German Shepherd Dog (GSD)

German Shepherd Dog (GSD)


Group: Pastoral

Size: Medium - Large


The Pastoral group is made up of dogs that used to be bred purely for working with livestock and includes drovers, guarding dogs and herding dogs. Pastoral dog breeds are highly intelligent, have excellent endurance and therefore require a large amount of exercise as they were bred to work for hours rounding up livestock. They also require a large amount of mental stimulation to keep them happy.

The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) is a medium to large breed and belongs to the Pastoral group. This is defined by the Kennel Club as "herding dogs that are associated with working cattle, sheep, reindeer and other cloven footed animals".


Clinical Tip: From a clinical perspective we need to consider the nature and temperament of this breed as they are highly intelligent and "think outside the box". This fact will influence your choices of assessment and treatment techniques.

GSD Conformation + Morphology

  • Head shape; mesaticephalic
  • Body shape; mesomorphic
  • Coat type; double coat which is close and dense with a thick undercoat, can be medium or long-haired
  • Coat colour; black or black saddle with tan, gold or light grey markings. Bi-colour black / tan. All black, all grey, with lighter or brown markings referred to as Sables
  • Paw shape; oval
  • Tail shape; sabre / saber (heavy military sword shape)
  • Ear shape; erect (pricked) which can move independent of each other

GSD: Breed Gait Facts

Understanding the conformational differences within this breed (interbreed variation) and the impact these may have on the efficiency of their gait is an important viewpoint for all therapist's to consider when working with the GSD.

Topline (backline)

There is a significant split in this desired breed conformation and breeding programmes, between the sloping topline and the level topline.

To see what might be called the most "natural canine topline", we should explore nature to see toplines untouched by the genetic manipulation and aesthetic influence of humans.

Look at the “primitive breeds” such as Dingo, Canaan Dog, and a few others. We see in these nature-selected dogs a topline that does not resemble the downward-sloping backs of many modern dogs or the almost wheel-back that has or had become acceptable in a few coursing hounds.

The wild dog has a level topline segment—called the true back—between the scapulae (shoulder blades) and the pelvis (topline slope). All other toplines (backlines), with possible minor exceptions in a very few coursing hounds, should be considered unnatural or at least human designed.

In modern dogs, any topline that deviates from this wild-dog model is, actually a “mutation” that has been fixed in these breeds because of human intervention, rather than the natural selection. In nature, the inefficient or odd tends to die out, because the carriers do not get as much chance to breed—only the more functional individuals tend to get the greatest opportunities to contribute their genes to offspring.

The ideal conformation for the GSD are parallel hocks and perpendicular limbs for the most efficient movement. Angled hocks in the GSD are undesirable and described as "cow hocked".

Survival of the fittest is still a valid norm.

We also need to consider the much discussed shoulder angulation in the dog. A holistic view of breed biology needs to consider the breed biomechanical design as part of the efficient natural balanced motion.

We also know from sound research that we need to target the mid-range of this breed, as extreme ranges of biomechanical designed dogs are less efficient in the long term and more prone to injuries.

This is seen in the GSD with sloping toplines, linked to Hip Dysplasia (HD) and poor movement quality over the lifetime of the dog.


Signpost to Hub 1: Scapulothoracic joint

Conformational and topline variances within the GSD breed is going to directly impact the efficiency of their natural balanced motion and their functional abilities. In addition any underlying pathophysiology will also negatively impact the quality of their movement.

Following on from this, consider the gait pattern of a GSD with established HD. The abnormal secondary gait pattern seen is described as "bunny hopping".

"Bunny hopping" is the result of significant muscle atrophy of the Gluteal Muscle mass, leading to lack of dynamic stability around the hip joint and poor powering of the affected pelvic limb.

The dogs innate system leads to a poor secondary patterning where the two pelvic limbs are "strutted" together as one to provide the necessary force for galloping.


Clinical Tip: With effective rehabilitation targeting the Gluteals and Hamstring Muscle group we can use changes in gait patterning as a useful outcome measure. Utilising muscle plasticity makes muscle atrophy / hypertrophied a two way process, observed when the dog returns to a more normal efficient pattern.

