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Is a German Shepherd Dog right for you? Experts who know the German Shepherd Dog breed will tell you that it all depends. Perhaps a better answer lies in a few bigger questions. What do you want in a dog? Where do you plan to take your dog? Gow much time (and money) do you have for a dog? What is your lifestyle?

People often choose a puppy because it is cute and they are attracted to it. Maybe they see the breed on TV or in a movie. Later they learn that their little pup is no longer a few pounds, but a 60 – 80-pound adult with lots of energy and a constant desire to play. The truth is that not all of the larger breeds do well in small apartments or with laid-back families. How well a dog adjusts to its new environment depends on the dog, its training, and its function.

So the first part of the answer begins by asking yourself about your lifestyle, the size of your living quarters, and the amount of time you are willing to spend with your dog. There are over 60 breeds in the Herding, Working, and Sporting Groups, and they were all developed to be athletes and capable of a lot of work. That means you should expect the German Shepherd Dog to have a lot of energy and a place where it can use it.

The German Shepherd Dog was developed to have a unique work ethic which made it attractive to governments and the public. To fully understand the breed and its work ethic, let’s begin with an understanding of some history and background about the German Shepherd Dog Breed. Having some breed knowledge helps to put many of these questions into perspective.

Getting to Know the German Shepherd Dog Breed

In the late 1800s, Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz, while studying at the Berlin Veterinary School, became interested in the herding dogs that were being used throughout Germany. But instead of pursuing a career in veterinary medicine or his dream as a gentleman farmer, he relented to family pressure and joined the military.

As a cavalry officer in the German countryside, Von Stephanitz came to admire the sheep-herding dogs he encountered. He noticed their keen intelligence and lightning-fast responsiveness as well as their special abilities to herd sheep. In Germany, flocks of sheep are moved from their pens to open areas along the road where they can pasture. The dog’s job is to keep the sheep on the grassy roadside, away from fast-moving cars and out of a farmer’s crops. This kind of sheep herding is very demanding and is called “tending” or “boundary” herding.  The AKC offers a sport called Herding “C” course. It mirrors this kind of boundary work or as some call it the invisible fence.

Traveling with the German military allowed Von Stephanitz to continue his keen interest in herding dogs and he quickly came to the conclusion that he could breed a better herding dog.  To do this he began by expanding his knowledge. He talked with breeders and attended some of the country’s largest dog shows. In April 1899, his friend Arturo Meyer accompanied him to a show where they spotted a dog named Hektor Linksrhein. He was a four-year-old with a striking, wolf-like appearance. His intelligence and depth of character sealed the deal, and they paid over 200 German gold marks to purchase the dog.  With this first dog, Von Stephanitz set out to develop the ultimate farm dog. He began to breed German sheepdogs on his sprawling estate near the Bavarian town of Griffith.

His first efforts were to place emphasis on standardizing the many German “flavors” of herding dogs that were identifiable as sheepdogs. In the beginning, how they looked was of little importance. His emphasis remained on fixing the traits he considered central to producing the ultimate German herding farm dog.  Because the herding instinct and their working ability was not the issue, he focused on the upright ears and wolf-like body style that so many fanciers admired.

He preferred a smaller and stockier type. Many had wiry coats and curled tails. Some needed better temperaments. Von Stephanitz crossed dogs from Wurttemberg in south Germany – which were generally larger and heavier boned with more tractability. Eventually, he found the middle ground he sought. Working ability and soundness was first followed by appearance. Today, when German Shepherds are judged at dog shows, each submits to a quick temperament test by the judge, to ensure it has a stable temperament.

“Never idle, always on the go, well-disposed to harmless people, but no cringer, good with children and always in love” were the words Von Stephanitz used to describe his new breed.

