How To Breed German Shepherds

How To Breed German Shepherds

When wondering how to breeding German Shepherd dogs, one can get a little confused. Indeed, the German Shepherd breed is varied and has branched out for its original core working standard. From breeding black German Shepherds to focusing on show bloodlines, GSD breeders are working with a very appreciated and respected breed.

Because breeding German Shepherds often puts the focus on what type of german shepherd one wants to breed, it is easy to forget about health conditions affecting german shepherds. In this article, we list the critical diseases affecting German Shepherd Dogs that dog breeders should pay attention to. Make sure you read them and start scheduling the screenings.

History of German Shepherd Breeding

German Shepherds or the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) came into being as a breed in the late 1800s. Max von Stephanitz of Germany had an interest in the working dogs in his native Germany. Here they were selectively bred to have those qualities that could do the job of herding and protecting a flock from predation. At the time, there was a disagreement among dog enthusiasts about whether a dog should be judged on its looks or on its ability to work.

Max von Stephanitz began looking for a working dog that had it all. At a dog show in 1899, von Stephanitz finally came upon what he considered to be the perfect specimen. He purchased him and named him Horand von Grafrath (formerly known as Verein für Deutsche). This dog was the first dog registered in von Stephanitz’s new breed club, The Society of German Shepherds. Horand von Grafrath sired many puppies including Hector von Schwaben.

One direct descendant of Horand von Grafrath, Beowulf, was the sire of over eighty puppies. The first German Shepherd dogs were the result of many inbreedings from Horand and his offspring. Several commentators have stated that wolf crosses were among the dogs bred into this early closed gene pool. However, recent genetic testing would belie immediate wolf ancestry. While German Shepherds may appear more wolf-like than some other breeds, they do not appear to have the DNA to match.

Popularity

The AKC recognized German Shepherds in 1919. Their popularity was accelerated by their appearance as a respected working dog in World War I, their usefulness as an early guide dog for the blind, and their stardom in the dawn of Hollywood. In World War I, the German Shepherd breed was used by the military as a dog that located the wounded, and could carry supplies (especially medical supplies). Strongheart, a dog of the silent film era was a dog that worked in World War I for the Red Cross. He led the pack for successful film careers for other dogs including the other dog from World War I, Rin Tin Tin. Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin represent two of the three real dogs that have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (The third, of course, is a Collie named Lassie).

Their reputation continued throughout the World Wars. Some early inbreeding difficulties (circa 1920) that produced poor stock made a dip in their popularity, but it was only temporary. The breed assumed the Alsatian during the times when Germany was the enemy, but the breed was just too good for it to become the enemy. In the United States, German shepherds were among seven breeds selected for wartime activity.

Today, the German Shepherd is the number one dog chosen for police K-9 work. Its work as a guide dog for the visually impaired has fallen to only 15%, however. Labradors and Golden Retrievers (and their mixes) now are the most popular dog breeds, often times ahead of German Shepherd Dogs. As a show dog and as a companion animal, the breed in the United States continues to rank high. In 2016, the German Shepherd won the number 2 spot behind the Labrador Retriever in the United States (AKC), and the number 7 spot in the UK. A German Shepherd bitch, Rumor, won the Best in Show at the 141st Westminster Dog Show in 2017.

Horand von Grafrath (German Shepherd)
Horand von Grafrath, the original German Shepherd dog, was bred to herd and protect flocks from predators.

Colors and Patterns

The American Kennel Club recognizes eleven colors of German Shepherd Dog. For confirmation, the blue and liver are considered serious flaws, and white is a disqualification. The sable and black and tan colors are the more recognized variety of German Shepherd. Pattern means where on the dog’s body a color appears, and there are five pattern types including saddle and blanket back (black on a foundation of tan or sable), sable, bicolor and solid color. A bicolor GSD is a dog that has a solid sable or black with a dash of a second color under the tail, or on the feet. Bi-colors German Shepherds sometimes are confused as solids that lack this additional second color.

Temperament

Von Stephanitz described his beloved dog, Horand, in terms of its temperament or character being on par with its great physical attributes. He noted the dog’s “marvelous fidelity to his master”. His further description of a dog with a “zest for living” and as a good family dog could be said of the breed today. German Shepherds are often described as loyal, protective to their family, and trainable. This breed can be suspicious of strangers, and this proclivity has in poor stock been translated to a fierceness or even viciousness inconsistent with the overall breed. The breed standards describe the dog as having “confidence“. The GSD can rightfully be called an assertive breed that stands its ground rather than seeks out to attack.