Common Conditions + Problems

  • Hip Dysplasia (HD) ; is the abnormal development of the canine hip joint and is one of the most common joint conditions seen in dogs
  • Elbow Dysplasia (ED); is a condition involving multiple developmental abnormalities of the canine elbow joint, specifically the growth of cartilage or the structures surrounding it
  • Panosteitis; also referred to as 'growing pains' is a painful inflammation of the outer surface or shaft of one or more long bones of the limbs
  • Degenerative Myelopathy; is a non-painful, progressive degenerative spinal cord disease in older dogs, which leads to pelvic limb paralysis
  • Degenerative Disc Disease; is an age-related, degenerative condition which causes spontaneous degeneration of the annulus fibrosus, resulting in sudden disc rupture or herniation (also known as a "slipped disc")
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI); is a deficiency of the exocrine pancreatic enzymes, which results in the inability to digest food properly, or maldigestion
  • Von Willebrand Disease (vWD); is an inherited bleeding disorder caused by a deficiency in the amount of Von Willebrand Factor protein needed to help platelets stick together and form clots to seal broken blood vessels
  • Osteoarthritis; is a progressive degeneration of the normal structures within a joint which is the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs
  • Gastric Dilatation Volvulous (GDV); also known as torsion / bloat is a rapidly progressive life-threatening condition, most commonly seen in large, deep-chested breeds
  • Perianal Fistula; also known as anal furunculosis is a serious medical condition and is usually associated with an infection of the perianal region, with one or more draining tracts present
  • Epilepsy; seizures are the physical manifestation of uncontrolled and hyper-synchronous electrical activity in the brain which cause a loss of consciousness, involuntary repetitive movements, salivation, urination and defecation
  • Pannus; also known as Chronic Superficial Keratitis (CSK) is an immune-mediated condition which affects the cornea and occurs primarily in middle aged dogs. It's a non painful condition which causes visual impairment
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA); is an inherited disease that causes slowly progressive blindness over a period of months or years
  • Skin Allergies; may be related to food, the environment and stress
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE); an immune-mediated disease in which the dogs immune system attacks its own tissues


This breed has a large list of common conditions and problems as well as having inter breed conformational differences, for example their "topline".

GSD Temperament + Personality

The GSD is incredibly intelligent, alert, confident, watchful and obedient and they are loyal particularly to their chosen human.

As a canine therapist it is important to understand the wide range of personalities within this breed. These can range from a nervous, highly strung GSD to a confident, alert, biddable dog and everything in between.

This reflects the amazing diversity within the breed.

Introducing Jackson

A male, 7 year old, black and tan GSD who lives with Karynne, his "special human person" in NZ, who runs K9 Aqua Ltd (K9HS satellite centre).

"I'm Jackson and I was diagnosed with bilateral hip dysplasia (HD) at 9 months of age, although my human mum had her suspicions from 4 months of age.

Mum told me that she worried and had observed a change in my gait patterning. My running style had changed and I was “bunny hopping” with my hind limbs.

Me, as a puppy! How cute.
Me, as a puppy! How cute.

My mum asked the dog Doctor to take photos of my hips when I was 9 months old and these showed that I have bilateral hip dysplasia, the right is worse than my left.

We live on a small farm and there is always local wildlife to chase and sometimes I am a bit sore afterwards. This always meant that I displayed reactive behaviours towards the physiotherapist to let her know when she touched a sore spot.

Sometimes, I would even reactive if she touched my paw as I thought it was going to hurt!

Gradually with more frequent physiotherapy treatments, I was much more comfortable and less reactive.

I am incredibly lucky that mum already had a hydrotherapy pool, so I have had regular sessions all my life.

Mum says this not only strengthened and tightened my hip joints, but also saved her sanity as I was only a puppy and needed some physical and mental stimulation!

We use conservative management to treat my hips and mum tries really hard to let me have a good life, but tries to stop me doing silly things that make me too sore. I think she calls it a "balancing act".

Jackson and Karynne working together in the aquatic treadmill
Jackson and Karynne working together in the aquatic treadmill

She helps me keep my weight down and takes me to the dog Doctor for a monthly injection. Mum stopped throwing toys for me to run after, gives me a cosy padded bed to sleep on and rugs on any slippery floors. I have to use a ramp to get in and out of her vehicle and she always adds yummy supplements to my food and gives me medicine to help with any pain.

I get relaxing massages, laser and of course, hydrotherapy! Now that mum shows other people how hydrotherapy is a fabulous career choice, she asks me to help her. She says it is only fair since she spends so much money on me (don't tell her, but I enjoy all the attention!)

Unlike other German Shepherds who can be very vocal during their sessions, I am extremely well behaved! I appreciate Therapeutic Handling to keep me calm, otherwise I can get a bit excited and show my love of meeting new people by jumping on them and offering love nips.

The Therapeutic Handling and showering techniques make me yawn and stretch a lot. Mum always tell the students to have their cameras ready, she calls it my “feedback signals." I never say no to a treat when I am a good boy, but I still like to keep an eye and an ear on mum and the student handling me.

Mum says I should share the limelight with my brother Blue. He is nearly 14 years old and had his right forelimb amputated a long time ago because of something called osteosarcoma. It sounds nasty!

Mum doesn't make him walk in the aquatic treadmill; he stands there in the water while she shows him how to balance better.

Mum says that owning two dogs with different issues, helps her relate to and understand her clients from their perspective.

Thank you for reading about me and I hope you found it helpful.”

My brother Blue.
My brother Blue.

GSD Role Historically + Now

From the original work as a shepherd, acting as both herder and flock-guard, the GSD has become by far the most widely used military and police dog for forces all over the globe.

