The very handsome and intelligent German Shepherd is one of the most recognizable of the dog breeds. They have been and continue to be very popular, ranking in the top ten in the U.S. In addition to being loyal family dogs, German Shepherds are often trained to be police dogs (and that indeed is their nickname, originating decades ago), search-and-rescue dogs, and the first guide dog for the blind was a German Shepherd.

German Shepherds are herding dogs, originating in Western Germany in the late 1800s. Captain Max von Stephanitz found a herding dog who performed its shepherding duties with very little training. The dog didn’t resemble today’s German Shepherd, looking more like a wolf with predominantly yellow coloring. The German army used these dogs in World War I and caught the attention of the U.S. servicemen who returned from the war with stories of these heroic dogs. From there, movies featuring Rin-Tin-Tin increased the German Shepherd’s popularity. The breed was so popular that poor breeding practices like today’s puppy mills produced dogs with inferior physical traits.

Breeders worked to improve the breed standard in Germany, developing the dog we know today, however, hip dysplasia still persists as an issue in today’s dogs. The German standard for the breed is larger than the Shepherd in the U.S. with a straight back, as all dogs should look. The U. S. breeders, attempting to breed out the hip dysplasia, have breed Shepherds with sloping backs. This is the AKC breed standard now.

Because of the early poor breeding practices, many German Shepherds could be quite aggressive. They accounted for one in three bites to humans back in the 1950s and 1960s. When I was growing up, the German Shepherd was the dog that people feared, so much like the Pit Bull is maligned today. Prejudices against the breed still persist and many apartments who have breed restrictions do not allow German Shepherds.

German Shepherds are not dogs for the first-time dog owner. They are very intelligent and will take charge if their owner is not in charge. An experienced owner is necessary. Early training and socialization is very important for German Shepherds. They have the tendency to be one-person dogs, aloof with strangers, and highly protective. Early socialization and obedience training will help to prevent this.

German Shepherds tend to love children (if socialized with them at an early age) and will be their protectors. Small children should be watched carefully with the dog, as with all dogs, especially since German Shepherds are herding dogs. They will herd children and may unintentionally cause harm by knocking them down.

Because they are so intelligent, German Shepherds must have something to do. They were bred to work and will get bored if not given an outlet for this energy. Exercise is not enough. Shepherds benefit from group activities such as challenging obedience classes, agility, Frisbee, and even just a game of fetch. If you are considering a German Shepherd for your family, the dog should not be left home alone all day then expect to come home and do nothing with the dog. They need activity and need to be around people. Unlike other herding dogs such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds don’t need tons of exercise but a long daily walk is advised. If you leave the Shepherd alone out in the yard, he will definitely learn to guard the property, if you like it or not.

German Shepherds are highly sensitive dogs, tending to feel the emotions of their people. This is why they make such great working and service dogs. They will easily pick up the personality traits of their owners, becoming soft and sweet if treated properly or aggressive if their owners are angry people. I know a woman who had three Shepherds, all aggressive. She was a screamer and the dogs picked up on her angry personality. So be aware that if you want a Shepherd, they truly will reflect your personality.

Like all dogs, please do your research if you are considering a German Shepherd. Find a rescue group in your area who will have already screened the dog for behavior issues. If you are intent on a puppy, remember that pet stores and Internet sites usually are puppy mills despite how professional they look. No good breeder will ship a dog to you. Go to the American Kennel Club web site (www.akc.org) and find a local German Shepherd club for a reputable breeder.

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