The energy and prey drive are frequently managed in breed programs depending on what ultimate purpose of the dog will be. Lower energy or less driven dogs with lower prey drives will be preferred in those headed for the show ring or family home than those dogs needed to help combat crime in an inner city.

Different Types of German Shepherds

With such a wonderful breed and huge popularity worldwide, breeding German Shepherds has been very well-received and well-executed over the last decades. Being a people-pleaser, a lot of people wondering how to breed german shepherds have decided to put the emphasis on a particular aspect, or difference, that they do enjoy seeing in their specimens.

This is why, more than most other dog breeds, German Shepherd Dogs have given birth to so many variations. Some a purpose-based, but many others are appearance-focused (all white, all black, bicolor, etc.)

Working GSDs

These dogs were created to be working dogs, not ring contestants. They still hold a prominent place in military and police work. The father of the breed, von Stephanitz, from the beginning, saw the potential of the new breed for military and police work. German Shepherds are the best known and most used dog breed for K-9 work. They assist police in the apprehension of suspects, the detection of drugs, explosives, and a host of other jobs. The German Society (Schäferhundverein of SV), from its inception until today, has tried to keep the breed useful, courageous, loyal, obedient, ready and able to complete its task rather than just conforming to a standard of beauty. Many commentators will remark that the American breeders look in German bloodlines for the best working dogs in available to import for their programs. It is not uncommon for American police officers to give their commands to their partner canine in German.

German Shepherds were the original seeing eye dog for the blind. Many are trained today to fulfill that role in assisting visually and physically impaired people. Although their popularity in this task has been eclipsed by the Labrador and golden retrievers, there are still plenty of well-trained service GSDs helping the blind and physically impaired.

The working German Shepherds are bred to be smaller and have more focus and energy than show German Shepherds. In Germany, the original breed club will not certify a GSD unless it meets its standards for looks and temperament, passes tests for hip dysplasia, and earns a title in Schutzhund, police work, or herding.

Schutzhund has been renamed by the FCI as Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung (or IPO); they test dogs on athleticism, tracking, protection and obedience. Jobs for working GSDs oftentimes will need a lot of training and skills in these four basic areas. References to meeting the IPO or winning in a Sieger show in which dogs compete in these areas indicates that the line of German Shepherd will fall more to the working end than the show end of the spectrum.

Show GSDs

Show German Shepherds Dogs have a great deal more slope in their top line than working German Shepherds. They are typically larger than their working counterparts. They are, also, bred to be calmer dogs with lower prey drives. These dogs, by and large, make great companion and family dogs. There are no particular tests prior to registration by the AKC. The AKC will register puppies if the parents were both AKC registered GSDs.

In the UK, the Kennel Club has been embroiled in some controversy over the slope of the German Shepherd’s back. The breed standard (KC) calls for a slight slope. The 2016 winner of Crufts best in breed displayed this attribute much to the chagrin of the more extreme elements of the animal rights activists. Interestingly, there is a less noticeable slope in the back of Rumor, Westminster’s Best in Show winner for 2017. It is unclear whether the two bitches would display this difference side by side or if it is just the photography that emphasizes the difference.

Many sources emphasize the differences between Show and Working GSDs. This distinction hearkens back to the very beginning of the breed when the breed’s creator took his position on what a GSD should be. The best specimen of a GSD should be and can be, that has all the dimensions and colors standard to the breed, but the inbred characteristics that it has the “stuff” to go out and do a job if trained in that direction. Unfortunately, the reality is that the breed has suffered because of its own success. “Show” dog in some circles has become more synonymous with mass produced German Shepherds at the breed’s expense.

Nevertheless, many good breeders use the breed standard as the basis of their breeding program and work to produce healthy puppies that show well in the ring and make a good addition to the family. A tempered energy in these dogs helps curb any destructiveness for the more laid-back environment of an average home than the streets of a crime-ridden city.

