What to Know About German Shepherds

Reviewed by Kathleen Claussen, DVM on May 12, 2022

The German shepherd originated in Germany in the late 1800s. Initially, it was bred to be a herding dog, but has become a great police, guard, and military working dog. German shepherds are devoted and courageous and can be great companion dogs. They have a desire to serve a greater purpose and need mental and physical stimulation. Although prone to certain conditions, they are generally a healthy breed and have an average lifespan of about 7 to 10 years.

Generally, the German shepherd is considered an all-purpose worker. Their characteristics include:

  • Confident
  • Courageous
  • Loyal
  • Noble
  • Graceful
  • Intelligent
  • Eager to please

German shepherds are alert and protective. Especially around strangers, they’re able to detect and react to potential threats. This makes them loyal family dogs, but only after you’ve welcomed a stranger into your house will they relax and warm up to them.

German shepherds are strong, muscular, and agile dogs. Their personalities are distinctly direct and fearless. However, they’re not hostile. They have a confidence that makes them excellent watchdogs, service dogs, herding dogs, or guardians. German shepherds are not typically shy dogs, nor do they often show nervousness.

They are a large-sized breed. Males can get up to 24 to 26 inches tall at the shoulders and females are slightly smaller at 22 to 24 inches at the shoulders. A healthy weight for males is between 65 and 90 pounds, and 50 and 70 pounds for females. Their large stature and serious nature make them wonderful guard dogs that will be loyal to your family.

German shepherds are great at providing companionship and always want to be by your side. They're affectionate and dedicated to working hard and learning. They are a breed that can bond with and be fond of children. They'd much rather be surrounded by their family all day than left alone.

They can make a wonderful family pet if you have the time and patience to train and care for a German shepherd. Taking them to training lessons and connecting with them daily helps you bond more quickly.

When it comes to caring for your German shepherd, a lot of it comes down to routine and mental and physical stimulation. To keep a happy, healthy dog, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Watch their diet.
  • Make sure they get enough exercise.
  • Regularly brush their teeth.
  • Keep their coat brushed too.
  • Stick to exam and vaccination schedules.
  • Watch out for unusual signs that something may be wrong.

German shepherds have a medium-length, double coat that is easy to maintain but requires regular brushing. This will help remove loose hairs, but they also heavily shed their coats once or twice a year.

Your German shepherd will need a bath every couple of months, but it can be sooner if they have a particularly muddy day outside. They’ll also need their nails trimmed down once a month to not become overgrown and painful for them to walk on.

German shepherds who don’t get enough mental and physical exercise can become frustrated and misbehave. The best way to keep your dog happy and stimulated is by:

  • Having routine play sessions
  • Working on agility, herding, tracking, and dock diving
  • Teaching them new tricks
  • Going on daily walks for 30 minutes or more

German shepherds can spend time outdoors in cool or temperate climates with a double coat, but they enjoy living inside and being close to their families.

They also need access to plenty of space to run and exercise in. This makes them more suitable for homes and families, not necessarily apartment living unless you can get them outside and to the park daily to help wear them down.

German shepherds do best with positive, reward-based training. They will bond with you and your family, making them want to please you. Early socialization and puppy training classes are essential for your dog to be well-mannered around other dogs.

To ensure your dog is getting all the nutrients they need, find high-quality dog food specifically for their age. Try to avoid giving them table scraps often as this can cause digestive problems. However, you can occasionally add small amounts of yogurt, cooked vegetables, and eggs to your dog’s food.

While there are many wonderful traits and qualities of German shepherds, there are some things you'll need to watch out for. There are some conditions and illnesses that are common for them. With a proper health screening as a puppy and plenty of care throughout their life, you can hopefully reduce the chance of your dog one day becoming affected.

However, here are some health problems to watch out for.

Hip and elbow dysplasia. Due to the shape of German shepherds' hips and legs, they're more prone to this condition. It happens when their hip or elbow joint doesn't fit together well and can lead to painful arthritis.

