German Shepherd Temperament: What's Good About 'Em, What's Bad About 'Em
German Shepherd Temperament, Personality, Behavior, Traits, and Characteristics, by Michele Welton. Copyright © 2000-2018
The AKC Standard says the German Shepherd "has a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence, and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them."
That's a great description of an ideal German Shepherd.
Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find an ideal German Shepherd today. Nowadays, this breed is all over the map in temperament. Lines that are bred for protection work and the sport of schutzhund tend to be "hard-tempered" and businesslike. Show lines range from mild and mellow, to hyperactive and skittish, to downright dumb and dopey. And many German Shepherds bred by backyard breeders have risky temperaments and suffer from a host of health problems.
Energy levels vary from vigorous to laid-back, but all German Shepherds, to maintain their athletic shape, need brisk walking every day and all-out running in a safe, enclosed area as often as possible.
Mental exercise (advanced obedience classes, agility classes, schutzhund, tracking, herding) is even more important for German Shepherds. This is a smart, thinking breed (at least the good ones are!) and his intelligence is often wasted in a home that simply wants a casual pet.
Finally, early and ongoing socialization is a must to develop a stable, confident temperament.
Most German Shepherds are fine with other family pets, if introduced when young. However, some individuals are cat chasers, and many individuals are dominant or even aggressive with strange dogs of the same sex.
One of the most capable and trainable breeds in all of dogdom, exceedingly eager to learn and work, an ideal German Shepherd, when well-trained by a confident owner, is a magnificent companion.
If you want a dog who...
- Is strong, athletic, and natural-looking
- Thrives on challenging activities and exercise
- Looks stern and imposing, so makes an effective deterrent
- Is exceptionally intelligent, loyal, and versatile -- when well-socialized and well-trained, can learn and do almost anything
A German Shepherd may be right for you.
If you don't want to deal with...
- An extremely careful search to find a stable-tempered German Shepherd with a decent chance of staying healthy
- Providing plenty of exercise and interesting things to do
- Providing careful socialization
- Destructiveness when bored or not exercised enough
- Potential aggression toward other dogs
- Constant heavy shedding - 365 days a year
- Legal liabilities (public perception, future breed bans, insurance problems, increased chance of lawsuits)
- Concerns about a multitude of serious health problems
A German Shepherd may not be right for you.
Keep in mind that the inheritance of temperament is less predictable than the inheritance of physical traits such as size or shedding. Temperament and behavior are also shaped by raising and training.
- You can avoid some negative traits by choosing an ADULT dog from an animal shelter or rescue group. With an adult dog, you can easily see what you're getting, and plenty of adult German Shepherds have already proven themselves not to have negative characteristics.
- If you want a puppy, you can avoid some negative traits by choosing the right breeder and the right puppy. Unfortunately, you usually can't tell whether a puppy has inherited temperament or health problems until he grows up.
- Finally, you can avoid some negative traits by training your German Shepherd to respect you and by following the 11-step care program in my book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy.
More traits and characteristics of German Shepherds
If I was considering a German Shepherd, I would be most concerned about...
- The wide range of temperaments. There are many different "breeding lines" of German Shepherds, each bred for a different purpose and a different temperament. If you want a family companion, you do not want high-energy working lines. If you want a dog to compete with in the sport of schutzhund (a protection dog sport), you do not want show lines.
With German Shepherds more than most other breeds, you must know what you want long before you start calling or visiting breeders. You need to ask the right questions. Otherwise you might end up with a German Shepherd that isn't at all what you were looking for – and possibly an individual who is too much for you to handle.
To make your search even more challenging, a good number of German Shepherds are badly bred. As an obedience instructor and behavioral consultant, I see too many German Shepherds who are hyperactive, skittish/nervous, aggressive, or fearful.
- Serious health problems. As a long-time German Shepherd owner, I know first-hand how many health problems this breed suffers from. Crippling joint diseases, autoimmune diseases, heart and eye diseases.... this is a very risky breed in the health department. German Shepherds should not be fed a kibble diet, as this can cause (or worsen) stomach diseases and allergies, which are all too common. I recommend feeding a homemade diet of real meat and vegetables and absolutely no grain. Read more about German Shepherd Health.
- Heavy shedding. German Shepherds have only one shedding period a year – and it lasts for 365 days! In other words, they shed constantly. You'll find hair all over your clothing, furniture, and carpeting. Frequent vaccuming will become a way of life. Remember, I've lived with them!
- Socialization requirements. Most German Shepherds have protective instincts toward strangers. They need extensive exposure to friendly people so they learn to recognize the normal behaviors of "good guys." Then they can recognize the difference when someone really does act abnormally. Without careful socialization, a German Shepherd may be suspicious of everyone.
Some German Shepherds have an inherited form of shyness. Dogs who are genetically shy can be helped a little bit by socialization – but not cured. Yet another reason to be very careful when acquiring this breed.
- Providing enough mental stimulation. German Shepherds are so intelligent and capable. I hate to see them chosen by owners who just want a dog to hang around the house and yard. German Shepherds thrive when you find interesting things for them to do that challenge their minds.
Get your German Shepherd involved in agility (obstacle course), or advanced obedience, or herding if there is a herding club in your area. Or schutzhund, a German protection-dog sport. Play fetch games. Take them hiking. They must have physical outlets for their energy, and mental outlets for their intelligent minds.
- Potential animal aggression. Most German Shepherds are good with other dogs and cats in their own family. But some German Shepherds are quite dominant, or even aggressive, toward other dogs of the same sex. And some German Shepherds show strong predatory behavior toward cats and other animals that run.
- Legal liabilities. German Shepherds may be targeted for "banning" in certain areas, or refusal of homeowner insurance policies. In this day and age, the legal liabilities of owning any breed that looks intimidating and has a history as a guard dog should be considered. People are quicker to sue if such a dog does anything even remotely questionable.
To help you train and care for your dog
Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.
The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.
To learn more about training your dog to be calm and well-behaved, my dog training book is Teach Your Dog 100 English Words. It's a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your dog to listen to you and do whatever you ask.
My dog buying guide, Dog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams, will teach you everything you need to know about finding a good-tempered, healthy dog.
My dog health care book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy, shows you how to help your dog live a longer life while avoiding health problems and unnecessary veterinary expenses.