The Loyal German Shepherd's Most Common Traits and Characteristics

Updated December 1, 2021
Close-Up Of A German Shepherd Looking Away

If you want a pet that provides both affection and a measure of protection, consider the German Shepherd Dog. These highly intelligent dogs are loving, loyal, and easy to train. They make excellent companions and can also be trained to serve as herding dogs, police dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, and more. Learn about the breed so you can make an informed decision about whether bringing this canine into your home is right for you.

Origin and History

The German Shepherd Dog -- commonly referred to as the GSD -- is a familiar sight in neighborhoods and on television. In fact, they are among the top breed choices for Police Canine Units according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). Although falsely rumored to be overly aggressive, German Shepherds are prized for their great intelligence and strong loyalty to their human companions.

As the GSD's name implies, this breed was developed in Germany to be the perfect herding dog. Captain Max von Stephanitz began formally standardizing the breed in 1899, starting with a particular canine that caught the captain's eye at a dog show. This dog, who the captain purchased and renamed Horand von Grafrath, became the first registered member of the breed.

What Stephanitz saw in Horand -- intelligence and utility -- remains true of the breed today. German Shepherds are legendary for their trainability and intellect. The GSD's somewhat wolf-like appearance and powerful bark have contributed to the misapprehension that the breed is overly aggressive, but this isn't true. A well-bred and properly socialized German Shepherd is a trustworthy member of any family.

Characteristics of the Breed

There is a reason the German Shepherd is routinely ranked among the top most popular breeds in the United States. Members of the breed are affectionate, loyal, intelligent, energetic, and very sociable with their family. They are highly trainable, with a character and confidence that has won over generations of dog owners.

German Shepherd Characteristics

Appearance

German Shepherd coloring typically includes rich tan and black, but this coloration varies from a light tan to a reddish gold. Various colorations are acceptable. Shepherds also come in a striking solid black and sable coat. While the breed is available in a solid white version, this coloration is not recognized by the American Kennel Club breed standard and may not currently be shown at AKC dog shows.

German Shepherd Dogs have a double coat, preferably of medium length. The outer coat should be dense, with slightly longer furnishings at the neck, elbows, and rear. Some German Shepherds are of the long coat variety, being woolly in appearance, though this is considered a fault for the purposes of conformation.

Temperament

As puppies, GSDs are rather boisterous, but gradually become more reserved with maturity. These dogs are quite affectionate with their human companions. However, most GSDs regard strangers with caution until a proper introduction has been made. This tendency makes them wonderful for providing a measure of security for their owners and ought to be praised. These dogs are highly intelligent, very devoted to their human families, and can get along well with other dogs when properly socialized.

Exercise Requirements

It's critical to give your German Shepherd a sufficient amount of exercise and mental stimulation to keep them happy and healthy. Regular exercise can help them not only stay in shape, but also improve their behavior and overall well-being. The majority of German Shepherds will require at least 90 minutes of daily exercise. This can be done throughout the day and can include a variety of high-intensity activities, such as walking, jogging, and playing.

Portrait of a German Shepherd Dog running

Training

German Shepherd puppies can be rambunctious, but typically settle down into a steady, calm demeanor as they grow older. These dogs are typically confident and centered, and take to training with enthusiasm. Start early with puppy classes and socialization, and your dog will be off to a great start.

Because German Shepherds have keen intelligence, they are highly trainable for a number of uses. Shepherds take very well to obedience training, often receiving high scores in competitions. Dog obedience training is also highly useful in everyday life, because even though these dogs are not inherently aggressive, they are rather large. Teaching them to respond to your commands instantly is a valuable tool. With this breed, potty training is fairly routine as long as you are consistent.

The German Shepherd shines best as members of Police Canine Units, and as search-and-rescue dogs. While police work has also contributed to the breed's negative stereotype, understand that, if these dogs were untrustworthy, no officer would be willing to work with them and no search-and-rescue team would be willing to send them in to find trapped victims. German Shepherds are put to work in these situations exactly because of their trustworthy nature and ability to think their way through difficult situations.

This breed has also made their contribution to the world of guide dogs for the handicapped. Many GSDs are employed as service animals, and are well suited to the role. These are working dogs, and a sedentary lifestyle is not for them, but they aren't hyper or anxious. Regular training will turn your GSD into a cherished member of the family.

Lifespan

German Shepherds typically live to be 7 to 10 years old, though some members of the breed may live up to 14 years. Although they are otherwise robust, GSDs are not as long lived as smaller breeds, and they are prone to various ailments. Provide a lot of exercise, proper diet, and routine veterinary care to maximize the time you get to spend with your beloved companion.

Health Issues

German Shepherds are generally healthy, but they can be prone to certain health conditions. Possible health threats include, but are not limited to:

  • Gastric torsion: Commonly known as bloat, this condition affects deep-chested and large dogs, generally occurring when they drink or eat too quickly. This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Hip and elbow dysplasia: Hip dysplasia is a genetic condition where the femur doesn't fit properly into the pelvic socket. This can lead to lameness in the back legs and pain. Similarly, elbow dysplasia involves the bones in the elbow joints not fitting together correctly.
  • Von Willebrand's disease: A blood clotting disorder that affects both dogs and humans.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: A genetic condition in which the pancreas does not produce the proper digestive enzymes to absorb food.
  • Degenerative myelopathy: A genetic disease that affects the spinal cord, leading to weakness and possibly paralysis in the hind limbs.

