Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Continental Shepherds: German

The German Shepherd Dog, or Deutscher Schaeferhund is the most widely distributed and best known of the Continental Shepherds. The GSD has been called an Alsatian by some people, however, this is not the "correct" terminology -- an Alsatian is a person.
We will refer to them here as the accepted abbreviation of their name, GSD (German Shepherd Dog), which is used by The Kennel Club (KC), American Kennel Club (AKC), and Canadian Kennel Club (CKC).

 The FCI (or International Kennel Club Federation - for those of us who speak English) recognizes breeds by their name in the country of origin, in this case Germany and Deutscher Schaeferhund.

According to FCI standards there is a long and short haired variety of GSD. The KC defers to the FCI standard; the AKC and CKC do not mention hair length, however, in practice only short haired varieties are shown in bench trials.

The one thing all standards are in complete agreement on -- there is a huge variety of 'looks' amongst individual members of the GSD breed.

Colors are typically variations on tan, red, or gray, and black. Darker richer colors are preferred -- white is a disqualification.

Breeders often used to destroy the all white pups at birth which perversely led to some less reputable breeders keeping all white pups and selling them for more money as "rare white German Shepherds."

 Over time, the adult white GSD proved to be stable enough (there were concerns that the solid white color would prove to be a marker of an unstable personality, or horrible health problems) that more reputable breeders became involved with keeping these progeny; there is now a movement to have them recognized as a separate breed - some breeders call them the American White Shepherd, others the White German Shepherd.

I'm sure we'll see ongoing developments in the years to come. I've known, trained, and lived with a number of GSD, including white, and honestly the range of personalities is the same, regardless of the colors.

There are also all black GSD and again, while you will not find them showing up in bench shows, they have their own faithful followers also. Far more important than the dogs color, is the personality. It used to be argued that the single colored dogs, particularly white, were "off" and were more likely to have off personalities. Not so much.

The only thing I have personally noted about the single colored GSD is that they are more likely to have slightly more noticeable confirmation faults -- which in no way affects their personalities. A lot of GSD have confirmation faults; like Labradors it is sometimes a real chore to find a GSD that doesn't have noticeable confirmation faults.

In some blood lines, particularly in North America, the rear end of the GSD was over-bred for exaggerated slope. This
 increased the likelihood of hip and joint problems, which even as breeders are trying to correct from this exaggeration, continue to plague the breed. Years ago I traveled some distance with my sister to help her evaluate an 18 month old GSD she was considering buying from a very reputable breeder.

As the breeder ran the dog around us in a circle I pointed out that he was ever so slightly starting to favor his right front leg as he ran - a barely noticeable skip. She called us that night after taking the dog to the vet - the dog had already been put down - he was just showing the first signs of complete joint destruction in ALL his legs.

This was a reputable breeder who immediately stopped her breeding of those bloodlines and began researching what was happening. There are breeders who work mightily to bring the GSD back to good health - this is an uphill battle because the 'show lines' became too exaggerated in some cases and as a result infused many lines.

Some people have found the best way to increase the likelihood of getting a healthier GSD for a pet home, is to look for the dogs bred from working lines. The exaggerated back end was never popular in working lines and these lines of GSD kept a stronger back line.

There are some very valid reasons that the GSD is considered one of the most versatile dogs in the world. Intelligent, trainable, eager to please their people, flexible; unlike some 'guard' breeds, a properly trained and temperamented GSD can be turned on and off like a switch, moving immediately from socializing with children, to running down a criminal, and then back to calmly walking through a crowd on crowd control duty.

Unfortunately, lack of training or an incorrect temperament can also get in the way of this ideal behavior. I have witnessed proper GSD and handlers do exactly the kind of thing I'm describing.

 I have witnessed improperly trained handlers and GSD get revved up and then stay "up" when handlers hadn't been trained that they and their dogs had to practice coming straight back "down" (a skill actually harder for the handler than the GSD to  put into practice.)

I could actually go on for a lot longer about the GSD... instead I will just share some final pictures of the GSD in some of the many roles they fill for humans.


  1. You know I'm going to weight in...

    Before I got my GSD a few years ago I bought lots of GSD books and read widely about the breed. Not a single one mentioned the temperament problems that, at least American, GSDs are having.

    Yet the minute I walked into my vet's office with my GSD pup he put me on notice - that this is a potentially dangerous dog that needs constant suppression. It turns out that, out of scores of GSD, the practice only has a couple GSDs that are reliable at vet visits. I should have asked my vet about the breed first before getting one.

