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There is a reason German shepherds are commonly seen serving the public as K-9 officers or dedicated members of search-and-rescue teams. The stories of their resolute bravery are well-known, from their military service to their rescue efforts at the World Trade Center.
“German shepherds are bred to work and that is still true,” says Nicole Ellis, certified professional dog trainer and pet lifestyle expert with Rover. “They have the endurance and brain to work for hours and love it, one of the many reasons we see them in many working roles such as police K9s.”
The German shepherd dog (GSD) is one of the most loyal, intelligent and courageous dogs in the canine family. As a result, they can also be one of the toughest to bring home as a family companion.
While they can make caring and gentle family pets, they are fundamentally working dogs who need a purpose.
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Overview of German Shepherds
The GSD was originally developed as a working breed for herding, flock protection and farm work.
“It was developed from other German herding breeds, selecting for strength, intelligence, upright ears and a straight, low-carried tail,” says Dr. Jennifer Sperry, D.V.M., a veterinary advisor for Pets Plus Us, a pet insurance company in Canada.
According to the American Kennel Club, a German cavalry officer named Captain Max von Stephanitz took on the purpose of developing the ideal German herding dog. Breeders crossbred breeds from northern and central districts of Germany, resulting in the ancestor of today’s German shepherd.
“It is a dog that can work the farm herding sheep as well as work as police dog, guard dog, a disability assistance dog, border patrol dog, explosive detection dog, search-and-rescue dog, military warfare dog and companion animal dog,” says Charlotte Reed, pet care and lifestyle expert and host of The Pet Buzz, a nationally syndicated pet talk radio show.
Physical Characteristics of German Shepherds
On average, a male German shepherd can be between 24 and 26 inches tall, while a female German Shepherd can be between 22 and 24 inches tall.
As far as weight, they can grow quite big; males range from 65 to 90 pounds, and females range from 50 to 70 pounds.
According to the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, the breed is known for being strong, agile, well-muscled and giving the appearance of smooth curves and nobility.
German shepherds have a medium-length, double coat of fur, which is dense, straight and lies close to the body. Due to the double coat, German shepherds shed profusely once or twice a year, need a brushing every few days and an occasional bath.
The head is one of the most distinctive features of a German shepherd, with its noble and chiseled shape. The breed typically carries a composed, curious and eager expression in its almond-shaped brown eyes, awaiting instructions from its human.
German Shepherd Temperament and Personality Traits
German shepherds are naturally protective dogs.
“They are generally great family members and often get along great with kids and other animals,” Ellis says. “They have gained popularity due to their intelligence and how brave and confident they are.”
Positive Temperament Traits
German shepherds are intelligent. They are quick to learn new things and can excel in various training and working roles.
German shepherds are happiest when they have something to do. They have a very strong drive for work, thanks to breeding.
The GSD is well-known for its loyalty to family. They form strong bonds and are protective of family members, often going to great lengths to ensure the safety and well-being of their families.
German shepherds are famous for their roles as K9s, military dogs and search-and-rescue dogs thanks to their fearlessness and bravery. This quality also makes them excellent guard dogs.
GSDs have an exceptional sense of alertness, which is why they are popular as watchdogs. They are quick to notice changes in their environment and can keep watch for hours.
German shepherds possess a confident and composed demeanor. They handle new situations with ease and are not easily rattled.
Due to their high level of intelligence and eagerness to please their owners, German shepherds are highly obedient dogs. They respond well to training and commands.
The German shepherd is known for having high energy levels. They are active dogs that thrive on physical exercise and mental stimulation. This energy makes them great companions for outdoor activities, dog sports and exercise.
Don’t let the serious looks fool you. While they are protective, German shepherds also have a playful side. They enjoy interactive play with other dogs and family members, including adults and children.
German shepherds are highly adaptable dogs and thrive in various environments, from farms to bustling cities. Just be sure to provide mental and physical activity so they don’t become bored.
GSDs have a relatively low-maintenance coat, which is easy to groom. Because it’s a double coat, they do shed, so regular brushing is necessary to manage their shedding.
Negative Temperament Traits
If not properly socialized when they are young, the GSD can become aggressive to other pets and people, especially given their protective nature toward their family.
High prey drive
The GSD has a high prey drive, so they are often tempted to chase small animals (think: squirrels). This can be challenging on daily walks around the neighborhood, or even having them around small pets or livestock.
Because they are high energy working dogs, most German shepherds don’t do well if left alone all day with nothing to do. Without the proper outlet for their energy, the breed can start destroying furniture or stealing items in the house.
The German shepherd needs a lot of exercise—this breed won’t be happy with a walk around the block. Owners should be prepared for daily vigorous exercise or hire a dog walker. Poorly exercised dogs often become destructive.
Due to their double coats, German shepherds shed. Owners should consider a regular routine for washing and brushing and invest in a quality vacuum to pick up all the shedding hair.
“If an owner needs help with these behaviors it’s best to find a certified professional dog trainer that can work with your dog in person to help you both,” Ellis says.
How German Shepherds’ Temperament Evolves in Different Life Stages
The German shepherd goes through many growth stages in its lifetime. Both their health and their temperament are affected by a host of factors, including genetics, nutrition, socialization, training and the love and care they receive from their family.
As is the case with most dog breeds, the German shepherd evolves as it ages.
Puppyhood and Early Temperament
As a puppy, the GSD needs a careful and well-thought out plan for training, exercise and socialization.