Responsible breeders screen for diseases like degenerative myelopathy that have a genetic component, among other known diseases. Talk with your breeder before making a purchasing decision, and ask to see proof of screening to ensure your potential pooch isn't at risk for developing these debilitating diseases. Establish a relationship with a veterinarian you trust, and see to your dog's overall health, and you should have many years of loyal companionship to look forward to.

Grooming

German Shepherds are often known as "German shedders" due to the heavy amount of shedding they experience year-round. Twice per year, the amount of hair GSDs shed is elevated well above their normal rate -- which is known as blowing their coat. If you choose a German Shepherd, be prepared to sweep and vacuum frequently, and don't be surprised by your dog's bi-annual hair storm.

Because GSDs shed regularly and blow their thick double coat twice a year, it is important to keep them brushed and clean. To cut down on shedding, brush your dog with a de-shedding tool at least weekly, or as often as every other day during heavy shedding, and invest in a quality vacuum cleaner. If possible, work on your GSD's coat while outside to minimize the amount of hair you leave in your house.

Typically, unless a GSD is otherwise dirty from working or playing outside, it is not necessary to bathe members of this breed more than infrequently. However, it is a good idea to give a puppy a few baths at an early age to help acclimate them to the procedure. Established breeders recommend bathing otherwise healthy, well-kept adult dogs around twice a year.

Bathing a German Shepherd too often can strip the dog's skin and coat of natural oils, potentially leading to skin issues and even hot spots. It should be noted that some owners of GSDs remark that their dogs have a naturally musky scent, though this is not a universal trait of the breed. In this case, it may be necessary to bathe the dog more frequently. However, if the problem persists, consult with your veterinarian. It may be that your dog has an underlying health or dietary issue.

A GSD's nails are usually worn down naturally, but may need trimming from time to time. For dogs that routinely walk on hard surfaces such as pavement or concrete, nail trimming may never be necessary. Even so, it is best to expose puppies to nail clippers so that they get used to having their nails trimmed early in life. You can trim your dog's nails yourself, though there is a risk of hitting the quick -- resulting in a lot of yelping and blood -- so if you are unfamiliar with the procedure, consult with a groomer or your veterinarian.

Famous Member of the Breed

Only about 200 of the approximately 4,000 dogs who served in Vietnam survived. Nemo, a German Shepherd who became famous for saving his handler's life, was one who has gone down in history as an exemplary member of the breed.

Nemo was born in October 1962 and began his military career when he was 2 years old in 1964, specifically in the Air Force. He was assigned to handler Airman Bryant after finishing his training course. The pair were dispatched to South Vietnam in January 1966. After returning to the United States, Nemo was assigned to Airman Robert Thorneburg.

Thorneburg and Nemo were on patrol in December 1966 when Nemo alerted his handler to the presence of enemy forces nearby. Enemy fire erupted before his handler could call for help on the radio. Thorneburg let go of Nemo and started shooting. Nemo was shot by the enemy with the bullet hitting directly in the eye. His handler was also shot in the shoulder and knocked to the ground.

Despite being shot, Nemo continued to fight the enemy, providing Thorneburg with enough time to alert his team. Once the team arrived, they noticed Nemo had dragged himself to his handler, Thorneburg, and had crawled on top of his body to protect him.

Nemo survived, but was left permanently blind in his right eye. In June 1967, Nemo returned to the United States with honors as the first sentry dog to be officially retired from active service. Thorneburg also survived and returned home with honors. Nemo went on to continue serving his country as a recruiter and mascot, and is remembered as a German Shepherd war hero.

Buying or Adopting a German Shepherd

Responsible breeders x-ray all breeding stock for signs of canine hip and elbow dysplasia. These x-rays are then presented and reviewed to receive an Orthopedic Foundation of Animals (OFA) Certification. According to the OFA, this rating runs anywhere from:

  • Poor
  • Fair
  • Good
  • Excellent

It goes without saying that any animal rating less than "Good" should be removed from the breeding program. Certification cannot be completed until an animal has reached 2 years of age, so be sure to get a written health guarantee on any puppy you may purchase, because canine hip dysplasia may not be immediately observed.

To find a reputable breeder, you can start with the AKC Marketplace. The German Shepherd Dog Club of America also offers a directory of breeders.

Dog Sticking Out Tongue Outdoors

Adopting a German Shepherd or Mixed Breed

There are a couple directories available to find a German Shepherd or a mix including PetFinder and Save-a-Rescue. You can also take a look at breed-specific rescue organizations, including:

Is a GSD Right for You?

Only you can decide if a German Shepherd is the right pet for you. If you are looking for a highly intelligent companion animal who is loving and loyal and you are prepared for the unique challenges of living with a large dog, choosing a GSD may be the right option for you. As long as you commit the time and energy necessary to properly train your new pet, you'll likely form a strong and loving bond with your canine companion.

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The Loyal German Shepherd's Most Common Traits and Characteristics