German Shepherd: Dog Breed Characteristics & Care

History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Side profile of a German Shepherd

The Spruce / Kevin Norris 

One of the most popular dog breeds in the world, German shepherds are large dogs known for their noble, diligent, loyal, and highly intelligent dispositions. They're characterized by a brown and black coat and a streamlined, athletic build that makes them both strong and agile. Though they are excellent herding dogs, German shepherds are also very well suited to work as service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind. They also perform well as working dogs, especially in police and military operations and make highly effective guard dogs. Some have even been famous movie stars. And of course, the German shepherd dog also makes a wonderful companion in the right home.

Breed Overview

Group: Herding

Height: 22 to 26 inches

Weight: 60 to 100 pounds

Coat: Coarse, medium-length double coat

Coat Color: Most colors are acceptable, such as bicolor, black and tan, black and cream, black and red, black and silver, solid black, gray, sable. Note that blue, liver or white are unfavorable based on breed standards.

Life Span: 7 to 10 years

Temperament: Intelligent, courageous, alert, bold, loyal, protective

Hypoallergenic: No

Origin: Germany

Characteristics of the German Shepherd

As a breed, German shepherds have a personality that is protective, loyal and companionable. Bred with a strong work ethic, they are among the most popular dog breeds in the United States, thanks in large part to their ability to be great family dogs. They love "their people" but can be cautious around strangers or newcomers and thrive on the care and attention of their family.

This isn't the right breed for you if you are rarely home, live in a very small home without access to a yard for exercise, or simply don't have a lot of time to devote to your pet. The German shepherd needs a lot of companionship and attention to thrive and to help ward off destructive or annoying behaviors that can rise out of anxiety or boredom.

While most German shepherds are family pets, many of these dogs are hard-working canines in various jobs that serve humans, including search-and-rescue, police work, drug or bomb-sniffing, service or seeing-eye work, and entertainment.

Affection Level High
Friendliness Medium
Kid-Friendly High
Pet-Friendly Low
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level Medium
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark High
Amount of Shedding High

History of the German Shepherd

The ancestors of German shepherd dogs acted as both servants and companions to humans for hundreds of years. Developed from old shepherd and farm dogs, the German shepherd dogs we know today were first introduced in Germany in 1899. Captain Max von Stephanitz is credited with the breed's beginnings.

During World Wars I and II, the word "German" was dropped and the breed was referred to as the shepherd dog or the Alsatian (a name that is still often used in Europe). Worldwide interest in the breed began rising in the early 1900s and the German shepherd was recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1908.

In modern times, the German shepherd remains one of the most popular dog breeds, currently ranking fourth in the AKC listings. Cross-breeding these dogs with Shiloh shepherds resulted in king shepherds. There is recent controversy over the breeding of show dogs to have a sloping back rather than the straight back seen with working dogs—this practice has been criticized as leading to poor gait.

US Marine and German Shepherd in South Vietnam.
US Marine and German Shepherd in South Vietnam. Co Rentmeester / Getty Images
Training Dogs for the French "Gendarmerie"
Training Dogs for the French "Gendarmerie". ​Jacques Pavlovsky / Getty Images 
Earthquake rescue workers with german shepherds
Earthquake rescue workers with german shepherds. Owen Franken - Corbis / Getty Images 

German Shepherd Care

German shepherd dogs require a decent amount of care, training, and attention but they will reward you with many years of loyalty and love as a result. They are well suited to families of all types but are best acquired as pets when they're young so they have ample time to be trained and adjust to life with their humans.

Portrait of a German Shepherd
The Spruce / Kevin Norris 
A German Shepherd

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

Closeup of a German Shepherd's fur
The Spruce / Kevin Norris


Due to the high energy level of this breed, plenty of regular exercise is essential. Your German shepherd probably needs more exercise than you think—a daily walk is not enough. If you're a jogger, a German shepherd can be a good running companion. Your dog needs to run, play, and explore to prevent frustration, boredom, and pent-up energy. A dog that is bored may develop problems such as barking, digging, and chewing.

German shepherd dogs are better off in a home where there is a fenced yard for play rather than an apartment. However, it's even more important that your dog is given plenty of attention and not left alone most of the day.


German shepherds have coarse, sometimes wiry, medium-length hair with thick undercoats. Their coats should be brushed every few days to combat their relatively high shedding rate, which can be lessened by routine grooming. Still, you should be prepared to have dog hair on your clothing and furniture—you'll need to vacuum frequently. Luckily, a German shepherd's coat also resists dirt and debris, so you won't need to bathe your dog more than once a month. In fact, too-frequent bathing will strip out the oils that keep its coat healthy.

Remember to keep your dog's nails trimmed to help them walk around comfortably. You should also help your dog maintain good dental hygiene by brushing its teeth a couple of times a week. These dogs like to chew and have powerful jaws, so keep durable chew toys available.


