German Shepherds – Characteristics, Health Conditions, Fun Facts + More

German Shepherds

Physical Characteristics

Classification: Herding

Weight range M/F: 75 -95lbs 

Height at withers: M: 24-26 inches/ F: 22-24 inches 

Average lifespan: 10-12 years

Conformation: athletic muscular body with a long muzzle, square head, large upright pointed ears and a long bushy tail

Coat type: medium to long double coat with a dense, coarse outer coat. 

Coat color: typically black and tan, but can be grey, sable, red and black, black and silver

Need for attention: moderate

Energy level: moderate- high

Exercise requirements: moderate, minimum of 40 minutes per day 

Tendency to snore and drool: low

Tendency to bark: low

Tendency to dig: low

Overall grooming needs: moderate

History of the German Shepherd

The origin of the German Shepherd dates back to the 1800’s in Germany. Max von Stephanitz, a cavalry captain was accredited for developing the breed through selective breeding of different types of herding dogs. Bred as working dogs, specifically for guarding and herding livestock, they were used in WWI to keep guard, carry ammunition, and deliver messages during battle. They even acted as guide dogs, leading the blind and wounded soldiers off the battlefield to safety. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that the first seeing eye dog was a German Shepherd. 

Following the war, soldiers of the opposing side brought these dogs home with them because of how impressed they were by their courage, strength and ability to follow orders amidst the chaos and danger. The name German Shepherd was changed to Alsatian by the people of the United Kingdom following the war to avoid reference to Germany. This name was chosen because these dogs were brought back to the United Kingdom from Alsace-Lorraine. The name was officially changed back to German Shepherd in 1977. 

After WWI, German Shepherds were used by police and armed forces because of their impressive display of courage, discipline, obedience and loyalty. By WWII, they had become the military’s first choice of dog to accompany soldiers in battle. Today, German Shepherds are still widely used by police and armed forces for bomb and drug detection, tracking and search and rescue missions. 

The breed was first recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1908.

Personality Traits

I’d like to start off by mentioning that every dog is different and unique. Growing up, my family and I had a border collie. Collies are known to be extremely active and high-strung, but Tessa was the complete opposite. She was very laid back and docile. My description is based on typical traits and behaviors commonly seen in the breed.  

German Shepherds are often seen standing alongside police officers and soldiers in dangerous situations, which is proof of their intelligence, courageousness, loyalty, strength and agility. For this reason, German Shepherds are quite often portrayed in the media as dangerous. In the wrong hands, they have the potential to be dangerous due to their size, strength and territorial behavior. This is true of all dog breeds, small or large; however since smaller dogs are typically easier to handle when out of control and their bite injuries are less severe, they are viewed as less-threatening. German Shepherds that receive proper training, socialization and love evolve into well-rounded, tolerant dogs, less likely to be reactive. In fact, they are the second most popular household breed in the United States because of their overall good temperament. 

German Shepherds are a great choice of companion dogs for those who are willing and able to set aside time to meet their training, socialization and exercise needs. They are very intelligent, adaptable dogs that excel quickly at obedience and skill training. Since they were bred as task-oriented working dogs they are likely to get bored and frustrated without enough mental and physical stimulation, which can result in destructive behaviors. German Shepherds have moderate to high exercise requirements and would do well with those who live an active lifestyle. German Shepherds are not an ideal breed for apartment living because of their size and exercise requirements, however, they can adapt as long as they receive frequent exercise and mental stimulation.

German Shepherds are known to be standoffish around strangers and unfamiliar dogs, however they are EXTREMELY loyal, protective and loving to their family. Once you’ve earned their trust, there’s nothing they won’t do to protect their loved ones. For this reason, along with their incredible ability to listen, learn and obey, they are considered one of the best guard dogs. Contrary to popular belief, they deeply desire connection and want to bond with their loved ones. 

German Shepherds make great family dogs, and tend to be good around children because of their protective loving nature. With that being said, I firmly believe infants and small children should never be left unsupervised around animals for the safety of them both. It’s important to teach children from an early age how to be gentle around animals. I once read about a labrador retriever, known to be one of the most laid back, tolerant breeds biting a child’s face. The child was playing around unsupervised and aggressively yanked on the dog’s ears. It turns out that the dog had an awfully painful ear infection, which may have triggered this act of aggression. In my opinion, this situation could have been avoided if the child had been supervised. 

I’d like to leave off mentioning that while German Shepherds are mainly known for their high-level of intelligence and work ethic, they are also extremely fun-loving, playful and even downright silly.

Interesting Facts

Floppy or Pointy?

I’m sure many people are aware of a German Shepherd’s super adorable and naturally big pointy upright ears. What you may not have known is that German Shepherds are born with floppy ears. The position of their ears changes when they are around 4 months old.

 Famous German Shepherds of the Early 1900s

A German Shepherd named Etzel von Oeringen, better known as Strongheart was one of the first German Shepherds who rose to fame. Originally trained as a police dog in Germany, the film director Laurence Trimble found him and brought him back to the United States to star in his movies. In 1924, Strongheart appeared in his first movie called the “The Love Master.”  Rin Tin Tin, another famous German Shepherd, starred in the American western television series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” beginning in the 1950s. The show was about an orphan boy and his German Shepherd who were raised by U.S. soldiers in the late 1800s during the Indian wars. 

