs that really have little practical use, or you can go back to the lineage that has led to the breeds’ reputation of being a good, sturdy working dog.
When it comes to size, you can typically expect a male GSD to stand anywhere from 24 to 26 inches at the shoulder, and a female to stand somewhere between 22 and 24 inches. As to weight, either sex will weigh 75-95 pounds.
The GSD is usually, as previously mentioned, a bit aloof, but not aggressive. This dog is quite approachable, but you don’t want to threaten him or anyone that he loves.
The GSD is also very trainable, which is what makes him so good as a service dog. He’s not good at being left alone, though – this is a dog that wants to be with his humans. If you leave him alone, he’s probably going to develop undesirable behaviors like chewing and barking.
As is the case with virtually every dog, you need to socialize your GSD early on, exposing him to all manner of people and situations. This is what will ensure that he grows up to be a mentally stable adult.
GSDs are generally healthy but can be prone to certain conditions. A good breeder will show you health clearance on the parents for hip dysplasia (but not for your puppy, since the condition does not typically develop before the age of two) and from the Canine Eye Registry attesting that the dog’s eyes are normal. The following are some health issues that could happen with your GSD.
1. Hip Dysplasia
This is an inherited condition in which the femur and the pelvic socket fail to fit properly. Some dogs with this condition will appear to be lame in the hind legs. Others will not display any symptoms.
Although the mere name of this condition strikes terror into the hearts of dog owners, it’s often not all that big a deal. Much of the time, hip dysplasia can be managed by using medication. Other times, surgery might be needed. Most of the time, the dog can live a full, happy life once the condition is managed.
2. Elbow Dysplasia
This is similar to hip dysplasia, except that it affects the dog’s elbows. It’s most common in large dogs, like the GSD. It’s usually caused by the elbow joints (there are three that make up the entire elbow) growing at different rates. Again, like hip dysplasia, it can often be managed using medication. Severe cases might require surgery.
This is a condition that often affects deep-chested dogs. It’s more likely to affect Great Danes, English Mastiffs, and other breeds that are very heavy and broad, but it’s worth mentioning here because it can, sometimes, affect the German Shepherd.
Bloat occurs when there is too much gas built up in the dog’s stomach. Then, the stomach twists, and the dog can’t vomit or belch to get rid of the gas. Ultimately, when this occurs, there’s not enough blood flow to the dog’s heart, and this can result in death.
If your dog has a distended abdomen, is drooling a lot, or making “yarking” sounds without actually vomiting, you should suspect bloat, and you should take your dog to the vet right away. If you don’t, his blood pressure could drop, he could go into shock, and he could die.
4. Degenerative Myelopathy
This is another disorder that’s more common to large breeds than it is to small ones. It’s a deterioration of the spinal cord, which is what delivers information to your dog’s brain. Dogs that have degenerative myelopathy might often look as though they can’t “identify” their hind legs. Ultimately, it will get to the point where the dog can no longer walk. Sadly, there is no treatment, and dogs with this condition will be best served by being euthanized.
5. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency
This is a disorder of the pancreas, in which the dog becomes unable to digest food. Symptoms include loss of appetite, excessive gas, change in the appearance of the stool, and eight loss. The dog will probably develop a huge appetite, but will lose weight.
Fortunately, this disorder is pretty easy to treat – your vet will simply prescribe a pancreatic enzyme supplement, and your dog will most likely have a full recovery.
GSDs are very prone to allergies. The symptoms are pretty much the same as they are in humans – itching and scratching. If your GSD is displaying these symptoms, take him to the vet to determine what remedies are available.
Care and Feeding
GSDs are high-energy, so you should make sure that your GSD gets a lot of exercise every day. You don’t want him to end up being bored and destructive.
As to feeding, GSDs aren’t typically gluttons, so if you want to free feed, you can. If you’d rather do it on a schedule, give him 3-4 cups of quality dog food every day, spread over two meals.
Keep in mind, of course, that the amount of food your dog will need is going to depend on his activity level. If your GSD is very active, increase the food a bit. If he likes to just laze around the house, go to the low end.
Remember, too, that GSDs grow a bit differently from other dogs – they’ll typically do a “growth burst” at about six months, although it can happen as early as four months and as late as seven. This is when your dog’s bones are beginning to grow in a huge way, and when a low-cal, high-protein diet is best to give him the bone support he needs while also preventing him from growing too quickly.
Another thing you need to know about your GSD is that his joints will grow and firm up over a longer period of time than with some other breeds. So don’t let him play on pavement or other hard surfaces until he’s at least two years old. Otherwise, his joints could be harmed.
Coat and Grooming
The GSD was originally developed for herding, and that’s why he has a heavy coat. The coat can vary a good deal in color, and also in length – some GSDs have longer coats than others. Generally speaking, though, the GSD should have a medium-length, double coat. The outer coat will be dense, and the inner coat will be softer.
As to color, there’s a huge range. GSDs can have coats that are black, black and red, black and silver, black and cream, black and tan, liver, gray, blue, sable, and even white. The AKC doesn’t recognize white as an acceptable coat color when it comes to show, but it does recognize all the other varieties.
Now, a word about shedding. I once heard a friend refer to her dog as a “German Shedder,” and I think she might be right! The GSD is one of those breeds that sheds very heavily twice a year. So, if you’re not crazy about having dog hair all over your clothes, your furniture, and just about everything to which dog hair could attach, this might not be the right breed for you.
The thing is, too, there’s no solution other than vigorous brushing. You just have to suck it up.
As to other grooming issues, they’re pretty much the same as they would be with any other dog. Trim your GSD’s nails regularly, unless he’s given to walking on surfaces that will wear them down naturally. Check his ears from time to time to make sure that there are no signs of infection, and if they look dirty, wipe them out with a cotton ball dipped in a veterinary-approved ear cleaner. Brush his teeth as often as you can to make sure that he doesn’t develop tooth decay or gum disease. If your GSD hates having his teeth brushed, at least give him plenty of hard toys and chewies to ward off plaque and bacteria.
Kids and Other Pets
GSDs are among the most kid-friendly dogs going. In fact, a lot of people claim that they’re natural babysitters.
That said, I don’t advocate leaving kids and dogs alone together, no matter the breed, and no matter how gentle the individual dog might seem. Why? Because sometimes, s*** happens. And if you can prevent s*** from happening, it’s a whole lot easier than dealing with the aftermath once it does.
Most likely, your GSD and your kid are going to be fast friends, especially if they’re exposed to one another early on. The same goes for GSDs and other animals – most likely, the GSD is going to be very protective and loving. But please, don’t take chances.
The Final Word
There are few dogs more honest and trustworthy than the GSD. This is a breed that has a history of love and loyalty that is pretty much unsurpassed. These big, strong dogs are devoted to their humans and beyond courageous. If you invite one into your home, you’ll have an amazing friend for many years to come.