A Guide to German Shepherds

October 23, 2018

Loving and dependable, the German Shepherd Dog (commonly called the German Shepherd) would make an excellent addition to any family. If you are considering bringing a German Shepherd into your home, we have all the information you need to make informed decisions regarding the care of your new pup. We’ve included important details about this breed’s physical characteristics, playtime needs, grooming tips, nutrition, and more. At the bottom of this guide, you will find a comprehensive list of all the health conditions we test for here at Embark, as well as recommendations for treatable diseases from our veterinarians. Enjoy!

Your guide to German Shepherds

german shepherd

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), German Shepherds are “loyal, confident, courageous, and steady… truly a dog lover’s delight.” Their determination, intelligence, and gentleness make them exceptional family pets. In fact, German Shepherds are the second most popular dog in households across the United States. Because of their many exemplary traits, these pups often work closely with their human companions, engaged as therapy dogs and in the aid of law enforcement and military.

You can adopt a German Shepherd at an animal shelter or find a breeder. It’s important to look for breeders that can provide detailed health records for their puppies (and parents!) as well as genetic testing for health conditions. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and their Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) maintains a voluntary database of German Shepherds and their health screening results.

Fun facts

Here are some fun facts about German Shepherds, according to Inside Dog’s World and the AKC:

  • There’s a reason people call them “German shedders.” German Shepherds have a double coat, which equals twice as much fur!
  • They learn new tasks after an average of only five repetitions.
  • When formal guide dog training began in Switzerland in the 1920’s, all of the canines trained were German Shepherds.
  • The nose of this breed has around 225 million scent receptors (humans have 400) which enables them to excel at detecting scents on the air and ground.
  • German Shepherds were standardized in Germany in the mid-1800s, where they were working as sheep herders, protecting them from predators.

Physical characteristics

A GSD’s double-coat is comprised of a thick undercoat and a finer, sometimes wavy outercoat. The German Shepherd Dog has a long body in proportion to its height. They are generally between 22 and 26 inches and 75 to 95 pounds once fully grown. The agility of the GSD is part of their lineage, and this is evident in their form. According to the AKC, “when viewed in outline, [GSDs] present a picture of smooth, graceful curves rather than angles. Their natural gait is a free-and-easy trot, but they can reach great speeds.”

Bringing your new German Shepherd home

Your dog’s first week at home should be as calm and quiet as possible. Give your new family member ample time to adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings. A steady routine from the very first day will grant your German Shepherd the stability they need to thrive. Puppytraining.com reiterates two words when it comes to your dog’s introduction to their new home and family: consistency and patience. Allowing these terms to serve as a guide for your dog’s first weeks with you will encourage a smooth and enjoyable transition for all.

Take lots of pictures of your dog’s introduction to the family! Click here for some tips to help you get the best pictures of your pup, including tricks for lighting, editing, and close-ups.

Picking a name for your pup is an interesting task. The New York Times describes it aptly as a combination of “art… science, serendipity, [and] intuition.” We tend to agree! There are so many names to choose from, but once you’ve landed on the right one, repetition is key. Begin calling them by their new name directly and they will perk up at the sound in no time. Studies show that names with one or two syllables will catch your dog’s attention the fastest. Check out our list of the most popular dog names of 2018 if you are in need of ideas!


german shepherd

According to the ASPCA, a balanced diet is vital to your dog’s growth and health and feeding your German Shepherd a diet of commercial dog food is adequate. The ASPCA reports that “barring any special needs, illness-related deficiencies, or instructions from your vet, your pet should be able to get all the nutrients he or she needs from high-quality commercial pet foods, which are specially formulated with these standards in mind,” but portion control is important!

Be sure to align your dog’s diet with their activity levels and age. Most commercial pet food brands will indicate which products suit the age of your German Shepherd.

The best thing you can do for your pup when it comes to diet is talk to your veterinarian about a meal plan.


German Shepherds are very active and require plenty of physical exercise. If not exercised properly, German Shepherds can develop undesirable behavioral traits. Puppies can begin with walks around the neighborhood, but as they grow, their exercise needs will grow with them. German Shepherds also do well with consistent training. According to the AKC, “the German Shepherd is a highly intelligent companion and an extraordinary worker. Consistency and positive, reward-based training will yield excellent results.” Petwave.com has tips on combating boredom in your dog and says “mental exercise” is excellent for this breed.

“They are extremely intelligent and, like many other breeds, enjoy working with their owners. German Shepherds thrive in advanced obedience work and on agility courses,” according to Petwave.com

There are so many ways to play! You can take your dog for a run or hike and play fetch, tug-of-war, or frisbee. You can even play hide and seek with a treat or create a DIY agility course in your yard. Click here for some tips on running and hiking with your dog.


German Shepherds are easy to maintain. They usually require a brushing every few days to remove loose hairs, but they shed more copiously twice a year. When winter approaches, a German Shepherd will shed their summer coat and again when warmer weather heralds spring. During these periods, more frequent brushing will help control the amount of hair around your home. A German Shepherd only needs an occasional bath so as not to disrupt the important oils on their skin. It is important to trim their nails monthly if they are not worn down naturally.