German Shepherd -> Smarter than Your Honor Student, Just Kidding, but Close!

You’ve probably learned by now that German Shepherds are extremely intelligent. In Stanley Coren’s scientific based book titled “Intelligence of Dogs,” German Shepherds ranked 3rd for intelligence out of 138 breeds. It takes them less than five repetitions to learn a command, and they obey the commands more than 95% of the time. 

7 Week Old German Shepherd

Health Concerns/Conditions

German Shepherds, like all dog breeds, are predisposed to certain health conditions. Before breeding, German Shepherds should be screened by veterinary professionals for known hereditary health conditions, including degenerative myelopathy, as well as elbow and hip dysplasia.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a multifactorial joint disease. It causes an abnormal development of the hip joint resulting in a loose fit between the head of the femur and the pelvic socket, which is known as joint laxity. This developmental abnormality causes progressive degenerative changes to the joint. Clinical symptoms range from mild to severe, and are typically noticed around 1-2 years of age.

Symptoms include…

  • reduced range of motion
  • stiffness
  • pain
  • lameness
  • limping or “bunny-hopping”
  • difficulty or reluctance to rise, jump, walk, run or climb up stairs
  • muscle atrophy 
Muscle Atrophy

Hip dysplasia is diagnosed based on x-rays, clinical symptoms and history. There are medical and surgical treatment options available. Medical treatment often includes: exercise restriction, weight management, anti-inflammatory medication, glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, joint fluid modifiers and physical therapy. There are several different types of surgery used to correct hip dysplasia, however the most common are hip replacement surgery and a femoral head osteotomy (FHO). A total hip replacement surgery involves removing and replacing the ball and socket with implants. A femoral head osteotomy removes the head of the femur leaving the pelvic socket empty. With time, scar tissue forms between the socket and the femur providing cushion and creating what is known as a “false joint.”

Bilateral Hip Dysplasia
Artificial Hip Replacement on Radiograph
Artificial Hip Replacement

There are screening tests available for hip dysplasia, including the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) test and the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP) test. Specific X-rays are performed by a veterinarian and sent out for evaluation and certification. Below is a list of the pros and cons between the two.

PennHIPP

Verification certification required? Yes

Anesthesia required? Yes

Cost to client: $200-$400

Earliest age of evaluation (for certified results): 16 weeks

Radiographs required? 3

Scoring system: Quantitative- Calculated Distraction Index 0-1 with 0 being the best, evaluated by trained professional

Recognized by the AKC: No

Year founded: 1993

OFA

Verification certification required? No

Anesthesia required? No

Cost to client: $35 + radiograph, veterinarian fees

Earliest age of evaluation (for certified results): 2 years

Radiographs required? 1

Scoring system: Qualitative – 7 point system from excellent to severe, based on evaluation of three independent radiologists 

Recognized by the AKC: Yes 

Year founded: 1966

Pannus

Pannus is a hereditary, immune-mediated progressive eye disease most commonly seen in German Shepherds. While pannus is a genetic disease, it is believed to be initiated by ultraviolet radiation. Blood vessels and scar tissue invade the cornea, at first appearing pink followed by a dark brown, blackish pigment. Depending on the severity, this dark pigmentation of the cornea results in decreased vision or complete blindness. The third eyelid may appear red, thick and inflamed. A mucoid discharge may also be noted.

There is no cure for pannus, however, treatment can prevent progression of the disease and in some cases, reverse some chronic changes. Treatment involves medicated anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive eye drops, including prednisolone, dexamethasone and cyclosporine. Antibiotics may be utilized if a secondary infection is present. Decreasing exposure to ultraviolet radiation is thought to help control progressive long-term changes.

For dogs with eye conditions not responding to treatment, visiting a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist is recommended. In some cases, surgery may be elected to remove scar tissue and restore vision. For most eye related conditions, I recommended seeing a board certified ophthalmologist as they are more familiar with pathologies of the eye and treatment options. 

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)

Degenerative myelopathy is a debilitating inherited neurologic disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans. It results from degeneration of white matter in the spinal cord, which contains nerve fibers that transmit signals from the brain to the limbs and vice versa. Degeneration of the white matter causes demyelination of nerve fibers thus decreasing conduction speed and efficiency of signals, as well as a decrease in the number of fibers. This results in a partial or complete loss of communication. Onset of symptoms typically occur between the ages of 8 and 12. The first signs of DM include: weakness, buckling, loss of coordination or wobbling (ataxia) and muscle wasting. As the disease progresses, complete paralysis of hind limbs followed by urinary and fecal incontinence occur. While extremely debilitating, the disease is not painful. The time between onset of symptoms and complete hind limb paralysis ranges from 6 months to 2 years. 