Black German Shepherds

A completely black german shepherd dog is a result of color and pattern (i.e. where the color appears on the dog’s body) being genetically expressed in a dog. These black genes are recessive. Two dogs of different colors may have recessive genes for black and whelp a black puppy. Two black dogs will whelp black puppies. Black GSDs are within the standards of AKC. The black GSD will have the same kind of temperament as any other GSD. There are no particular health problems associated with the black color.

In the United States, the black GSD comprises less than 10% of all GSDs. For this reason and because of some popular misconceptions about them as being better somehow, the price of a black German shepherd puppy can run anywhere from double to triple that of the more common colors like black and tan. A black German Shepherds is often priced in the low thousands range.

Other Breed Variations

There have been several attempts by breeders to use the GSD as a foundation for a new breed of dog by adding the bloodlines of other breeds. In the United States, the tendency has been to try to create a bigger and more stable breed. The Shiloh breed was a creation of Tina Barber of New York in 1974. These dogs were bred to be over 100 pounds (males range 120 to 140 lbs.) and serve the purpose of being a loyal, intelligent, and stable companion dog. This breed is not recognized yet by any of the major registries. They do have a well-established breed club.

The King Shepherd breed was created in 1995 by Shelly Watts-Cross and David Turkheimer. King Shepherds are a mixture of Shiloh Shepherds and Great Pyrenees. These dogs should range in the 130-150 lb range. These dogs were bred to be intelligent companion dogs, but also, fit for work as a sheepherder or service animal. King Shepherds have short and long coat varieties. They are not recognized by the AKC or any other of the major registries. However, they also have an active breed club.

Other variations that have used GSDs as a foundation for breeding include the white shepherd and the white swiss shepherd dog. Neither of these dogs types are recognized as breeds by the AKC. They are solid white dogs with longer fur and approximately the same size as a GSD (about 70 lbs). They are primarily bred as companion animals.

working vs showing german shepherds
Show German Shepherds are bulkier and have a heavily criticized sloped topline. Working German Shepherds are thinner, more athletic, and display an acclaimed straighter back topline.

Health Concerns When Breeding German Shepherds

Breeding German Shepherds means you must ensure your breeding dogs are cleared of any known health condition to date. Every dog breed has its own bunch of diseases particularly found in its specimens, and GSDs are no exception.

Below is a list of the most common health conditions in German Shepherds; so you can DNA test your dogs for as many conditions as possible before breeding two GSDs.

Consequences of Inbreeding Practiced Early in the Breed's Life

Captain von Stephanitz, in the early days of developing the breed, practiced a great deal of linebreeding in perfecting the original gene pool of the GSD. All of the puppies first registered at the newly created Society for German Shepherd had a direct connection to the progenitor, Horand von Grafrath. Von Stephanitz was committed to the long-term survival of the breed.

When health problems like heart defects and hip dysplasia began to crop in the bloodline, von Stephanitz carefully bred out these bad traits to keep the breed as close to the ideal as possible. However, just like always with inbreeding, line-breeding and grading up techniques, consequences may become real and obvious only decades later.

Breeding German Shepherds dogs may often require GSD breeders to use a pinch of line-breeding but this should only be done under the informed supervision of a breed specialist. Reducing the gene pool further could be detrimental to your entire bloodline in a few years’ time.

Arthritis, Hip & Elbow Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a condition that is very common in GSDs. In this condition, the ball and socket joint of the hip are malformed. There can be slippage in the joint, and a grinding of the bones against each other leading to arthritis and degenerative joint disease.

The 2016 breed statistics from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals showed a rate of hip dysplasia in the German Shepherd Dog to be 20.5%. In other words, of the 118,891 dogs assessed for hip problems more than a fifth of GSDs had abnormal hips. The OFA ranks the German Shepherd dog has the 39th breed displaying this problematic health condition.

In 2014, a study of the genetics of hip dysplasia in the German Shepherd Dog was conducted at the Institute for Animal Breeding and Genetics, University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Germany. These researchers were successful in identifying a genome that predisposed the dog to hip dysplasia. Dogs may show the condition (especially on an OFA evaluation) may, indeed, be carriers of the trait. There is a genetic test available from the Hannover researchers for detecting the responsible trait.

In addition, the elbow joint can be malformed the connecting bones do not fit together causing trauma to the structure of the elbow. The OFA statistic for elbow problems was almost 20% of the 43,399 dogs had abnormal elbows. The German Shepherd Dog ranked in at the 15th spot for this problem.

