Few breeds are as beloved and perpetually popular as the German Shepherd. It’s consistently in the top three most popular breeds in the US, just like in the rest of the world. With their high intelligence, work ethic, and strength, the German Shepherd has found a place in pretty much every field you can think of.

An allround all-time favorite

The history of the German Shepherd is surprisingly short, given its immense popularity over the years. The breed, also known as the Alsatian, as well as Deutsche Schäferhund, begins in the late 19th century. This dog descends from the family of German herding dogs that up until then varied from district to district. It wasn’t until a German cavalry officer, Captain Max von Stephanitz, took it upon himself to create the ideal German herder that things really took off. These efforts eventually gave rise to the German Shepherd we know today. Once the need for herding dogs waned, Stephanitz used his connections to bring the German Shepherd into the military as a working dog.

It’s easy to forget that the German Shepherd was once just a herder; today, they’re considered an ultimate allround dog. Their strength, intelligence, speed, and air of authority ― all these traits were forged in sheep pastures, not a police academy. In the US, the German Shepherd gained popularity in the 1900s, partly thanks to the on-screen adventures of Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin. But with both world wars, the anti-German sentiments led to a temporary dip in popularity, as with for instance the Dachshund. In fact, the British still prefer the name Alsatian, for the breed. But even so, many German Shepherds went home with American soldiers after the war.

The list of jobs the German Shepherd has held is long. Search-and-rescue, police work, military work, herding, guiding the blind, sniffing out drugs, chasing down criminals, you name it. After the 9/11 attacks, German Shepherds were among those that crawled through rubble searching for survivors, as well as comforted rescue workers and families. One of their most popular jobs, however, is as a family companion and protector.

Size and appearance of the German Shepherd

One of the most distinctive traits when it comes to the German Shepherd, in terms of appearance, is their bearing. They carry themselves with authority and confidence, head held high, and are reminiscent of wolves in the way they move. In fact, both the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog and the Saarloos Wolfdog were created by crossing the German Shepherd with wolves. The German Shepherd stands 22-26 inches tall, and has a lifespan of 10-14 years. Breeding in the US has historically differed from the European ways, often focusing on appearance rather than the breed’s typical traits and talents. The most common version seen today, regardless of geography, is the one with the recognizable German Shepherd “pose”. The back part of the body is held slightly lower than the rest, hind legs slightly bent. The more classic version of this breed features a straighter line, without the slanted back.

In terms of grooming, the German Shepherd was originally bred to herd sheep and livestock in mountains and all kinds of weather. So naturally, the double coat is thick and coarse. They’re known for shedding quite a bit, but brushing a few times a week should do it ― and keeping a vacuum cleaner on hand. The coat of the German Shepherd comes in a variety of colors, including black/cream, black/silver, and black/red. Blue, gray, and liver are also seen, as well as solid white or black. But the most common color is the traditional black and tan. A white German Shepherd isn’t recognized as a color by the AKC. The occasional German Shepherd may also be long-haired, which is a genetic anomaly, and not recognized as a breed standard.

The German Shepherd is an incredibly versatile dog.

Temperament and personality

Despite its enduring popularity and allround uses, the German Shepherd is not for beginners. Nor are they for people who aren’t willing to invest a lot of time and effort. This is a herding dog, after all, which means that plenty of both physical and mental stimulation is needed. A German Shepherd is highly trainable, and is among the top five most intelligent breeds in the world. They need to be challenged on a regular basis. Tricks, tracking, agility, hiking ― they’re open to most activities.

A German Shepherd is the protective type, as well as loyal, which makes them a pretty great watchdog. They’re naturally wary of strangers, but once you’re considered friend or family, they’re playful, friendly, and loving, and they make for excellent family pets. As with any dog, though, they need proper socializing from a young age, and shouldn’t be left alone with small children. Despite how gentle and protective they can be with kids in particular, this is a big, powerful dog, and accidents can happen.

Things to consider

As with many popular breeds, the German Shepherd is often taken in by people who don’t actually know what goes into owning this kind of dog. People don’t have the time, or the energy, or even just the will to keep up with it, which never ends well. Due to this, there are plenty of German Shepherds out there, both mixed and purebred, that need new homes. A German Shepherd is sharp and athletic, protective and very loving, and they’ll want to join you in everything you do. If you can keep up, this might just be the dog for you.