Degenerative myelopathy is diagnosed through the process of elimination of other neurologic diseases using diagnostic tests like myelography and MRI. Definitive diagnosis can only be confirmed through the microscopic evaluation of the spinal cord post-mortem. Unfortunately, there is no cure or treatment for DM, instead the goal is to make the patient as comfortable as possible by providing quality nursing care. Ways to increase quality of life include: physical rehabilitation, preventing pressure sores, treating urinary infections, as well as increasing their mobility by providing them with doggy wheelchairs. 

German Shepherd with DM

Bloat and Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus

Gastric dilatation, more commonly known as bloat, can progress to a life-threatening condition called gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). Large, deep-chested dogs are most at risk, although it can occur in small breeds too. Gastric dilation (bloat) occurs when the stomach distends and fills with gas. In some cases, the distended gas-filled stomach twists, not only preventing outflow of fluid and food from the stomach, but also cutting off circulation to the heart, stomach and spleen. A dog with GDV will die without emergency surgery. Timing is crucial, the longer the volvulus is present, the poorer the prognosis due to tissue damage. Surgery is required to return the stomach to the normal position, remove any dead (necrotic) tissue and prevent recurrence. Typically, gastric decompression and IV fluids help stabilize the patient in preparation for anesthesia. Following stabilization, a gastropexy is typically performed to return the stomach to its correct position as well as tacking it to the abdominal wall to prevent recurrence. Mortality rate ranges between 15 to 38% depending on severity of damage. 

The cause of GDV is not fully understood, but risk factors that have been associated with this condition include: 

  1. Conformation- large, deep chested breeds (increased chest depth to width ratio)
  2. Eating Schedule – one large meal/day
  3. Age – older = increased risk
  4. Genetics – first degree relatives 

Large breed dogs with a high incidence of GDV are recommended to eat frequent small meals throughout the day. Additionally, tacking procedures can be performed for higher risk dogs as a preventative measure.

Symptoms include:

  • unable to sit or lie down
  • nervous pacing
  • unproductive retching
  • round, distended abdomen
  • whining
  • difficulty breathing
  • increased salivation (hypersalivation)
  • rapid heart rate
  • restlessness
Dog with bloat on radiograph

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) can be congenital (present since birth), hereditary or acquired due to infection, inflammation or injury to the pancreas. This condition results from inability to release pancreatic enzymes into the small intestine that help digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates, resulting in malabsorption of nutrients. Symptoms include: weight loss despite normal or increased appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, yellowish-gray feces, pica (eating inedible objects) and poor coat condition. It’s diagnosed via blood work, +/- a fecal sample. Treatment is typically life-long and involves dietary changes and pancreatic enzyme replacement. Cobalamin (B12) supplementation may be recommended if levels are low, as well as tylosin, an antibiotic if there’s indication of overgrowth of gut bacteria.

Weight Loss due to Malabsorption

Perianal Fistulas (PF)

Perianal fistulas are tunnels that form between the skin and tissue surrounding the anus, typically associated with infection. These tunnel-like formations appear as inflamed, red openings oozing with pus, +/- blood. It’s a very painful condition. Symptoms include: straining to defecate, excessively licking of the perianal region, reluctance to sit, aggression, depression, anorexia and guarding the region. Treatment includes immune-modulating medications including: topical tacrolimus and oral cyclosporine, as well as antibiotics to treat secondary infections. Hair around the anus should be continuously clipped to improve ventilation and healing. Surgery is reserved as a last resort option as there is a high risk of potential complications occurring.

Panosteitis

Panosteitis, more commonly referred to as “growing pains,”is a multifactorial condition with both genetic and environmental components, that results from inflammation of the periosteum, the outer surface of a bone. There’s a higher incidence of panosteitis in German Shepherd, although it’s been seen in other large breed dogs too. It’s a painful condition that causes lameness and tends to occur suddenly without explanation. Clinical symptoms include: lameness, pain, guarding the leg, decreased appetite or anorexia and lethargy. Symptoms may come and go because of its cyclical nature. Panosteitis is self-limiting and will eventually resolve on its own, however, anti-inflammatory medications can be prescribed as needed to help alleviate pain. 

The most common bone affected is the humerus, however it can also affect the femur, radius, tibia and fibula

German Shepherd Rescues

German Shepherd Dog Club of America 

All Shepherd Rescue – Maryland 

German Shepherd Rescue of NY

BrightStar German Shepherd Rescue – New York

Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue – Maryland, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware

German Shepherd Rescue & Adoptions – North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia 

Southeast German Shepherd Rescue – North Carolina and Virginia 

Shenandoah Shepherd Rescue – Northeast and Southeast

Big Cypress German Shepherd Rescue – Florida 

Heartland German Shepherd Rescue – Omaha-Lincoln, Nebraska area

Missouri German Shepherd Rescue 

Front Range German Shepherd Rescue – Colorado 

German Shepherd Rescue of Central Texas

S.H.A.R.E. German Shepherd Help and Rescue – Florida

Southwest Florida German Shepherd Rescue 

Saving Paws Rescue – Arizona 

German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County 

Greater California German Shepherd Rescue – Modesto, Merced, Greater Sacramento, and South Lake Tahoe, and occasionally parts of the North and East SF Bay area

Meet ATC Pet Talk's German Shepherd Friends

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