German Shepherd Dog – A good Shepherd

Breed facts: Pastoral Group

In association with the Kennel Club, Nick Mays provides you with all you need to know about the German Shepherd Dog. Could you be an ideal owner for one of these loving, loyal and intelligent canines – read on to find out!

The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) is probably one of the most easily recognised and iconic dog breeds in the world. Here in the UK, many people would probably identify one as an ‘Alsatian’ or a ‘police dog’. It was, as its name suggests, developed as a herding dog and is classified as a pastoral breed by the Kennel Club (KC).

German Shepherd Dogs
German Shepherd Dogs

It may come as a surprise to learn that the GSD is a relatively young breed. It was developed in the latter part of the 19th century, mainly by working shepherds who selected the best of different ‘wolf-like’ herding dogs to shape a breed that was best suited to its task of herding and protecting sheep and cattle. In April 1899, Captain Max Von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry officer and former student of the Berlin Veterinary College, was one of the breeders engaged in working towards producing the best working dog. He attended a dog show in April of that year and was struck by an extremely handsome dog named Hektor Linksrhein, bred from several generations of top working and herding dogs.
Von Stephanitz was so taken with Hektor’s strength, physique and characteristics of intelligence and obedience that he bought him on the spot from his breeder (whose name is lost to history) and changed his name to Horand von Grafrath. Horand became the first dog to be registered with Von Stephanitz’s newly founded breed society, Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog), and is therefore known as the first Deutscher Schäferhund or German Shepherd Dog. This special dog was the founder of the original GSD lines, fathering many hundreds of puppies in his extremely busy lifetime.
GSDs were first imported into the UK in 1904 and quickly gained popularity. After the First World War (1914-1918), many British soldiers returning to the UK brought ‘true’ German GSDs back with them from Europe and this swelled the numbers here. However, anti-German sentiment at the time led to the breed becoming known in the UK as the ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’. The Kennel Club recognised the breed as such in 1919 and in that year a total of 54 ‘Alsatians’ were registered. The ‘Wolf Dog’ part of the name was dropped and by the early 1930s, over 8,000 per year were registered. The breed was also popular in the USA, and canine film stars such as Rin Tin Tin popularised the breed further.

GSD’s today
In 1977, the UK Kennel Club changed the breed’s name to its original title of German Shepherd Dog (Alsatian) and in the late 1990s moved it from the Working Group to the Pastoral Group. The GSD remains extremely popular and ranks fourth in the list of Top 20 breeds in the UK in 2008 with 11,903 dogs being registered in that year. There is a great deal of controversy over the modern GSD’s appearance: some exhibitors favour the sloping back and lower hind legs which have been criticised in recent years as being far too extreme and not good for the dog, giving rise to conditions such as hip dysplasia. Others favour the straighter back and even-sized legs, more in line with the original working dog developed in Germany.

Family life
If trained and socialised correctly, a GSD is an ideal family pet and is intensely loyal to his family pack. These dogs can, however, sometimes become slightly overprotective of their territory so, again, firm training is essential to let them know that the postman is not an intruder. They are physically strong dogs, but their reputation as being aggressive is often over-stated in lurid media stories about dog attacks. A GSD is far more likely to knock someone over by bounding happily in greeting at them rather than leaping to bring them down. As with any canine breed or type, children should not be left unsupervised with a dog for safety’s sake.

Temperament & training
GSDs are highly intelligent and get bored easily. They are also extremely active so need to be kept fit in body and mind. Quick to learn, they enjoy carrying out quite detailed instruction and like nothing more than to be ‘working’ – even in fun – and being engaged in brainstretching tasks. They are ideal dogs for an energetic family and can outrun their owners, being possessed of a keen stamina. Being so intelligent and physically strong, they do need firm but fair consistent training from their owners or from professional trainers. Their training can be an ongoing activity all their lives. GSDs need to be socialised with people and other dogs/ animals from an early age, but swiftly pick this up and can be the most obedient and wellbehaved of dogs if properly and consistently trained. GSDs are often used as people-assistance dogs and are the most popular breed of guide dog in America and rank fourth in this field in the UK.
Exercise Care should be taken not to over-exercise GSDs until they are physically mature, which can take up to three years. Ask your breeder for advice on this, as some lines take longer to mature than others. Leaping around and too much galloping about can put undue stress on still-growing bones, joints and ligaments, thus predisposing the dog to problems associated with these areas in later life. Once fully mature though, GSDs enjoy – and excel at – all sorts of activities such as agility, heelwork to music, working trials and obedience. Being the ultimate all-round dog with top-class tracking abilities, the breed is a great favourite with security forces all over the world, such as the police and military, as well as with search and rescue associations. l

Where to get a GSD puppy ?
It is always best to contact a breed club (see ‘Useful Contacts’ on page 40) to enquire whether any members have puppies in your area. If you go to a breeder recommended by the Club, you can meet the puppies with their mother – which is always recommended – and ask advice on selecting the ideal puppy for you from experts within the breed. It’s also useful to join a breed club, even if you don’t want to show your GSD, as you will maintain contact with other owners and there will always be an experienced owner, or breeder, on hand to ask for help if you encounter any problems with your dog, such as in feeding, training and general care. Rescue GSDs There is a GSD Dog Rescue service. Young dogs that have proved too much effort for their owners can be found here, along with older dogs whose owners cannot keep them for whatever reason. Mature dogs will invariably make great pets, being already trained and used to people, and will quickly adapt to their new owners, as they crave human company. The Breed Rescue officers will be able to match you with the right dog. For more information, contact the rescue service at or tel. 01568 797957.