German shepherds can be very gentle companions and family protectors with proper training and socialization. It's an ideal breed for active households, and the intelligence and protective demeanor of this breed can make it a good choice for families with children (as long as the dog is properly trained).

German shepherds can sometimes become anxious or even aggressive if not properly trained and handled. These dogs will ideally be trained to perform a duty and will take pride in such. The breed's intelligence and desire to work should make training fairly easy. Proper socialization is also necessary to make sure your German shepherd does not become stressed or scared when meeting new people or animals and seeing new environments. They're typically aloof around new people and may be suspicious.

Additionally, German shepherds may have a tendency to chase cats and other small pets and may not be a good fit for a multi-pet household unless raised together. They also may not get along with strange dogs, especially of the same sex, which may be a problem when you visit a dog park.

Common Health Problems

Responsible breeders strive to maintain the highest breed standards as established by kennel clubs like the AKC. German shepherd dogs bred by these standards are less likely to inherit health conditions, however, some hereditary health problems can occur in the breed. The following are some conditions to be aware of:

  • Hip dysplasia: This genetic orthopedic disorder affects the hip joints of many large-breed dogs. It causes pain, limping, and degeneration of the joint.
  • Elbow dysplasia: This is another orthopedic problem that is similar to hip dysplasia, but affects the dog's front legs, rather than the back.
  • Elbow hygroma: This alarming, but non-cancerous growth is a fluid-filled swelling over the dog's elbow. It is usually caused by minor trauma, and although unsightly, normally does not cause the dog pain unless the hygroma becomes infected.
  • Gastric dilatation-volvulus: Also called bloat, this is a very serious condition that occurs when a dog's stomach expands with gas or food and then flips within the abdominal cavity, cutting off the exits from the dog's stomach. Bloat can be fatal without prompt treatment.
  • Degenerative myelopathy: This progressive neurological condition affects a dog's spinal cord. It starts with weakness in the hind legs and ultimately progresses to paralysis.
German shepherds as Pets

The Spruce / Emilie Dunphy

Diet and Nutrition

Your adult German shepherd will need two meals a day of up to two cups of dry dog food, but this will depend on the dog's size, activity level, age, and other factors. You may also want to mix canned dog food into the kibble for extra flavor and interest. German shepherds are prone to bloating and possible stomach torsion, so you'll want to avoid giving one large meal a day and having the dog gulp it down. Be sure your dog has constant access to clean, fresh water.

Monitor your dog's weight and address any overweight issues early, as obesity will shorten your dog's lifespan. You can also discuss nutritional needs with your veterinarian to get recommendations for feeding schedules and dog food types throughout your dog's life.

Where to Adopt or Buy a German Shepherd

If you think you'd like to adopt a German shepherd, start by contacting one of the following organizations:

These groups will be able to provide guidance and next steps for adoption as well as direct you to reputable breeders if you choose to go that route. The AKC also boasts a marketplace where you can inquire about AKC-registered litters that have been cared for and raised according to breed standards. While prices vary, you can generally expect to pay around $1,000 for a German shepherd puppy, depending on sex, appearance, demand, and more.

German shepherds, especially German shepherd mixes, are very common at animal rescues, so if you aren't concerned about your dog being purebred, or you simply prefer to rescue a pet rather than purchase one, it's always a good idea to start your search with local animal rescue organizations.

German Shepherd Overview

German shepherds are perennially popular dogs and will continue to be looked upon as desirable and loving companions for decades to come. Provided you can meet their requirements for training, exercise and companionship, they are sure to be a great addition to your home and family.

  • Extremely trainable

  • Loyal

  • Effective guard dog

  • May not get along with other pets

  • Can be aggressive if not properly trained

  • Needs a yard

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

As with any breed, if you think the German shepherd dog is right for you, be sure to do plenty of research before you get one. Talk to other owners, reputable breeders, and rescue groups to learn more.

If you’re interested in similar breeds, look into these breeds to compare the pros and cons.

There's a whole world of potential dog breeds out there—with a little research, you can find the right one to bring home!

  • How fast can a German shepherd run?

    German shepherds can run up to 30 miles per hour, although they cannot maintain this speed for long. Still, their speed is one of the many features that make this breed so valuable for police work and for use as a guard dog.

  • Why is my German shepherd so skinny?

    There are many reasons why a German shepherd would be too skinny. Among them, your dog may have worms or parasites, have dental issues that make eating unpleasant, or it's possible you might not be meeting its nutritional needs with the food you're feeding it. Now would be a good time to bring your dog to the vet for a check-up so you can find out what's wrong.

  • What is a sable German shepherd?

    Sable refers to a specific colored coat: black fur with light roots. Sable is actually the original color pattern of this breed, but today, you are likelier to find German shepherds that are tan or red with a black saddle. Of course, German shepherd do come in other colors as well, including solid white.