The German Shepherd Dog, sometimes referred to as the “German Shepherd” – or simply “Shepherd” – is one of the world’s most recognizable purebred dogs. Its strong, muscular body and innate intelligence have made it the breed of choice for countless families and law enforcement officials for more than a century.

A popular breed in the United States ever since the first Rin Tin Tin jumped onto the silver screen following World War I, the German Shepherd Dog possesses the kind of star quality to which most other breeds can only aspire. Wherever a GSD makes an appearance, heads turn, as onlookers are star-struck by the physical form and fearless character of this iconic canine commando.

The German Shepherd Dog is descended from sheep-herding dogs that were common throughout various regions of Germany. The Altdeutscher Schäferhund was developed largely through natural selection, and bred principally as a working farm dog. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, attempts were being made to standardize the breed for its appearance as well as its working qualities.

In 1899, the Society for the German Shepherd Dog was formed by Max von Stephanitz when he registered a dog he’d purchased at a dog show in Karlsruhe. The “wolflike” animal, Hektor Linksrhein, was renamed Horand von Grafrath and was considered by the club’s early members as the epitome of the breed.

According to “The German Shepherd Dog…,” published by the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, “As early as 1905, we had dogs in this country entered at shows as German Sheepdogs in the classes for foreign dogs. In 1911, they were registered as a separate breed; in 1918, the American Kennel Club listed them as Shepherd Dogs; and in 1930, the name became German Shepherd Dog.”

For many years in the U.K., the GSD was known by the name “Alsatian,” a reference to the Alsace region of France. The name change was likely made to distance the popular breed from its country of origin with which Britain was at war for many years. In 1978, the Kennel Club reinstated the breed’s original name; however some fanciers still adhere to its Franco designation and produce a somewhat different style dog.

British fanciers, however, are not alone in making the German Shepherd Dog their own. Perhaps owing to its global appeal and suitability for all types of work, it might be said that the breed has been modified in form and function more than any other purebred. Wherever it has garnered favor, the GSD’s conformation – and style – have been adjusted to suit the requirements of those fanciers who have taken up its cause. North American, British and European show lines exist in the breed, as do East and West German, and Czech working lines.

The perceptive mind and physical prowess of the GSD perfectly suit the breed to a life of service. In addition to herding and guarding the flock, the breed has been enlisted as a police, guard and military dog, a guide and service dog, a drug and bomb detection dog, and a search and rescue dog. As a companion, the breed possesses an uncommon loyalty and devotion, and it excels at every level of Schutzhund competition. As a show dog, the breed’s accomplishments are unequaled in the dog sport.

In 1984, Ch. Covy Tucker Hills Manhattan, a 5-year-old bred by Cappie Pottle and Gloria Birch, and owned by Shirlee Braunstein and Jane Firestone, was piloted by Jimmy Moses to Best in Show at the American Kennel Club’s Centennial Show and Obedience Trial at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Three years later, the peerless performer that satisfied both breeder-judges and all-rounders throughout his career went Best in Show under judge and former AKC President Louis Auslander at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

The winningest show dog ever in the history of U.S. dog shows is Ch. Altana’s Mystique, a GSD bitch bred by Maureen Charlton and owned by Jane Firestone. ‘Mystique’ was also handled by Jimmy Moses, and together the two legends amassed a record 275 all-breed Bests, a feat that in all likelihood will never be repeated.

The adaptable and dependable German Shepherd Dog remains an ideal companion, committed to a life of service no matter how it is asked to serve. Its popularity among American dog lovers today is proven by 2011 AKC registrations that placed the breed second of the 173 recognized breeds.

The German Shepherd Dog is an adaptable and dependable performer noted for its perceptive mind and physical prowess. Photo © Cherkas/Dreamstime.

A Look of Quality and Nobility

The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the German Shepherd Dog as making a good first impression. The breed ‘s strong, agile and well-muscled form is unmistakable. “It looks substantial and not spindly, giving the impression, both at rest and in motion, of muscular fitness and nimbleness without any look of clumsiness or soft living,” according to the standard. “The ideal dog is stamped with a look of quality and nobility – difficult to define, but unmistakable when present.”

The breed is longer than it is tall, with a length to height ratio of 10 to 8-1/2 as measured from prosternum to rear edge of pelvis, and from the ground to the top of the shoulder blade. Dogs and bitches display “strongly marked” secondary sex characteristics, and as referenced by the standard, “every animal gives a definite impression of masculinity or femininity, according to its sex.”