  • Medium to large size
  • Needs spacious accommodation
  • Prefers outdoor life
  • Requires plenty of stimulation
  • Athletic & active
  • Good tempered
  • Loves people & children
  • Ideal family dog
  • Intelligent & quick to learn
  • Eager to please
  • Excellent watch/guard dog
  • Highly trainable
  • Loving & loyal
  • Town or country living
  • Agile all-rounder
  • High exercise requirement
  • Medium-maintenance coat
  • 5 GSD facts
    Height & weight
    Ideal height (at withers): dogs: 60-66cm (24-26ins); bitches: 55-60cm (22-24ins). 2.5cms (1in) either above or below ideal permissible. Ideal weight: dogs 30-40kgs (66-88lbs); bitches 22-32kgs (48-70lbs).
    GSDs have broad tastes in food and thrive on a good, standard dog food diet. They are equally happy with proprietary dog food as they are with natural foods such as meat and fish, and enjoy gnawing on a raw, meaty bone. However, rich and fatty foods should be avoided as some dogs can suffer from pancreatic problems as a result of overfeeding such foods. Avoid exercise for at least an hour before and after feeding to help avoid bloat.
    GSDs have dense fur which comprises a double coat (featuring an outer coat, which sheds and renews itself all year round, coupled with a thick undercoat). They don’t generally need a lot of grooming from their owners: a regular brush down with a slicker brush tends to remove all the dead hair and keep the coat nice and glossy, while a wipe down with a clean towel after they’ve been charging through muddy fields will generally suffice. Sometimes, though, a good bath will be required. Long-haired GSDs do, however, require a lot of grooming to keep the coat free from tangles and knots and to remove shed hair.
    The GSD is generally a healthy and robust breed, but hip dysplasia is a hereditary defect in some lines that can sometimes surface, as can Von Willebrand’s disease (VWD: haemophilia) in male dogs. It is important, therefore, to buy a puppy from a breeder who has ensured that both parents have been hip scored and that the sire – and any male puppies in the litter – have been tested to be free of VWD. Other problems (many of which are also common to other breeds of pedigree dog) have been identified in some GSDs, including anal furunculosis (perianal fistulas), pannus (corneal inflammation), epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems (such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and bloat), and, occasionally, thyroid deficiency. Good breeders are working hard towards eradicating health problems in the breed. Further information on GSD health problems can be obtained from breed clubs (see ‘Useful contacts’ on page 40 or the GSD Information Group at (tel. 01277 220933).
    The average lifespan of the GSD is around 11 years, although individuals have been known to reach their mid-teens in good health.

    KENNEL CLUB BREED STANDARD Thinking of getting a GSD? Here’s what to look out for:
    A breed standard is the guideline which describes the ideal characteristics, temperament and appearance of a breed and ensures that the breed is fit for function. Absolute soundness is essential. Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Kennel Club website for details of any such current issues. If a feature or quality is desirable it should only be present in the right measure. To view photos of this breed please visit the Kennel Club Picture Library ( The GSD breed standard is due to be reviewed in June 2009 and you can check this out at

    Slightly long in comparison to height; of powerful, well-muscled build with weather-resistant coat. Relation between height, length, position and structure of fore and hindquarters (angulation) producing far-reaching, enduring gait. Clear definition of masculinity and femininity essential, and working ability never sacrificed for mere beauty.

    Versatile working dog, balanced and free from exaggeration. Attentive, alert, resilient and tireless with keen scenting ability.

    Steady of nerve, loyal, selfassured, courageous and tractable. Never nervous, over-aggressive or shy.

    Head & skull
    Proportionate in size to body, never coarse, too fine or long. Clean cut; fairly broad between ears. Forehead slightly domed; little or no trace of central furrow. Cheeks forming softly rounded curve, never protruding. Skull from ears to bridge of nose tapering gradually and evenly, blending without a too pronounced stop into a wedgeshaped powerful muzzle. Skull approximately 50 per cent of overall length of head. Width of skull corresponding approximately to length, in males slightly greater, in females slightly less. Muzzle strong, lips firm, clean and closing tightly. Top of muzzle straight, almost parallel to forehead. Short, blunt, weak, pointed or over-long muzzle undesirable.