Work Ethic – Unique to the German Shepherd Dog

From the very beginning, a keen emphasis was placed on the unique character, trainability, and protective instincts found in these herding dogs. Their dependability and their special herding traits became legendary. Over time the breed began to be used for many other services. When blind Morris Frank returned from Switzerland in 1929 with his German Shepherd Dog “Buddy”, he opened the door for German Shepherd Dogs to be used as guide dogs for the blind.  In a very short period of time, the breed would be associated with programs for the blind and for services involving many other disabilities. Their intelligence, trainability, and desire to work put German Shepherd Dog at the top of all lists. Some breeders began their own lines for temperament as opposed to conformation and physical appearance. It was not long before breeding programs throughout America began to selectively breed for service dog programs as their ultimate goal.

Owners of German Shepherds Have a Lot to Say

Most owners characterize their German Shepherd Dog by saying they purchased it because the dog was vibrant, irrepressible, high-energy, and strong. Alertness and attentiveness are often offered as some of the most popular reasons to own one.

Let’s hear what GSD owners have to say:

Mary Jane says that she loves her male German Shepherd because “he is always close to her children and will position himself about 30-40 feet away from them and watches to oversee their play.”  John who works from home says, “I loved my dog because she always knows where I am and I can depend on her.”  Nancy who lives alone in an area with lots of construction workers taught her German Shepherd both English and German commands. She uses one-syllable English and German commands when strangers are around. She says I can tell him in English or German to “SIT” or “DOWN”. He understands both languages. “He will stay there with his alert ears straight up staring at everyone I love him because he makes me feel safe.”

Early history of the breed also helped shape the image and desire to own one. It began with the German army in WWI when the country saw the need for a German military dog. Because the German Shepherd Dog showed no fear on the battlefield, it was used to carry medical supplies and bullets and serve as a sentry. This made it especially effective during day and night time battles.

It wasn’t long before the German army and others came to appreciate the value of this war dog. Other countries also noticed its value which successfully helped to promote the breed and its value worldwide. Unfortunately, sentiment about the Germans in the United States and elsewhere turned, and in 1918, the German Shepherd Dog was renamed the Shepherd Dog in the U.S. The British responded in kind, renaming the breed the Alsatian.

Things changed again, and after the war, the breed’s reputation as a war dog spread. The entertainment industry joined in and created canine film stars such as Rin-Tin-Tin and Strong Heart. The breed suddenly enjoyed skyrocketing popularity.

At the End of the Day, Is a German Shepherd Dog Right for You?

History and 100 years of experience proved that the German Shepherd Dog is a hard worker that also makes it a loyal family pet and guardian.

German Shepherd Dog owners should be prepared for an energetic dog that needs a job. Even if your GSD will be a pet, they were bred to work and will need an outlet for their energy and drive. Keep in mind that you will need to provide your dog with extensive physical and mental exercise every day. Do you have the time and energy to properly socialize and train your GSD? Do you have a steady income if any health issues arise? Do you have enough space for this large breed to flourish? Ask yourself these questions before getting a German Shepherd Dog.

The German Shepherd Dog’s high profile in law enforcement, dog sports, media, and service work has shaped the love and attitude that has developed about this versatile breed. If you are ready to own a GSD, first find a responsible breeder. Your breeder should ask you questions about your lifestyle and answer your questions about the breed. If both you and the breeder are sure the German Shepherd Dog is right for you, enjoy an action-packed life with your new best friend!

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Dr. Carmen Battaglia was given his first dog by his grandfather when he was five years old and has had dogs ever since. In 1960, he and his wife Nancy established the Van Cleve breeding program specializing in the German Shepherd Dog. He is considered an expert on the breed and is one of only a few judges to have judged the German Shepherd National specialty show in three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. He is a popular judge of Herding, Working, and some Sporting breeds and one of only a few to have judged 13 different national specialties (Australian Shepherd, Chinese Shar-pei, Bouvier, Puli, Australian Cattle Dog, Belgium Sheep Dog, Border Collie, Islandic Sheepdog, Canaan Dog, and German Shepherd). 

Through the years he has done extensive breeding and research, which led to several books and more than 70 articles on dogs and education. His dog articles have appeared in the AKC Gazette, Canine Chronicle, Dog World, Dog News, Canadian Shepherd Journal, South African Dog Magazine, and dog publications in Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Ireland.

Related article: German Shepherd Dog History: Origins of the Working Breed
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