German Shepherd FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About German Shepherd Dogs
By Michele Welton. Copyright © 2000-2014
Why are German Shepherds sometimes called Alsatians?
After World War I and II, German things were not looked upon too kindly by the Americans and British. To avoid using the word German, the name Alsatian was given to the German Shepherd, after the region of Alsace-Lorraine.
What is the German name? What do the Germans call their breed?
Deutsche Shaferhund, pronounced DOY-cha SHAY-fer-hoond. Deutsche means German. Shafer means shepherd. Hund means dog.
How big are German Shepherds?
Males stand about 24-26 inches at the shoulder and weigh 75-100 pounds. Females stand about 22-24 inches and weigh 60-80 pounds. Some breeders, though, deliberately produce oversized "giant" German Shepherds that reach 28 or 30 inches at the shoulder and 140 pounds. Some of these dogs are ponderous -- a far cry from the athletic, agile build the breed is supposed to have.
The German Shepherd was developed to be a police dog, right?
Actually he was developed to herd sheep -- hence the name shepherd. But during World War I, his intelligence, trainability, and protective instincts were put to use as a messenger dog, rescue dog, and sentry dog, and eventually he became the world's leading guardian, police and military dog, search and rescue dog, bomb and narcotics detection dog, and guide dogs for the blind.
Today, because so many temperament and health problems have become embedded in the breed's gene pool, it's difficult to consistently find or breed healthy, stable German Shepherds for working purposes. Today, breeds like the Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retriever are overtaking the German Shepherd in fields where the German Shepherd used to predominate.
What kind of temperament and personality does the German Shepherd have?
To get an idea of what a breed might be like, always look at what he was developed to do (see the question above). Many of the German Shepherd's characteristics -- his powerful body, intelligence, trainability, loyalty, and enthusiasm for working -- are hardwired into his genes because they helped him excel at his work.
I give you my honest opinions about German Shepherd temperament and personality -- positives AND negatives -- in my dog breed review, German Shepherd Temperament (What's Good About 'Em, What's Bad About 'Em).
What colors do German Shepherds come in?
The most common colors in German Shepherds are black and tan, black and red, black and cream, or black and silver. These colors cover the dog in one of three patterns:
- Saddleback pattern, where the black overlays the dog's back and both sides of his body (like a saddle). The rest of the dog is tan, red, cream, or silver. Usually there is a black mask on the face.
- Blanketback pattern, where the black extends further down the shoulders and hips.
- Bicolor pattern, like a Doberman, where the dog is virtually all black with the markings confined to his face, throat, chest, and legs.
A less common color is sable, which is an overall shade of golden, red, or gray, with black-tipped hairs that create a "dusted with black" effect. (For those of you interested in genetics, sable is actually the dominant color in German Shepherds.)
Even less common are two colors that are frowned upon by German Shepherd purists -- blue and liver. Blue dogs and liver dogs have inherited a color-modifying gene that changes their black pigment to smoky gray (many blue dogs look like they've been dusted with flour) or brown (any shade from light brown to dark brown). All of their black pigment is affected, including their nose and the pads of their feet. Even their eyes are hazel or yellowish.
Blue or liver can occur in any of the patterns described above, i.e. if a German Shepherd would have been a black and tan saddleback, his blue modifying gene makes him a BLUE and tan saddleback. If he would have been a red sable, his liver gene makes him a liver sable, with the normally black-tipped hairs becoming brown-tipped. If he would have been solid black, his blue or liver gene make him solid blue or brown instead.
Blue and liver are considered "faults" by the official German Shepherd clubs and breeders who show their dogs in the conformation ring. But you can still register these dogs and compete with them in activities such as obedience and agility.
Finally, German Shepherds can be solid black or solid white.
I heard that white isn't an accepted color in German Shepherds.
It depends on what you mean by accepted. As with blue and liver, you can register a white German Shepherd with the AKC and show him in competitive activities such as obedience and agility. But the official clubs and show-dog breeders assert that white is a disqualified color for showing and breeding purposes. White dogs, they say, are too visible to make effective guard dogs and too camouflaged against sheep and snow to make effective herding dogs.
White Shepherd enthusiasts aren't deterred, however. They've formed their own club, which holds its own conformation shows. Because most breeders of whites don't breed their dogs for protection work, white German Shepherds tend to have a softer, milder temperament that fits well into many families.
What kinds of coats do German Shepherds come in? They can be longhaired, right?
Yes, German Shepherds can have short hair or long hair. Both coats are the same breed. But short hair is much more common. In some countries, longcoated German Shepherds are considered fine for showing and breeding, but in the U.S., long coats are frowned upon by the official clubs and show-dog breeders. Only the short coats are considered "correct."