    And my colleague, a hard-core GSD fan who has bred them and competed in Shutzhund for a long time, has a single GSD - in order to have visitors to the house, the dog has to be sequestered in a back room, the visitor must sit, and then the dog can be brought out. Even my dog trainer's two GSDs have to be "fenced off" from visitors - they can't come into contact with people without careful introduction and then they "might" do OK. These individuals are two highly experienced people in working with GSDs and even their dogs are pretty problematic with people outside the family.

    Yet GSD enthusiasts don't acknowledge these problems - which, to me, they are - when they are discussed, they are talked about as being an issue of inexperienced handlers - but my examples show this isn't the case.

    If we're going to have a breed where it is so common for them to be so leery and uncomfortable with strangers, I think this should be front and center in all books about GSDs and GSD-enthusiast clubs. I know that there are people out there for whom a dog with this temperament works - they manage the dog's environment and it is fine. But there are a lot of people out there who are unaware of the issues and they aren't going to learn about them from GSD enthusiasts.

    I know there are still some lovely, sweet GSD lines out there and I would also call on breeders to be responsible with their lines - make temperament and good health primary in your breeding, so that this marvelous breed can regain its stature and quality.

    People who don't know that there can be a lot of problems with the breed face potential heartache, as I did.

    Thanks, Kathy

    1. It makes me really sad to see some of the bad roads some of the Shepherd lines have gone down. I've also noticed that the region I'm living in now seems to be overrun with problematic GSD - deplorable. In my experience, a stable GSD with proper training does not have to be kept away from guests, they just have to be told the visitor is fine and then the dog accepts the company - they may be aloof, but they are in no way hostile.

      People do need to be aware that this is a breed that has the potential to be hostile, aggressive, even unpredictable and dangers. They should never be this way, but they can be and bloodlines make a huge difference.

      If somebody is seriously interested in a GSD then I would suggest looking for a breeder who actively uses the sire and dam of the litter in therapy visitation, farming, or also trains for service dogs. If the parents are reliable in these areas of work, if the parents are open to visitors and not aggressive to strangers, then there is a much better chance that the puppies will have stable temperaments. There are a LOT of GSD breeders out there - there are a lot FEWER who are breeding for what they should be breeding for - BUYER BEWARE.

    2. Kathy,

      i have owned (up until she passed just this past week) a GSD / wolf hybrid for 14 years. As such, i have had plenty of experiences with taking her to the vet, and behavior at the dog-park, and other social events. of course, my experience is mostly anecdotal, but as an owner of a GSD, you tend to meet fellow owners and hear about their troubles and successes when you're out and about with your dog.

      several vets have told me that they find GSD to be skittish and nervous by nature. i have a friend who has been a vet-tech for decades, and she has told my that my dog is the only GSD she "trusts" when it comes to vet visits.

      GSD are intended to be a working dog. they are highly intelligent and driven to be worked and to explore their surroundings. my dog went with me to work-sites and construction zones her entire life... it's been my experience that the MAJORITY of GSD owners treat them as a simple companion animal and do not give them the training and work them as the breed needs to be emotionally stable. my dog was about as stable as i've ever seen - from strange children running up and jumping on her, to unfamiliar animals charging at her - she never ONCE acted aggressively or in an unexpected way. training instills confidence, confidence instills stability.

      if you have people owning GSD and treating them like a lab or other companion dog, they (the GSD) are likely to have temperament problems because they haven't been aggressively trained, or given the hours of roaming/exploring that they need. it's almost the same as someone buying a herding dog and then not understanding why it's so frazzled when it spends 23 hours a day cooped up in a city apartment.

      work dog breeds were bred to do work. if you can't give it to them, they are out of their element and become unstable. simple as that, i believe :)

    3. Thank you for taking the time to share your personal experience. Dogs designed to work but without a job often do have temperament troubles - including Labs :-) (The Lab was bred to work too GSD people...just a different kind of job.)

      I think herding dogs are an excellent example. A lot of Border Collies and Australian Shepherds end up in rescue; they are "too active" and "nippy" for people who have given them little training and even less activity. A working breed usually has a mind and energy level that requires a job. While one might occasionally find an example of these breeds who is happy to be a couch potato that individual dog would be an exception to the general rule of what to expect from the breed.

      If considering adding a particular breed of dog to your life, look at what the breed was developed for, look at the kind of training -- including the level of activity and interaction with work -- that the breed traditionally needs. If a person is not able to provide these then the breed is a bad choice for their lifestyle.

      And no matter what breed a person is considering, research the bloodlines or adopt from a reputable rescue that has temperament tested the dog.

      When it comes to buying a puppy, if the sire and dam of a litter are not both stable and approachable animals, do not expect the pup to be either. A reminder to beware of breeds like GSD who can become aggressive and breeders who will not allow you to see/spend time with the parents of a litter. I would consider this a red flag - something could be wrong with the adult dogs' temperaments and as a potential owner you should walk away.