Viewed in standing profile, the German Shepherd Dog is smooth in outline with no jarring angles. The topline begins with a muscular neck and continues toward the withers. “The withers are higher than and sloping into the level back,” according to the standard’s section on topline. “The back is straight, very strongly developed without sag or roach, and relatively short.” The breed is deep-bodied, and its construction gives the impression of “depth and solidity, without bulkiness.”

Alert and Full of Life

Its AKC breed standard describes the German Shepherd Dog as “alert and full of life.” Expression is characterized as being “keen, intelligent and composed.” Nothing, it appears, can rattle this rock star.

“Noble, cleanly chiseled, strong without coarseness” is an apt description for the head of this canine matinee idol. Its medium-sized, almond-shaped eyes are set “a little obliquely, and not protruding,” and their color is “as dark as possible.”

The skull presents a “moderately arched” forehead, and “slopes into the long, wedge-shaped muzzle without abrupt stop,” according to the standard’s section on the head. The planes of the skull and top of the muzzle are parallel, and the muzzle itself is “long and strong,” ending with a predominantly black nose. A distinctly masculine or feminine appearance should be self-evident.

The GSD’s expressive ears are no less a part of its signature good looks. Proportionate to the skull, they are “moderately pointed,” with an ideal carriage that, when viewed from the front, “are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground.” Dogs with cropped or hanging ears are to be disqualified from the conformation show ring.

The “direct and fearless” GSD is “incorruptible” in character, with “a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships.” The breed must be approachable, according to the standard’s section on temperament, with a “willingness to meet overtures without itself making them.”

“It is poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert; both fit and willing to serve in its capacity as companion, watchdog, blind leader, herding dog, or guardian, whichever the circumstances may demand. The dog must not be timid, shrinking behind its master or handler; it should not be nervous,” according to the standard. Anything less than self-confidence is a deficiency and is considered a serious fault, and any dog that attempts to bite the judge is to be disqualified.

Bred for all types of work, from sheep herding to personal protection, dentition plays a big role in the breed’s ability to perform. “Jaws are strongly developed,” according to the standard, and the teeth “are strongly developed and meet in a scissors bite in which part of the inner surface of the upper incisors meet and engage part of the outer surface of the lower incisors.” The standard mentions a total of 42 teeth, 20 upper and 22 lower, and indicates that any missing teeth “other than first premolars” are a serious fault. Likewise, a level or overshot bite is undesirable, but an undershot bite disqualifies.

An Outreaching, Elastic Gait

The “harmonious development of the forequarter and hindquarter,” as described by the General Appearance section of the standard, demonstrates the GSD’s fitness for all kinds of work. No other breed moves quite like this one.

According to the standard’s section on gait, “The German Shepherd Dog is a trotting dog, and its structure has been developed to meet the requirements of its work.” The general impression is of a dog “covering the maximum amount of ground with the minimum number of steps.” The gait is described as “outreaching, elastic, seemingly without effort, smooth and rhythmic.”

Both hind legs and forelegs demonstrate a ground-covering stride, even at the walk. “At a trot the dog covers still more ground with even longer stride, and moves powerfully but easily, with coordination and balance so that the gait appears to be the steady motion of a well-lubricated machine,” according to the standard.

Locomotion is a major aspect of type in the GSD, and handlers are expected to keep up as their dogs “fly” around the show ring. The breed’s characteristic “flying trot” is best described through the words of the standard: “The feet travel close to the ground on both forward reach and backward push. In order to achieve ideal movement of this kind, there must be good muscular development and ligamentation. The hindquarters deliver, through the back, a powerful forward thrust which slightly lifts the whole animal and drives the body forward. Reaching far under, and passing the imprint left by the front foot, the hind foot takes hold of the ground; then hock, stifle and upper thigh come into play and sweep back, the stroke of the hind leg finishing with the foot still close to the ground in a smooth follow-through. The overreach of the hindquarter usually necessitates one hind foot passing outside and the other hind foot passing inside the track of the forefeet, and such action is not faulty unless the locomotion is crabwise with the dog’s body sideways out of the normal straight line.”

The German Shepherd Dog is unique among purebred dogs in its status as a family and service dog par excellence, and in its ability to command attention, whether in motion or in repose.