Actually, to be completely accurate, there are FOUR kinds of coats in German Shepherds, not just two.
The short coat, you see, can be very short, or it can be a little longer and thicker and then it's called (informally) a plush coat. Show-dog purists prefer these plush coats. Either way, short coats are always double coats, consisting of a short outer coat (harsh to the touch), plus a woolly undercoat (for insulation).
The long coat also comes in two types -- with an undercoat, and without an undercoat. The long coat without an undercoat is considered the worst coat of all because German Shepherds are really supposed to have an insulating undercoat to help them in cold-weather work. Some longcoated German Shepherds have exceptionally long hair, which requires a lot of grooming to avoid mats and tangles. Other longcoated German Shepherds are barely worthy of the name -- they have a short body coat that looks similar to a regular shorthaired German Shepherd, except for tufts of feathering around their ears, on the backs of their legs, and on their hindquarters and tail.
Some breeders focus on breeding only Long Coated German Shepherds, and since they don't breed their dogs for protection work, longhaired German Shepherds tend to have a softer, milder temperament that fits well into many families.
How much do German Shepherds shed?
Oh, my. They shed a lot. An awful lot. A great deal! German Shepherds, in fact, are one of the "worst" shedding breeds in all of dogdom. They shed constantly, you see. Most breeds shed a few hairs here and there throughout the year, with the bulk of their shedding occurring twice a year, for three weeks in the spring as their winter coat switches over to a cooler summer coat, and three weeks in the fall as their summer coat switches over to a thicker winter coat.
Not German Shepherds. They shed moderately 365 days a year. Plus they shed a TON during those three-week spring and fall coat-switching seasons.
Ironically, longhaired German Shepherds seem to shed LESS than shorthaired German Shepherds, because many of their shed hairs get caught in their long hair instead of ending up on your floor and furniture. (Of course, that means you have to brush more frequently, or those shed hairs tangled in the long hair will fuse into a matted mess.) And remember above when we talked about the different kinds of coats and I said that long coats come in two types -- one with an undercoat and one without? Well, even though the long coat without an undercoat is considered the worst coat of all by German Shepherd purists, it sheds the least of all because it only has one layer of hairs to shed. (Those hairs, though, do come out 365 days a year, just like every other German Shepherd.)
Are there different builds in German Shepherds? My brother has a German Shepherd from show lines, which looks different than the German Shepherd the police department uses.
Yes, there are several different builds in German Shepherds, and these can look so different they almost appear to be different breeds.
- American show lines, sad to say, are almost caricatures of a German Shepherd, with lean (sometimes spindly) bodies, long slender faces, and such excessive curvature in their rear legs and hindquarters that when they stand up they appear to be sloped backwards. These dogs have been bred to trot 'round and 'round the show ring at breakneck speed, and the more "angulation" they have, the showier their gait looks....which leads to ribbons and championship points. In my opinion, it's silly and it's a shame to have done such a thing to a noble-looking breed. To make matters worse, many American show lines produce more than their share of hyperactive, spooky, and low-intelligence dogs, which is what happens when you focus on conformation features to the exclusion of all else.
- German working/protection lines tend to have a stockier, more muscular, more athletic build without severe angulation. On the negative side, because they're bred for protection work, German working lines are often too energetic, vigorous, and intense for the average family. Some are too "sharp" (over-aggressive), as well.
"Wow!" you're saying. "Neither of those sound right for me! Isn't there another choice?"
Yes, there are breeders who blend American and German lines, trying to produce a more moderate build and temperament.
And there are lines with very few American champions or German protection dogs in their pedigrees. Their dogs have no titles at all, or perhaps just a few obedience titles. Some of these lines may be perfect for you, while others may be a disaster. Visit Visit Dog Breeders: How To Find a Good Breeder for more information on distinguishing good breeders from clueless breeders.
How long do German Shepherds live, and what health problems do they have?
Typically 10-12 years. Some reach 13-14 years . . . but many others don't even make it to age 10. This is a sobering reality, and you should definitely read my full article, How Long Do German Shepherds Live?
Do German Shepherd ears stand up on their own, or do they have to be cut or taped to make them stand up?
German Shepherd ears prick up naturally -- they're never surgically cut (cropped) like in a Doberman Pinscher. But German Shepherd puppies aren't born with pricked ears. Their ears are floppy at birth. In some puppies, the ears start to prick up as early as 6 or 8 weeks old. Other puppies don't start until 12 or 14 weeks. The ears may continue to go up and down for a couple of months, especially during the teething period.