“As puppies grow and mature, they must be introduced to a variety of new stimuli and situations,” Reed says. “They are eager to please, and bond strongly with their human family. However, they need guidance and reassurance from their family so that they can learn to navigate the world in a confident manner.”
German shepherds thrive on exercise, training and praise.
“Dogs without the benefit of mental and physical stimulation can become anxious, fearful or destructive,” Reed adds.
During puppyhood, the German shepherd experiences the “fear period,” notes Lorna Winter, co-founder and head of program at Zigzag, a puppy training app for new dog owners.
“This is where puppies learn to interpret hazards—for example, children, loud noises or unfamiliar surfaces or items,” Winter says. “It’s very important to socialize them early so you don’t run into any trouble later.”
Winter adds that while the breed tends to form a strong bond with one person, it takes a village to raise a dog.
“Try your best to get the whole family involved upfront during training,” she says.
Adulthood and Mature Temperament
Similar to humans, dogs also experience a period of adolescence which can start as early as 5 to 6 months, and last up to 12 to 24 months.
“After around 12 months of age, they should start to calm down as they will be moving toward adulthood,” Winter says. “They will still continue to have some of those zoomie type moments until they are about 2 years old, though not to the extent it was before.”
Winter adds that it’s crucial during adolescence to practice consistency in training, as it will ensure a well-behaved dog in adulthood.
“Well trained adults are confident, energetic and have a strong drive to work,” Sperry says. “Ongoing training and a ‘job’ like agility, obedience trials, regular hiking or protection sports help GSDs to get the physical and mental stimulation they need to relax with their family at home.”
Senior Years and Changing Temperament
Once German shepherds reach their golden years, they often require less physical exercise, but still require mental stimulation.
“Arthritis and degenerative neurological conditions can affect the comfort and mobility of GSDs as they age,” Sperry says. “Shorter, slower walks, and more relaxed games and outdoor time help to keep senior dogs sharp.”
Senior German shepherds can also suffer from decreased vision, hearing and mobility, which can oftentimes make older dogs more wary of children and strangers, and less comfortable away from home, adds Sperry.
Creating a Happy Home for German Shepherds
While German shepherds make wonderful additions to the family, they’re not the right pet for everyone.
With their high intelligence, drive and energy, there are certain things every owner can do to ensure they raise a happy and healthy German shepherd.
GSDs require proper and continuous obedience training. This will help reinforce good behaviors, impulse control and recall—and ensure they don’t start causing trouble.
Creating tasks or “jobs” for your German shepherd is critical to keeping the dog mentally and physically stimulated. A bored dog will quickly turn into a destructive dog.
Given their high energy, German shepherds need room to run. They are naturally curious dogs, so they will need plenty of space to explore.
Regular, daily exercise is important for German shepherds. They will not be satisfied with a simple walk around the block. They need a lot of exercise and an active home life.
German shepherds love games and learning new things. They need a lot of mental stimulation; playing a game of tracking or searching is a great way to keep them entertained.
Make sure to work on separation-related training if you plan to leave your German shepherd at home alone at any point. They are sensitive dogs who thrive on human company.
German shepherds are a social breed and don’t like being left alone for more than a few hours during the day. They get bored easily. With their intelligence, they will find their own entertainment, which could include problematic behaviors like digging, scratching, chewing and barking.
Since they are a bigger dog, you’ll want to make sure you buy the right size accessories for your German shepherd, including leashes, harnesses and collars. You should also ensure the leash and collar will withstand the GSD strength.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Are German shepherds good family dogs?
German Shepherds can make great family dogs with the proper training, structure and socialization during their young puppy months.
The entire family must follow the same positive training protocol with positive reinforcement training, says Charlotte Reed, pet care and lifestyle expert and host of The Pet Buzz, a nationally syndicated pet talk radio show.
“These dogs are loyal and protective and must have uniform guidance,” she adds.
Are German shepherds friendly or aggressive?
GSDs have the capacity to be both very friendly and aggressive, depending on their socialization, training and unique circumstances, says Dr. Jennifer Sperry, D.V.M., a veterinary advisor for Pets Plus Us, a pet insurance company in Canada.
“They can be wary of strange people and situations,” she adds. “Thorough training and a good bond with their handlers reduce the risk of aggression.”
Are German shepherds good with kids?
In general, German Shepherds are good with children in their household and children who are familiar with how to properly handle a dog.
“All dogs, regardless of breed, require close supervision around children,” says Dr. Jennifer Sperry, D.V.M., a veterinary advisor for Pets Plus Us, a pet insurance company in Canada.
“The unpredictable nature of kids can sometimes frighten or alarm a dog, leading to bites or other negative interactions.”
Do German shepherds like to cuddle?
When the work day is over, German Shepherds enjoy being loved, on their terms.
“While not as cuddly as other breeds, they will appreciate being groomed and stroked and played with,” says Lorna Winter, co-founder and head of programme at Zigzag, a puppy training app for new dog owners.
Are German shepherds dangerous?
German shepherds are not inherently dangerous.
“Their behavior and temperament can be influenced by a variety of things, including genetics, upbringing, socialization and training,” says Nicole Ellis, certified professional dog trainer and pet lifestyle expert with Rover. “When responsibly bred, raised and trained, German shepherds are generally well-balanced and make excellent family pets, working dogs and companions.”
She adds that dogs who weren’t socialized at an early age, were abused or not trained may have a vastly different temperament and reactions to the environment than a dog that was set up for success with socialization, love, care and proper training.