It's also one of the most widely used breeds in a variety of scent-work roles which include;

  • Search and rescue
  • Cadaver searching
  • Narcotics detection
  • Explosives detection
  • Accelerant detection
  • Mine detection and so on

GSDs are suited for these lines of work because of their keen sense of smell and their amazing ability to work regardless of distractions.

GSD Bitesize History

The GSD is a medium to large sized working dog that originated in Germany. The breed was officially known as the Alsation in the UK from after the WWI until 1977, when its name was changed back to German Shepherd.

It's one of the most popular breeds worldwide, founded at the very end of the 1800's by a group of people led by Max von Stephanitz, a German Cavalry captain. The group promoted the GSD and as the demand for GSDs as herding dogs diminished, Stephanitz encouraged their use by police and the military. In WWI, 48,000 were enlisted in the German army.

The GSD ranks with any breed in trainability for a wide range of purposes. It was usually trained for scout duty in the military as well as to warn soldiers of the presence of enemies, booby traps or other hazards. They were also trained by military groups to parachute from aircraft or as anti-tank weapons. The GSD was used in WWII as a messenger, rescue and personal guard dogs. A number of these dogs were taken home by foreign servicemen, who were so impressed by their intelligence.

Even More History

The GSD also rates with the best as a guide dog for the blind and at one time was the breed chosen almost exclusively to be used as a guide dog for the visually impaired. When formal guide training began in Switzerland in the 1920's under the leadership of Dorothy Eustis, all of the dogs trained were female GSD.

An experiment in temperament testing of a group of Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds showed that the Retrievers scored higher on average in emotional stability and ability to recover promptly from frightening situations, cooperative behaviour and friendliness; while the GSD were superior in aggression and defensive behaviours. These results suggested that Labrador Retrievers were more suited to guide dog work, while German Shepherds were more suited to police work.


In 2013, about 15% of the dogs trained by Guide Dogs of America are GSDs, while the remainder are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers.


The UK Guide Dogs for the Blind Association states that crosses between Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers make the best guide dogs, although they also train some German Shepherds, as well as some other breeds.


Guide Dogs Queensland in Australia trains only Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers.

GSDs are a tracker of great quality and the ultimate breed as an obedience worker. The GSDs temperament is deemed the most important single attribute as they are highly intelligent dogs who think outside the box, have a willingness to learn and eagerness to have a purpose.


They like to use their brains to work things out and are able to quickly learn various tasks and interpret instructions better than other breeds. They can be overprotective of their family and territory and are not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers.

In Europe during the 1850s, attempts were being made to standardise breeds. The dogs were bred to preserve traits that assisted in their job of herding sheep and protecting flocks from predators. In Germany this was practised within local communities, where shepherds selected and bred dogs that they believed had the skills necessary for herding sheep, such as intelligence, speed, strength, and keen senses of smell. The results were dogs that were able to do the work but differed significantly, both in appearance and ability, from one locality to another.

To combat these differences, the Phylax Society was formed in 1891 with the intention of creating standardised dog breeds in Germany. The society disbanded after only three years due to ongoing internal conflicts regarding the traits in dogs that the society should promote; some members believed dogs should be bred solely for working purposes, while others believed dogs should be bred also for appearance. 


While unsuccessful in their goal, the Phylax Society inspired others to pursue standardising dog breeds independently.

Max von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry captain and former student of the Berlin Veterinary College, was one such ex-member. He believed strongly that dogs should be bred for working.

In 1899, Von Stephanitz was attending a dog show when he was shown a dog named Hektor Linksrhein. Hektor was the product of few generations of selective breeding and completely fulfilled what Von Stephanitz believed a working dog should be. He was pleased with the strength of the dog and was so taken by the animal’s intelligence, loyalty, and beauty, that he purchased him immediately. 

After purchasing the dog he changed his name to Horand von Grafrath and Von Stephanitz founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog). Horand was declared to be the first German Shepherd Dog and was the first dog added to the society’s breed register.

Horand became the centre-point of the breeding programmes and was bred with dogs belonging to other society members that displayed desirable traits. Although fathering many pups, Horand’s most successful was Hektor von Schwaben

Hektor was inbred with another of Horand’s offspring and produced Beowulf, who later fathered a total of 84 pups, mostly through being inbred with Hektor’s other offspring. In the original German Shepherd studbook, Zuchtbuch für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SZ), within the two pages of entries from SZ No. 41 to SZ No. 76, there are 4 Wolf Crosses. 


Beowulf’s progeny were inbred and it's from these pups that all GSDs draw a genetic link.

It's believed the society accomplished its goal mostly due to Von Stephanitz’s strong, uncompromising leadership and he is therefore credited with being the creator of the German Shepherd Dog (GSD).

This Bitesize Resource was produced for you and is owned by K9HS Courses