GSD as a pet?
If you’re thinking about getting a German shepherd as a pet there are many facts to consider (some good, some bad, and some ugly). Please note: this is not a one size fits all. All dogs are different (like people). While most dogs will fit into what is mentioned below, some may not fit into everything mentioned.
They can be very intelligent meaning they can be easier to train. Herding dogs traditionally need to “think for themselves”. They need to distinguish between a friend, a nuisance, or a true threat to their pack (including what they are herding). This intelligence has been passed on though generations. Training can be a little tricky but it is far from impossible.
While they can be protectors, generally they’ll know how to tell a real threat and will act neutral to friendly to any newcomer to the family (unless the newcomer is very nervous or apprehensive – they can sense that and act on it). A well trained protection GSD will let children play on him (as long as they don’t hurt him) but not only be able to tell when action is needed, but to quickly act on it without hesitation.
They also have a medium sized coat (unless you have a coated GSD). This means you won’t need to brush it constantly – the coat will stay neat and clean with minimal, but consistent, maintenance. Bathing as needed and brushing maybe once a week.
German shepherds are generally healthy, as long as they are on a good (and healthy) diet and get regular exercise. Unlike some breeds, they are not overly food sensitive and are traditionally not finicky eaters.
GSDs are one of the most versatile breeds. They are a herding breed first but are also very popular with protection (schutzhund) work as well as obedience. True German shepherd fanciers don’t just concentrate on one aspect, you should see them not only showing their dogs but working them, too (and even working them in different avenues).
German shepherds are a larger breed. This can be many concerns, other than the obvious (size). While on paper they seem to be aggressive towards smaller dogs, it is quite the opposite. Most bites happen when a smaller dog runs up to the GSD and acts rudely or inappropriately and the GSD issues a correction. If the dogs were the same size the correction wouldn’t seem much more than a nip but dogs don’t judge and change their reaction to size so even a correction to a smaller breed can be injured, sometimes severely.
German shepherds can also have a lot of energy and can be very powerful. If you’re not up to the challenge of long walks a few times a week or exercise with them (playing fetch in a fenced in yard, running around, even sports like schutzhund) then the GSD may not be for you. While walking them is traditionally not an issue (especially with a trained GSD), some do have a strong herding instinct and may take you for a ride if they see something they feel needs to be herded.
They can be very intelligent. Yes, this is a double edged sword. With intelligence comes the train-ability but they also learn and can get into trouble. They can learn when you are looking and when they can get away with something.
While GSDs are traditionally healthy, there are a few health issues that prospective owners need to pay attention to. Most common is issues with hips (hip dysplasia). This is when the hip isn’t seated well in the socket and can be painful for the dog, even to walk. While this is traditionally not diet related there are some tips you can do to help reduce the chance of hip issues:
- Keep the dog at a good weight, if the dog is overweight this puts much more strain on the hips and can wear them down quickly. You should be able to run your hands down the dogs sizes and feel ribs with very little pressure but they shouldn’t be overly visible.
- Healthy food. Feed the dog healthy food from an early age and if you are not a canine nutritionist, keep in touch with your vet over the puppy’s development. To much or too little protein and the puppy can grow disproportionate.
- Exercise. Keep the dog healthy and don’t let his muscles tighten up. Either a good walk of several miles once or twice a week or 3-5 “play” sessions in a fenced in area (running around, etc.) will keep the dog healthy (plus is builds the human-canine bond up).
German shepherd can be very pack sensitive. They love to be with their pack (family) and do not like being away from them. This can lead to separation anxiety issues where the dog gets nervous with the pack away and may resort to negative behavior including chewing, destroying things, and going to the bathroom indoors. Crate training is a must for any novice GSD owner.
Yes, even a breed as popular as the GSD has some strong negatives.
Their coat is the largest negative the breed has. While their coat isn’t long and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance like some breed do, they can shed. A lot. Don’t ever put the broom away for non-rugs and keep a good vacuum cleaner out for rugs. My wife actually discovered that a 50-50 solution of fabric softener and water in a spray bottle works better than any carpet cleaner spray. Lightly spray over the carpet and let it sit for about 30 minutes before you vacuum. Keep extra bags and bands for the vacuum and keep that brush clean!
Their size. I mentioned this earlier but their size can play a significant role. German shepherds are large (70-90 pounds on average) and are one of the most powerful breeds out there in terms of their overall strength and biting power. While this may not be an issue with adults and other dogs the same size or larger, even play bits or corrections on a child or smaller dog can injure them, sometimes severely. Supervision is a must, especially in the beginning of the relationship between the GSD and the child or smaller dog.
Even though on paper German shepherds account for more bites than any other breed several factors are never mentioned.
First, they are the most popular breed of dog in the world, hands down. If you have 100,000 GSD owners with a .5% bite rate, that’s 500 bites. If you have 1,000 owners of “breed B” even a 40% bite rate will still seem far less than the GSD bite rate.
Second, German shepherds are the most popular breed for protection work (including police and military). If a protection trained (civilian owned) GSD bites someone in the home with malicious intent – it is still considered a bite. The “statistics” do not discriminate between aggressive biting and protective biting.
There is also a very large issue with unethical breeders. As a breed becomes more popular, more unethical breeders pop up trying to cash in on the breed’s popularity. Unfortunately, most people wouldn’t know the difference between an ethical breeder and an unethical breeder. Unethical breeders tend to not care about health issues (and will usually deny any kind of health issues in their lines), the overall health of the dogs, their living conditions, genetic issues, and even who adopts them. They look at dogs as a paycheck and that’s it.
Casa Del Mango has a good in-depth comparison between backyard breeders and puppy mills (generally the lowest breeders), commercial and hobby breeders, up to the reputable breeder.
Before anyone purchases a pet dog they need to do the research and if anyone tells you that the breed has no negatives, they’re lying. Even “the best of breeds” have their setbacks. Prospective owners not only need to find the right dog for them, they need to make sure they are right for the dog.