Hip and elbow dysplasia result in degenerative joint disease. The grinding of bone against bone results in inflammation of the joint and osteoarthritis. Dogs with these conditions may become anything but the energetic herding dog that they were bred to be. These conditions very painfully slow the dog down. They limp, and only a course of steroids and pain medications can avail their daily suffering. Glucosamine may be given to affected dogs to relieve the pain.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy is a genetic condition in which the spinal cord deteriorates. It is a disease much like the human condition called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Dogs lose their ability to walk, control their bladder and bowels, and eventually become paralyzed and die. It is usually a disease of an older dog over eight years of age or so, but dogs as young as six months have had it, too. Veterinarians believe the rate of degenerative myelopathy in the German Shepherd Dog is 2%.

The University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine has studied extensively the genetics of this disease in certain breeds, the GSD among them. In partnership with the OFA, there is now genetic testing available for the GSD. This test delineates whether a particular dog is a carrier or is at risk for the disease. This test is a simple mouth swab test that costs $65. The soundness of the results with GSDs makes this test a particularly sound one to insist on before adding new bloodlines to a program.

Von Willebrand Disease

Von Willebrand Disease is caused by recessive genes in dogs and is the most common bleeding problem in dogs. In this disease, a dog is unable to produce a protein that works to clot the blood.

A dog may live a very long time, and not be diagnosed with this health problem. It appears when a dog has a surgery or has a trauma. The dog will bleed excessively and potentially bleed to death with veterinary intervention. The German Shepherd Dog is one of the breeds that often is diagnosed with this condition. There is genetic testing for this condition, but there is no cure. Most dogs do not have a shortened lifespan if they have this condition.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

The pancreas produces the enzymes that work in the digestion and absorption of food. In Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI), the pancreas does not produce enough of these enzymes to digest the food. This condition is prevalent in the German Shepherd Dog. It causes diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition of the dog. It is thought to be a genetic condition and it is diagnosed by a blood test.

The main cause of EPI in German Shepherds is Pancreatic Acinar Atrophy or the progressive destruction of the cells that make up the enzymes. It is thought that 70% of the cases of this disease is in the German Shepherd and related breeds (e.g. Shiloh shepherd). This disease is not curable but it is treatable. Dogs with EPI are given replacement enzymes. A special diet low in fiber and fat and feed in small meals over the day are, also, recommended.

Susceptibility to Diarrhea

Dogs that have chronic diarrhea begin to lose weight. They can become dehydrated, and over time malnourished. One cause of chronic diarrhea in German Shepherd Dogs is Irritable Bowel Disease. In this disease, the inflammation of the bowel causes abdominal cramping and diarrhea. It is thought to be an inherited disease, but the cause is not known. Some breeds have a higher incidence of IBD. Dogs with this condition, also, are more likely to have food allergies.

Also, it is well noted that German Shepherds can have sensitive stomachs. Treatment of the problem depends on the cause. Elimination of a food allergen may be enough to fix the problem in one dog while another will run up a vet bill with blood tests, stool tests, and steroids for IBD. It is no accident that the face of a German Shepherd Dog will grace the packaging of some high priced premium food. Many owners and breeders of German Shepherd Dogs do have to pay an inordinate amount of attention to find food that will nourish and not upset their loyal canine.

Diarrhea which can be a serious issue with some GSDs is a threat to the development of the puppies, and potentially to the dam. Anything that comprises the nutritional health of the dam will increase her chances for birth-related problems including such things as stillborn puppies and eclampsia.

How to Breed German Shepherds

If you are wondering how to breed German Shepherds of high quality, and especially if you are new to breeding GSDs, there are plenty questions you must have in mind. We’re giving you GSD-specific knowledge below so you can be prepared for your next German Shepherd litter of puppies.

Remember that all dog breeds from Chihuahuas to Great Danes are all part of the same species and for 99% of things related to dog breeding, they are the same. This is why we recommend you to grab a copy of our bestselling ebook, The Dog Breeder’s Handbook.

Average size of a litter

German Shepherd Dogs are from a rather large breed of dogs, therefore they are capable of whelping large litters. The average litter size of German Shepherd litters is from 3 to 11 puppies, with a median number of 7 puppies. Many factors can determine litter size including the age of the dam, her nutritional status, and most importantly the genetics of the dam and the sire.