    Medium-sized, almondshaped, never protruding. Dark brown preferred, lighter shade permissible, provided expression good and general harmony of head not destroyed. Expression lively, intelligent and self-assured.

    Medium-sized, firm in texture, broad at base, set high, carried erect, almost parallel, never pulled inwards or tipped, tapering to a point, open at front. Never hanging. Folding back during movement is permissible.

    Jaws strongly developed. With a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite (upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws). Teeth healthy and strong. Full dentition desirable.

    Fairly long, strong, with well developed muscles, free from throatiness. Carried at a 45 degree angle to horizontal, raised when excited, lowered at fast trot.

    Shoulder blade and upper arms are equal in length, well muscled and firmly attached to the body. Shoulder blades set obliquely (approximately 45 degrees) laid flat to body. Upper arm strong, well muscled, joining shoulder blade at approximately 90 degrees. Seen from all sides, the forearms are straight and, seen from the front, absolutely parallel. Bone oval rather than round. The elbows must turn neither in nor out while standing or moving. Pasterns firm, supple, with a slight forward slope. An overlong, weak pastern, which would affect a dog’s working ability is to be heavily penalised. Length of foreleg slightly exceeds the depth of chest.

    Length measured from point of shoulder to point of buttock, slightly exceeding height at withers. Correct ratio 10 to nine or eight and a half. Undersized dogs, stunted growth, highlegged dogs, those too heavy or too light in build, overloaded fronts, too short overall appearance, any feature detracting from reach or endurance of gait, undesirable. Chest deep (45-48 per cent of height at shoulder), not too broad, brisket long, well developed. Ribs well formed and long; neither barrelshaped nor too flat; allowing free movement of elbows when gaiting. Relatively short loin. Belly firm, only slightly drawn up. Back between withers and croup, straight, strongly developed, not too long. Overall length achieved by correct angle of well laid shoulders, correct length of croup and hindquarters. The topline runs without any visible break from the set on of the neck, over the well defined withers, falling away slightly in a straight line to the gently sloping croup. The back is firm, strong and well muscled. Loin broad, strong, well muscled. Weak, soft and roach backs undesirable and should be heavily penalised. Croup slightly sloping and without any break in the topline, merges imperceptibly with the set on of the tail. Short, steep or flat croups highly undesirable. Male animals should have two apparently normal testicles fully descended into the scrotum.

    Overall strong, broad and well muscled, enabling effortless forward propulsion. Upper and lower thigh are approximately of equal length. Hind angulation sufficient if imaginary line dropped from point of buttocks cuts through lower thigh just in front of hock, continuing down slightly in front of hind feet. Angulations corresponding approximately with front angulation, without over-angulation. Seen from rear, the hind legs are straight and parallel to each other. The hocks are strong and firm. The rear pasterns are vertical. Any tendency towards overangulation of hindquarters, weak hocks, cow hocks or sickle hooks, is to be heavily penalised as this reduces firmness and endurance in movement.

    Rounded toes well closed and arched. Pads well cushioned and durable. Nails short, strong and dark in colour.

    Bushy-haired, reaches at least to hock – ideal length reaching to middle of metatarsus. At rest tail hangs in slight sabre-like curve; when moving raised and curve increased, ideally never above level of back. Short, rolled, curled, generally carried badly or stumpy from birth, undesirable.

    Gait & movement
    Sequence of step follows diagonal pattern, moving foreleg and opposite hind leg forward simultaneously; hind foot thrust forward to midpoint of body and having equally long reach with forefeet without any noticeable change in backline. Absolute soundness of movement essential.

    Outer coat consisting of straight, hard, close-lying hair as dense as possible; thick undercoat. Hair on head, ears, front of legs, paws and toes short; on back, longer and thicker; in some males forming slight ruff. Hair longer on back of legs as far down as pasterns and stifles and forming fairly thick trousers on hindquarters. No hard and fast rule for length of hair; mole-type coats undesirable.

    Black or black saddle with tan, or gold to light grey markings. All black, all grey, with lighter or brown markings referred to as sables. Nose black. Light markings on chest or very pale colour on inside of legs permissible but undesirable, as are whitish nails, redtipped tails or wishy-washy faded colours defined as lacking in pigmentation. Blues, livers, albinos, whites and near whites highly undesirable. Undercoat, except in all black dogs, usually grey or fawn. Colour in itself is of secondary importance having no effect on character or fitness for work. Final colour of a young dog only ascertained when outer coat has developed.

    Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog.

    Useful contacts
    German Shepherd Dog Breed Council of Great Britain Mrs S Rankin (secretary), tel. 01708 342194;
    The British Association for German Shepherd Dogs Mrs Doreen Little (secretary), tel. 0121 353 9872;

    Thanks! Special thanks to Sheila Rankin and the German Shepherd Dog Breed Council, also to Sue Belfield and Pauline Jackson for information provided for this article.