German Shepherd Dogs: Your “Owner’s Manual”
If you have a German Shepherd (or if you are thinking of owning one) then this is the resource for you! Read on to learn more about these incredible dogs, along with a useful array of tips and facts you will need to give your German Shepherd the care it deserves.
Meet the German Shepherd Dog!
The German Shepherd dog is one of the most recognisable and popular breeds in the world today. Loyal, smart, athletic and with a great work ethic, these dogs may work alongside police officers and military personnel, serve as the dedicated companions to blind and disabled persons, and happily take their places as faithful family members.
German Shepherd Dog Breed History
German Shepherd dogs first emerged as a distinct breed in Germany thanks to the efforts of Captain Max von Stephanitz. Though the breed today is frequently associated with police, military and security work, the original intent of von Stephanitz and his fellow breeders was to develop an ideal herding dog. In dog shows, the German Shepherd Dog is included in the herding group along with breeds like Border Collies, Pembroke Welsh Corgis and Old English Sheepdogs.
The breed first gained popularity outside Germany when soldiers returning from WWI brought home stories of these remarkable dogs, 48,000 of which were enlisted in the German Army during the Great War. (Dogs of various breeds served at the sides of soldiers of all nations). For a while immediately after the war, British owners referred to the dogs as Alsations, but once negative associations faded, the breed returned to its original name, German Shepherd.
The German Shepherd Dog in Australia
The first German Shepherd Dogs officially arrived in Australia in 1923 (though a few dogs landed in Western Australia as early as 1904). New arrivals were cut off when imports of the breed were banned in 1929. Despite the fact the ban lasted until 1974, dedicated breeders in Australia kept the breed going until fresh bloodlines were once again introduced. Today, the German Shepherd Dog Council of Australia continues to work toward improving the breed, which remains one of the most popular breeds being registered in the country today.
A powerful, well-muscled dog, the German Shepherd exudes intelligence, nobility, and confidence. Medium-sized, the body is slightly longer than it is tall with males reaching 60-65 cm (24-26 inches) at the shoulder blade with an average weight of 35 kilograms (77 lbs) and females being slightly smaller at 56-60 cm (22-24 inches) tall and weighing an average of 25 kilograms (55 lbs).
Ears are upright and open toward the front when the dog is alert and this ear carriage contributes to the distinctive expression of keen intelligence German Shepherds are known for.
In 2012, two types of coat were recognised - the Stock Coat and the Long Coat. The two types of German Shepherd dog should not be interbred. The traditional Stock Coat is made up of a thick, dense undercoat with longer, straight hairs making up the outer coat.
Typically, a German Shepherd’s coat colour is black and tan with black, gold or light grey markings. The nose must be black. White coats are not permitted.
A working dog originally bred for herding, the German Shepherd should be able to cover long distances with minimal effort. A ground-covering trot is smooth, rhythmic and should appear effortless. Powerful hindquarters drive the dog forward and a dog with good confirmation will maintain a firm, level back at the trot with the forelegs swinging straight through from the shoulder joint.
The temperament of the German Shepherd dog has been described as initially aloof or distant and it’s true that it can take a GSD a bit of time to warm up to a person. Once a bond has formed, though, it’s unshakable. Few breeds match the GSD for their loyalty. Even though GSDs are often trained for security and guard dog duties, a dog that’s openly aggressive or hostile is unacceptable. A well adjusted GSD is confident and self-assured and calmly allows someone to approach. Timidity is as serious a fault as being too aggressive.
German Shepherd Puppies
Acquiring a purebred GSD puppy may take some time. Reputable breeders do not produce thousands of puppies each year. In the same way that you should approach breeders with a list of questions, be prepared to answer a few yourself. A good breeder will be concerned about where each of their puppies is placed. Expect to answer questions about your home, family, and lifestyle as well as what you expect from your dog. Please don’t be tempted to purchase a purebred puppy from a pet store. Puppies in pet stores generally come from puppy mills where dogs are often not treated well, are bred too young and too often, and where genetic faults are not carefully monitored.
GSD puppies take a long time to grow up, not reaching their full size until beyond their second birthday. Be prepared to potentially have to deal with powerful jaws chewing on your furniture for many months. Your responsibility as an owner is significant in a young dog’s life. There is a great deal to be done in terms of providing consistent, firm (but kind) guidance and leadership as you teach your dog how to be an excellent citizen. This can be a tricky balancing act as you need to build your young dog’s confidence without allowing the dog to display signs of dominance or aggression.
Training Your German Shepherd Puppy
It’s a good idea to enlist the help of a knowledgeable trainer, to get involved with a local GSD fanciers group, and/or enrol your puppy in socialisation classes. Basic obedience training as your dog gets a little older is essential. A well-trained dog is a happy dog, one that is a lot less likely to get into trouble than one who is left to its own devices.