Unfortunately, some puppies are born with one or both of their ears being genetically weak. These are called "soft ears." They may come halfway up, then flop sideways. They may come up on some days, but not on others. Sometimes taping a weak ear can help it stand erect, but often not.
Do crossbred or mixed breed German Shepherds make good pets?
They do make good pets, yes, but first you need to know what a purebred dog really is -- and what crossbred and mixed breed dogs really are. You might think you know, but I bet you'll be surprised by my articles: The Truth About Purebred Dogs, The Truth About Crossbred Dogs, and The Truth About Mixed Breed Dogs.
Can you help me decide whether the German Shepherd is the best breed for me?
Yes, I offer personal consultations on choosing the best breed for your family and lifestyle. Learn more about my Dog Breed Consulting Service.
Do male dogs or female dogs make better pets?
Ah, let the debate begin! Honestly, male German Shepherds have pros and cons, and female German Shepherds have pros and cons. Visit Male Dogs versus Female Dogs
If I just want a dog for a pet, not for showing or breeding, does it matter whether he has AKC registration papers?
First you need to know what registration papers really mean -- and don't mean. You might THINK you know -- but you might be wrong! Find out the truth about AKC Registered Puppies: Are AKC Papers Important?.
There's an adorable German Shepherd puppy at the pet shop. The store manager assures me they only buy from responsible breeders. Could this be true?
No. There are no responsible German Shepherd breeders who would ever place one of their German Shepherd puppies in a pet shop for resale. To find out more about pet shop puppies, visit Pet Shop Puppies: Buying a Puppy From a Pet Store.
How do I find a good German Shepherd breeder?
It's hard! The sad truth is that the vast majority of people offering German Shepherd puppies for sale are unknowledgeable, irresponsible, completely clueless -- or all of the above. Visit Dog Breeders: How To Find a Good Breeder.
How do I pick the best German Shepherd puppy from a litter?
You can do puppy personality tests. Visit How To Choose a Good Puppy.
I'm interested in adopting a dog rather than buying from a dog breeder. How do I find German Shepherd dogs for adoption?
I just got a new German Shepherd. Which pages should I read first?
- German Shepherd Health, which includes my advice on feeding, vaccinations, and health care. These pages are very important, because if you start your German Shepherd puppy off on the wrong foot, he will probably experience health problems later on. Starting off RIGHT is essential!
- Training German Shepherds, which includes my advice on respect training, housebreaking, and socialization. Again, you must start your German Shepherd puppy off on the right foot by teaching him what he needs to know and you must avoid doing the wrong things with him so that he doesn't develop bad habits that will be much harder to fix later on.
What's a good training schedule for training German Shepherd puppies? What things should I teach, and when?
Here's the puppy training schedule I use for German Shepherds: Puppy Training Schedule.
How do I housebreak my German Shepherd?
The key to housebreaking your German Shepherd is confinement, confinement, confinement. Visit Housebreaking Your Puppy or Adult Dog.
My German Shepherd has some behavior problems I'd like to solve.
Respect training solves behavior problems much better than obedience training. Visit Respect Training For Puppies and Adult Dogs.
What's the best dog food for German Shepherds?
Homemade dog food. Visit The Best Dog Food For Your Dog. If you can't feed homemade dog food, there are only a few (very few!) commercial dog food brands I recommend. Visit The Second-Best Dog Food For Your Dog.
I have to take my German Shepherd to the vet soon for shots. Which vaccinations does he really need?
The schedule of vaccinations that dogs really need has changed dramatically -- but most vets are not telling you the truth about this! Don't let your vet give your German Shepherd any more shots until you've read my article on Puppy Shots and Dog Vaccinations.
What are the pros and cons of spaying and neutering my German Shepherd, and when should it be done?
Spaying and neutering are often recommended too early, which can lead to health problems later in life. Visit Spaying Your Female Dog or Neutering Your Male Dog for the straight scoop on the safest (and riskiest) times to spay or neuter.
My vet doesn't agree with some of the things you've written about health care.
That just means he belongs to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). There are two competing veterinary organizations in the United States and they disagree on just about every aspect of canine health care. The health information on my web site comes from vets who belong to the American HOLISTIC Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). In my opinion, AHVMA vets are better than AVMA vets. Visit Think Your Veterinarian's Good? Here's How To Tell.
I have a question about German Shepherds that I don't see answered on your web site.
It's probably answered in one of my books:
- If it's a question about training, check out Teach Your Dog 100 English Words.
- If it's about health, see 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy.
- If it's about buying or adopting a dog, you want Dog Quest – Find The Dog Of Your Dreams.
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