Health & aging

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Do you know your pup’s birthday? If not, you might choose their date of adoption as a special day to celebrate them!

German Shepherds have a lifespan of about 7-10 years, according to Animal Planet. Senior German Shepherds can still live full and happy lives with the proper care and activity. Depending on ability, your senior German Shepherd will be able to enjoy walks, swimming, and light movement.

Getting your pup tested with Embark will arm you with as much information as possible to take the best care of your furry friend.

Embark tests for the following health conditions that could affect your German Shepherd:

Achromatopsia – This is a congenital eye disorder that leads to vision loss.

Degenerative Myelopathy  – A disease of mature dogs, this is a progressive degenerative disorder of the spinal cord that can cause muscle wasting and gait abnormalities. There is no treatment, but there are many options for management. It does have the power to take your dog’s life and is typically seen in senior dogs.

X-linked Ectodermal Dysplasia, Anhidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia – This is a developmental condition that causes a thin hair coat, malformed teeth, and scant sweat glands. Dogs with this condition can lead healthy and normal lives with the right care.

Renal Cystadenocarcinoma and Nodular Dermatofibrosis (RCND) This is a rare, multiorgan syndrome that manifests in adulthood. Affected dogs display thick skin nodules and signs of kidney disease, and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Affected females also develop removable tumors of the uterine muscle. Treatment for RCND remains palliative to increase your dog’s comfort and quality of life.

Recommendations from our veterinary team on treatable diseases above:

Achromatopsia – Dogs with fully manifested achromatopsia have difficulty adjusting their eyes to brightly lit areas. They do just fine in dim environments and at night but may need a bit of help navigating the world on bright days. You may also notice them blinking repeatedly in bright sunlight. While this is not commonly done, shading your dog’s vision with a dog hat or providing dog sunglasses may help.

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)  – While there is no cure for DM, many vets recommend that DM “At Risk” dogs incorporate antioxidants and a source of fatty acids into their diet. “I always recommend a high-quality fish oil and a multivitamin for dogs who are ‘at risk’ for DM,” says Embark Senior Veterinary Geneticist Erin Chu. “Talk to your vet about their favorite brands and the right dosage for your pup!” Also, remember that a risk variant doesn’t mean that a dog will develop disease, our vets caution, though German Shepherds are more likely to develop the disease than most dog breeds should they have the “At Risk” status.

X-linked Ectodermal Dysplasia, Anhidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia – Note that this is a rare condition that is often noticed very early in life. If your dog does have ectodermal dysplasia, talk to your veterinarian about how to manage it, says Veterinary Geneticist Kate Robinson. “Thermal control is important, as ED dogs cannot sweat from their paw pads as do most dogs; they are also at higher risk for respiratory and eye infections due to reduced production of mucus and tears from respective organs. ED dogs also have fewer teeth than most, requiring some food modifications, and are more prone to dental disease and mouth problems due to their sharper, pointier teeth and incomplete jaw development,” Robinson said.

What we have our eye on for the future:

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus – Lupus is a commonly known autoimmune disease where the body produces antibodies against itself. This leads to multiple organ damage. While a solid link between genetics and lupus has yet to be identified, many believe that the dog leukocyte antigen or DLA genes (the doggie version of the MHC genes in humans) may be involved. Treatment at this time involves immunomodulatory therapy and regular monitoring of organ function.

Megaesophagus – Megaesophagus is the inappropriate dilatation of the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. This disease can usually be managed by feeding frequent, small, high-calorie meals from an elevated location to allow gravity to assist with the passage of food. A modified high chair, called a Bailey chair, is often used to provide an elevated feeding position. Food consistency can also be experimented with (meatballs, slurries) to determine which causes the least regurgitation.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) – EPI is a syndrome characterized by inadequate amounts of pancreatic digestive enzymes. The pancreas is a digestive organ located near the stomach and upper small intestine. Clinical signs of EPI are attributable to maldigestion and malabsorption of nutrients. Treatment includes providing lifelong digestive enzyme supplements of porcine or bovine origin with each meal and antibiotic therapy and cobalamin or other vitamin supplementation as indicated. If diagnosed early and treated properly, German Shepherd Dogs often respond well.

Masticatory Muscle Myositis (MMM)  This is inflammation of the powerful muscles of the temples and top of the head that are used in chewing to close the jaw.  When MMM is diagnosed and treated early, a dog usually regains normal jaw function and the ability to open and close his mouth without pain.  

Hemangiosarcoma (HSA) – Hemangiosarcoma is a cancer of the blood vessels, and as such often occurs in organs with high blood flow such as the spleen. Other common locations for hemangiosarcoma include the skin, heart, and liver. Hemangiosarcomas are most commonly diagnosed via abdominal ultrasound. Note that a major rupture of a hemangiosarcoma is an emergency and may require immediate surgical intervention.

We hope that this guide helps you with your German Shepherd and that you remain happy together for many, many years to come! However, we also know that the only unfortunate part of having a pup means you will eventually lose them. If you are grieving and in need of a resource, click here for a relevant blog post.

Thanks for Embarking with us!

A Guide to German Shepherds
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