Raised around children, GSD puppies learn tolerance and acceptance but it’s very important to supervise your little ones (of both species). Children need to be taught how to behave around your dog just as much as your puppy needs to learn what’s acceptable when dealing with children.
German Shepherds Need Regular Exercise
While your GSD will make a wonderful family dog, a loyal and loving companion full of life and fun, this breed does best in an environment that supports both physical and mental engagement. Long walks, hikes, or jogs will help keep your German Shepherd happy and healthy. A fenced backyard and a second energetic dog for company will also help prevent your GSD from developing boredom-associated problems like chewing.
Advanced Training for Your German Shepherd
These dogs are smart and benefit from ongoing mental stimulation. Their drive to work and ability to learn quickly make them excellent dogs for agility and advanced obedience work. They have fantastic noses (you don’t need to be around one long to notice how they lead with their snouts!) and are wonderful dogs to use in tracking. Training a tracking dog can be a fabulous way to deepen your bond with your dog, particularly if you enjoy spending time in rough terrain outdoors. Having a fully trained tracking dog may also enable you to participate in search and rescue groups, which can be a deeply rewarding experience for both you and your dog.
IPO/Schutzhund: Great for Your Dog’s Mind and Body
Given the particular strengths of the GSD, it’s no wonder these dogs are often used in police work, as guard dogs, as search and rescue dogs, seeing eye dogs, in the military and as drug-sniffing dogs. If you’d like to fully explore some of the kinds of skills used by the dogs in these various disciplines, consider getting involved with IPO training. IPO stands for International Prufungsordnung, sometimes also called Schutzhund and is a comprehensive type of examination that tests all the facets of a dog’s potential to work with their handler under all kinds of conditions.
There are three phases in an IPO examination and dogs and handlers must pass all three in order to earn a working dog title. There are three levels of IPO titles, which the dog can begin to work toward after the age of 18 months. The tracking test requires the dog to methodically work on following the scent of an individual who has laid down a track, along the way ‘dropping’ items. The dog must find these items and indicate this to the handler before the test continues. An obedience test includes a variety of exercises which get progressively more challenging as the levels progress. Happy, eager dogs that are clearly in tune with the handler show the dog is willing and able to work closely with his or her person. The protection phase of the test examines not only the dog’s courage but also how well the dog can be controlled. Even though the dog may be finding a decoy person, barking, grabbing on to restrain the decoy or defending against an attack, at any moment the dog must stop what it’s doing in response to the handler’s command.
Even though the original intent of the Schutzhund/IPO was to ensure working dogs were suitable for breeding, many GSD owners love the challenges and rewards of working through the training levels with their dogs. Having a focus and a series of mental challenges is really good for your German Shepherd dog and can help build confidence while teaching self-control and appropriate expression of aggression. While a GSD will naturally guard your family, it’s equally important that the dog is always responsive and under your control so when you introduce a friend the dog is quiet, respectful and responsive, even on a first encounter.
Is a German Shepherd Dog Right For You?
If you would like a loyal, energetic, intelligent dog that’s always up for an adventure and who will be able to keep up with you on your runs and hikes, then a GSD is an excellent choice. If you love the idea of training your dog in obedience, agility, or Schutzhund/IPO, you won’t find many breeds better suited to eagerly embracing whatever challenges you set. On the other hand, if you are a couch potato and unwilling to get out and provide your dog with the exercise it needs, a GSD is probably not the best choice for you.
That lovely, thick coat of a GSD does have a down side. GSDs shed - a lot. Though the shedding is worse during the spring when they lose their thick winter coats, expect to find hair everywhere all year round. For those with allergies, this may not be the best choice of breed.
What About Health Problems?
Perhaps the best known genetic condition that can be found in German Shepherds is hip dysplasia (though, any breed can be affected). Working with a reputable breeder will help reduce your chances of winding up with a dog that develops hip (or elbow) dysplasia, but it’s not a guarantee. X-rays are the only way to know for sure if your dog has the condition. Even if your dog has a predisposition for developing joint problems, there’s plenty you can do to reduce the risk of problems. Maintaining an ideal weight, monitoring your puppy’s rate of weight gain, providing a high quality diet and making sure your dog has an appropriate exercise routine can all help prevent or alleviate symptoms.
Maintaining Excellent Health
A well-balanced, complete diet based on your dog’s age and activity level is critical in terms of supporting your dog’s optimal health. A dog’s diet is directly related to its vitality and we recommend feeding a raw food diet like the one formulated by Rawmate. Not only is a raw diet palatable (yes, dogs love food prepared this way), a properly prepared raw meal contains all the essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and roughage in the correct balance your dog needs to thrive. While the contents need to be appropriate for your dog’s digestive system, the quantity you feed is just as important so your dog has enough energy to stay active and engaged without packing on any unnecessary weight.
For more information on what should be included in a complete and well-balanced naturally raw diet, have look at our article on Raw Pet Dinners. If you have any questions about German Shepherd dogs, please get in touch!