“Now, wait a minute!” you’re saying. “Of course I want a German Shepherd! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be looking at this article!” Very good. You have taken the first step towards becoming a responsible purebred dog owner, first by doing your research, and second by taking the time to examine the problems inherent in your chosen breed.
Here are 10 reasons you might want to reconsider your choice of a GSD:
1. Health problems.The GSD is not a dog for those who just want to plunk down cash for the first puppy they see and head home (in fact, you should never do this with any puppy, for a number of reasons). German Shepherds, like any large breed, are prone to canine hip dysplasia, a crippling and potentially fatal disease. (Although costly hip replacement surgeries have become more commonplace for dogs with severe CHD, the expense and possible complications lead many people to the decision of having the dog humanely put down. This doesn’t, however, exempt the dog owner from the heartbreak of losing their precious companion.) The breed also struggles with or is prone to elbow dysplasia, allergies, cleft palate, degenerative myelopathy, perianal fistulas, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, bloat, panostetis, Von Wildebrand’s disease, Wobbler’s Syndrome, heart and skin disease and thyroid disease. (This is a partial list.) Many of the congenital diseases in dogs can be tested for and therefore prevented by responsible breeders. But you must be willing to ask questions of your breeder to find out what problems have cropped up in his or her lines. (Any breeder who tells you he’s never had a health problem in his lines is either lying or has not bothered to follow up with his puppy owners. Run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction!) Good GSD rescuers will also be aware of such problems, and whether the rescued dog you’re considering has shown symptoms of or has been treated for any health issues while with the rescue.
2. German Shepherd Dogs SHED. I’m not sure who started the rumor that GSDs don’t shed, but if you’ve heard it perpetuated, be prepared for disappointment! The GSD sheds heavily year-round, and “blows” its undercoat (the thick, dense fur under the harsh top coat) twice a year. You can avoid as much coat-blowing with certain long-haired shepherds, although they are considered outside the breed standard. While GSDs require little formal grooming, they must be brushed at least twice weekly and have their coats raked during shedding season to keep them comfortable and to prevent skin problems from developing.
3. Good breeders are hard to find. Sure, there are shepherd breeders everywhere. But a good GSD breeder is difficult to come by. Among other things, responsible breeders: guarantee against severe hip dysplasia and other inherited disorders; provide written proof of health exams for their dogs; exchange your dog or refund your money if major health problems arise; require you to return the dog to their kennels if you can no longer keep it; keep a waiting list of puppy buyers and carefully screen (ask questions of) each buyer; willingly answer your questions; can tell you why a particular breeding should produce puppies who are a credit to the breed; and ask you to sign a contract with terms and responsibilities outlined. An overview on finding a responsible breeder is available at dcweimclub.org/responsible.html. For a more in-depth look, see Dog Play’s “Checklist for the Responsible Breeder: Short list and long list.”
4. Temperament. As with any breed, temperament in GSDs is best determined on an individual basis. However, the breed standard indicates that the dog must be “poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert, both fit and willing to serve in any capacity as companion.” There are many steps you can take to “stack the cards” in your direction. First and foremost, is temperament a priority for the breeder? If not, look elsewhere. There are far too many dogs in the world today to live with one who is not social to people, who guards resources (food/water/precious objects), won’t tolerate young children or has an aggressive reaction towards unusual sights or sounds. Keep in mind that the phrase “ideal German Shepherd Dog” may mean different things to different breeders.
5. Socialization. This goes hand-in-hand with temperament. All dogs need early and frequent socialization to people, other dogs, cats, young children, loud noise, crowds, the world in general; but with GSDs it is an absolute necessity. You cannot lay socialization by the wayside, thinking it will make your dog a protection dog — in reality, the dog will grow up afraid of unusual encounters, so should the time ever come to protect you, he will be thinking only of his own hide! What does this mean for you? You’ll be out every day with your new puppy, exposing him gradually to new sights and sounds, different people, etc., in a careful manner.
6. Good GSDs are hard to find. Wait, isn’t this the breeder’s responsibility? Yes and no. Half of your battle here will be solved by finding a responsible breeder (see number 3). However, remember from “Temperament” that the GSD can be many things to many people. Don’t accept less than the best, in terms of a breeder, bloodlines, temperament, conformation and health. In other words, if the shepherd or puppy you are considering differs markedly from the standard (AKC, SV and FCI), look elsewhere. (Do make exceptions for rescued dogs who may not have the best breeding — though the number of “well-bred” shepherds in rescue may surprise you — but be aware of what faults he/she carries and be able to recognize an outstanding example of the breed when you see one!)
7. Bonding. German Shepherds bond very tightly to their owners, usually to the extent that frequent rehoming can cause behavioral problems brought on by insecurity. If you are considering obtaining a GSD but don’t know what will happen to the dog when you move/get a new job/get married/have children/etc., please don’t get a German Shepherd. (Or any dog, for that matter — wait until your situation becomes stable!) A shepherd can live 10 to 14 years, so you must be prepared to commit to the dog for his lifetime. In addition, this bond requires that your GSD live in the house with you, not out in a kennel or tied in the yard (perish the thought). As pack animals, dogs need close and frequent interaction with their owners, and this applies especially to German Shepherds.
8. Training. The GSD is a large dog, usually weighing 65-90 lbs. or more. A GSD must be taught manners in the house and with guests, children and the elderly; he must not be allowed to roam free or intimidate passers-by. While German shepherds are relatively easy to train, they can achieve the most success through positive training rather than training that employs harsh methods, choke or shock collars. Shepherds also must be exercised by you and/or be contained in a yard with a real fence — electronic or underground fencing should not be an option for the responsible shepherd owner.
9. GSDs need a job. This is not a breed for someone who “just wants a dog.” Your GSD will create his own work if you cannot find work for him! A doggy sport or activity such as tracking, agility, obedience training, flyball, Schutzhund, search and rescue, flying disc, herding, therapy work or similar is absolutely necessary to keep your shepherd happy and healthy (and your sanity intact). Do not expect your GSD to be content to lie around the house all day and then do nothing when you get home! He will need both mental and physical exercise — a couple trips around the block is just warm-up time to a GSD.
10. Shepherds are unique. Why wouldn’t you want a unique dog? For many of the reasons listed above and more! Shepherds are less “doggy” than most breeds, and for this reason it has been said they are “the Cadillac of dogs.” This is certainly true — if you have the time, energy and understanding necessary to choose and raise one with care. A bored, ill-tempered, sickly or untrained GSD can become a nightmare for you and others. Once you obtain a GSD, you and he are ambassadors for the breed, and that means he must be presented at all times as a clean, healthy, well-groomed, and skillfully trained member of his species. Anything less does a disservice to the breed as a whole and to the legions of people who work and dedicate their lives to improving the German Shepherd Dog.