Bloat. This condition is more likely to occur in dogs with deep, narrow chests like the German shepherd. When a dog bloats, their stomach fills with gas or food. This overfilling can lead to a condition called gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), which happens when the stomach fills with gas and twists. This can cut off blood supply and cause shock. GDV can be life-threatening and must be treated by a veterinarian immediately. Signs of bloat include:

  • An enlarged abdomen
  • Retching
  • Drooling or excessive salivation
  • Restlessness
  • Whining when their abdomen is touched

Canine degenerative myelopathy (D.M.). This condition causes weakness in their back legs and can lead to paralysis.

Epilepsy. This breed, along with a few others, is more prone to developing this brain disorder that causes seizures.

Inherited eye diseases. German shepherds are more likely to get cataracts and multifocal retinal dysplasia. There are screening tests for this, but it can lead to blindness if left untreated.

Hemophilia A and B. These are blood disorders that keep blood from clotting and make wounds more dangerous. German shepherds can be screened for this condition.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). This is a degenerative disease of their pancreas. It can be treated by giving them pancreatic supplements with their food.

Another consideration when getting a German shepherd is when you should spay or neuter them. Your vet will let you know the right age for a puppy to get fixed. If you're rescuing an older dog that's not fixed, scheduling an appointment as soon as they're healthy enough for the procedure is a good idea. When they are spayed or neutered, their risk for certain cancers is decreased. 

At the same time, your dog can get screened for other diseases and conditions while they're under anesthesia. Routine blood testing will help your vet identify specific problems and catch them early, making treatment more successful.

Many of these conditions happen later in life. Most of these ailments, like hip dysplasia, lead to pain as they get older. Screening and genetic tests can help identify if this will become an issue down the road. Looking out for signs of discomfort, pain, or unusual behavior should help you know when to take your German shepherd to the vet.

Temperament. German shepherds' temperament can range from calm and patient to playful and rambunctious. They can be great family pets with children of any age. However, this will largely depend on your dog's personality, training, and socialization. German shepherds are most comfortable with pets and family they've grown up with.

Playing with children. You should always monitor child and dog play to keep them both safe. Don’t leave your young child unattended with your pet, even if you know them to be a good dog. Be sure to teach your child to be gentle with your family pet as well. This can help prevent harm to both of them.

Playing with new people and dogs. By recognizing your dog's signs of anxiety and stress, you can help them avoid trouble with children and other pets. Socializing your German shepherd puppy from a young age can ease their nerves when around new people and dogs. If you're having behavioral issues as your dog gets older, you should reach out to a trainer or dog behaviorist.

Allergies. German shepherds aren’t hypoallergenic dogs. In fact, they can affect your or your family’s allergies for the worse. Since they have a double coat and go through two large shedding events per year, they can cause allergic reactions. Their dander and shedding fur can irritate your sinuses and make your eyes itchy if you’re allergic.

There are steps you can take to alleviate the dog allergies in your home:

  • Keep your dog out of your bedroom and off your bed and pillows.
  • Vacuum and steam-clean your carpet frequently.
  • Change your clothes and wash your hands after playing with your dog.
  • Use an air filter in your home to capture the pet allergens in the air.
  • Talk to your doctor about allergy medication or other treatments.
  • Bathe your dog regularly to reduce the dander and pollen on your dog’s coat.

German shepherds have a rich history. They were first standardized as a breed in Germany in the 1850s. German shepherds were bred to herd sheep and protect flocks from predators. Captain Max von Stephanitz named the breed Deutscher Schäferhund which translates to “German Shepherd Dog.” The breed was recognized as having high intelligence, speed, strength, and sense of smell, helping them herd well.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that German shepherds became popular in the U.S. This was likely due to canine movie stars Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart. When herding was no longer a viable job for a dog, German shepherds began to take on other roles as K-9 workers. Today, German shepherds are the preferred breed for police and military work worldwide.

Show Sources

Photo Credits:

1. Stefan Cioata / Getty Images


AKC: “10 German Shepherd Dog Facts,” “Bloat (or GDV) in Dogs – What It Is and How it’s Treated,” “German Shepherd Dog,” “Official Standard of the German Shepherd Dog.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Are Any Dog Breeds Hypoallergenic?”

Countryside Veterinarian Clinic: “German Shepherd.”

North Shore Animal League America: “Winter Safety Tips to Keep Man’s Best Friend Safe and Warm.”

pdsa: “German Shepherd.”

Europetnet: “German Shepherd.”

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