In 2015, a white long-haired German Shepherd in Indiana whelped a litter of seventeen puppies—a newsworthy event. Three of the puppies did not survive, though.

german shepherd average litter size
When breeding German Shepherds, expect between 3 to 11 puppies in your litter.

Cesarean Section

Surgical delivery of puppies is necessary for many reasons. A dam may have primary uterine insufficiency in which the uterine contractions are too weak or irregular to push out the puppies. This problem usually is diagnosed in a first litter, and subsequent litters, if any, are planned for a c-section because the problem is likely to recur.

A breeder with a bitch with a history of primary uterine insufficiency should strongly consider whether the pros exceed the long-range cost both in terms of this particular bitch’s health and the genetics of continuing the trait in the bloodline. The wisest decision would more than likely fall to retiring the bitch from the breeding program.

Dystocia, Pregnancy & Birth Complications

One of the issues that can come up with German Shepherds is the size range among some of the dogs. The GSD was not at the beginning intended to be a very large dog. Over time and especially in the United States the GSD has increased in desirable size. A mismatch mating of a sire on the large range with a dam on the low could increase the probability of puppies too large to navigate the birth canal. In the world of dogs, the safest path to a medium-sized dog is not simply to mate a large dog with a smaller bitch.

Size dystocia is common in some breeds especially the brachycephalic ones like a bulldog. In a study of 151 involving over 13,00 bitches in the UK, the German Shepherd Dog was not a very high risk for cesarean section. A pregnant dam of the German Shepherd breed is much more likely than not to whelp that seven or eight puppies naturally without any human assistance.

False Pregnancies

False pregnancy does happen in German Shepherds as they do in other breeds. In this condition, a bitch exhibits the signs of pregnancy such as enlarged mammary glands, enlarged abdomen, vomiting, and the display of nesting behavior. False pregnancy can happen even if a male dog has not been within reach of the bitch. This common hormonal problem will resolve on its own in a couple of months. It is usually not treated.

Stillbirth

A stillborn puppy is one that dies while in utero. Why a puppy is stillborn may be found out by doing an autopsy on it, but usually, it is an unknown. In some situations, it may be useful to have the cause of death checked out by a veterinarian-especially if it has happened before or more than once for a bitch. A genetic defect could, in fact, be the cause of the stillbirths. In this event, the bitch may have to be retired from the breeding program or a different sire tried.

Eclampsia

Eclampsia is not a very common problem for the German Shepherd Dog, but the kind of dietary regimens these dogs are given may trigger this kind of unintended consequence. During pregnancy, there needs to be a good ratio of calcium and phosphorous (1 to 2). Calcium supplementation during pregnancy can cause eclampsia in whelping or in the postpartum dam. Eclampsia has the symptoms of high blood pressure, convulsions, and if left untreated, death.

In the event of the female being victim of eclampsia or lactation failure, the German Shepherd breeder must use a puppy milk replacement and bottle-feed the puppies.

Future of German Shepherd Breeding

In the near future, we do not predict any drastic changes purely because the German Shepherd, and its close variations, are very stable despite being plentiful. However, over the next decades, breeding German Shepherd dogs may change on a couple of levels.

First, show GSDs have been criticized heavily recently so we expect show lines to have less of a sloped topline, coming back closer to the working GSD lines. This is assuredly going to happen over the next years since it will take several generations to correct the breed’s back topline. Additionally, a pressing nagging from animal rights activists should also speed up the process by coercing higher authorities into forcing registrations to happen only when so-called defaults are corrected. However, so far, kennel clubs have remained somewhat silent on this issue, so this is not going to happen just yet.

Secondly, the breed has such a strong appeal than there should be many more hybrids, sub-breeds, or breed variations, over the next decades. The trend, generally and across the board, is for breeds to branch out to a smaller size, bigger size, or different looks. Most of the general public does not really care about being a loyal representation of the official breed standard so as long as these variations are eye-catching, it seems like a surefire success.

The German Shepherd Dog breed is full of hardcore fans, but also full of fanciers who like the look of it, and would be happy to splurge on a unique GSD-typed dog. The breed is certainly going to remain popular for a very long time and breeding German Shepherds will require skills and high reputation in order to stand out. GSD puppies are available everywhere at a very low price tag, therefore specialization is key in order to get your kennel name out there.

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