When someone says “German shepherd” there is one stereotypical coloration pattern and body style that most people think of, unless they are involved in the breeding or rearing of one of the other types. This is the large, brown-coated shepherd, with black patches across his shoulders and back.
However, there are far more varieties of this breed than you might see at the American Kennel Club championship. In general, there are three different German shepherd types, but even in those types, there is still variation in coloring and temperament.
What Separates Different Types of German Shepherd Dogs?
There are three factors that are used to separate different German shepherd breed types. The first is coloration. Coloration plays an important role in determining different types of any breed of dog. Just as hair color, thickness, and texture is inherited by children from their parents and progenitors, the specific color, color pattern, and type of coat of a shepherd will denote his ancestry, and therefore his type.
Body shape can also play in a role in differentiating different types of German shepherds. While most shepherds will have very similar body shapes, there are some differences in leg length, girth, snout shape, etc. that can set one type apart from another. For example, some shepherds who are classified as Czech working German shepherds, have slimmer upper bodies than the American and German types. This, again, all goes back to ancestry.
The third factor is personality. While all German shepherds are intelligent, active dogs, some are bred specifically for their intelligence, while others are bred specifically for speed and power. Some are friendlier, some are more loyal, and some are more aggressive. While personality may not really vary significantly from one type to the next, some types are more known for their activity, others for their loyalty, and others for their working drive.
When looking for a dog to show, participate in agility competitions, or as a family pet, it is important to look at all the different types of German shepherd dogs available, instead of simply picking the most stereotypical-looking dog at the breeder. Some breeds, because of their coloration, may not really resemble the brown and black shepherds most people are acquainted with, but still have the German shepherd intelligence and loyalty.
American German Shepherd Show Lines
This is the type of dog that most people think of when they think of a German shepherd. While not every dog in this type is a show dog, this is the type that is shown in American and Canadian Kennel Club competitions. Even at the Westminster show, the American show line is the type that most handlers will show.
Rising in popularity after the Second World War, this type of German shepherd is bred specifically to adhere to the expectations of judges at dog shows.
When they were first imported from Germany, there was very little difference between this type and the types that are more popular in Europe. However, over the years, as owners, breeders, and judges began to shift their preferences towards the larger, tan and black dogs and away from the more uniformly colored types, the American show line began to take shape.
In just the last thirty years, this has created a huge gap between American show lines and the German standard, both in physical appearance and in personality. Bred less for personality or for power and more for their appearance, these dogs have what is called an “extreme rear angulation,” meaning that their bodies slant significantly downwards from the head to the rump.
Unlike other types of German shepherds that are bred specifically to herd animals or work in the fields, dogs bred in the American show lines are bred more for an easy temperament and trainability, in addition to the distinctive body shape and coloration. They are taller, longer, with narrower bodies, and are most commonly light tan and black.
There has also been a trend in recent breeding to eliminate the “schutzhund” characteristic, which is, in short, the personality trait that makes a German shepherd great for working in the fields, as a police dog, or in the military. In short, many breeders do not want this specific type of shepherds used for anything but showing.
A note of caution when looking to purchase a puppy from a litter that is designated American show line: many breeders, even those that claim they are American Kennel Club certified, do not properly test their dogs for hip dysplasia, other health problems, or temperament. Because neither health nor temperament are tested in the show ring, some will completely disregard anything but body shape and color. Always purchase a puppy from a breeder that uses responsible breeding practices and seeks for their dogs to be as trainable and healthy as possible. This advice goes for all types of German shepherds, not just the American show line, though irresponsible breeding practices are perhaps more common with this type than with any other.
American GSD Pet Lines
Very closely related to the American show line type, these dogs generally have the same personality and body characteristics, but they are bred as pets, rather than to be shown in competitions. Sometimes these dogs are even bred in people’s backyards, instead of by professional breeders, because the owners want to sell the puppies or just raise their own litter. This can be as dangerous as the actions taken by breeders who do not use responsible practices.
These dogs, while featuring the stereotypical coloration and body style, are sometimes nervous, suspicious, and fearful, depending on how they are raised. Those raised by diligent pet owners will have strong, healthy animals that hearken back to the early days of German shepherd breeding, both in loyalty and physical health.
German Show Lines
Like the American show lines, these dogs are bred specifically to compete in dogs shows. While just as German shepherd as any other type, they differ greatly from the American show line, not just in how they look, but also in their behavior. In the German show circuit, temperament is far more important than it is in American shows. Because Germany has very strict breeding rules, all dogs that are bred by professional breeders have to have won herding or schutzhund competitions, in addition to more typical dog shows.
Having the schutzhund title, however, does not necessarily guarantee that the dog will be a great working dog. Even those dogs that barely past the tests get to have the titles. They are more likely to be trainable and workable, however, than American show line dogs that do not have any working titles.
These dogs are characterized by their stockier builds. They are larger even than the American type, with the same sloped profile. Their heads are larger, their coats are plusher, and are usually black and red or black and light tan, featuring the same coloration pattern that is popular in American show line dogs. They do, however, tend to be healthier, sturdier, and more obedient than other types. Of course, a lot of a dog’s temperament depends on his training, but in general, German show line dogs are more active and more intelligent than American show line dogs.
The German Shepherd Working Lines
In this type, there are five separate subsets. They are grouped together because they are all bred as working or companion animals, rather than for show, but each variation generally has its own coloration and coat type that have more to do with the dog’s environment and job, rather than to do with what patterns were preferred by a breeder or a dog show judge. This type is still pedigreed, but you are unlikely to see any of these dogs in shows.
The West German working type, which has its own two subsets (the Dutch and the Belgian), are very active and intelligent dogs. They are considered to be the purest form of German shepherd, with coloration and temperament very close to the original shepherds, bred by von Stephanitz. In short, these dogs want to work. They are fast learners, loyal, and love to serve. Highly utilized in the companion animal and service animal fields, the West German working German shepherd is a great family pet, as long as he gets plenty of attention and exercise.
DDR or East German working dogs were bred by the communists after World War II. Bred behind the iron curtain, these dogs are often darker than their cousins. They were bred widely and are therefore less susceptible to some of the most common German shepherd health issues and have very few temperament problems. With the right training, these smaller, strong dogs make great companions and great workers. They are often the type of choice for those looking for a guard dog or for police forces and military bases who want an intelligent, loyal animal. They are most recognizable by their uniformly dark coats and leaner bodies.
The Czech working lines were bred as border patrol dogs and have very close ties to the DDR or East German dogs. Bred for agility as well as for power and working drive, most dogs in this type originate from one kennel in the early days of the Czechoslovakian army. They are fast, loyal dogs, often selected by the military and police for their high energy and extreme intelligence.
What Makes a Working Line Different from a Show Line?
Dogs that were bred to work, rather than to show, usually have fewer health problems, fewer temperament issues, and more variation in color and coat type. Dogs that are bred for show are bred to conform to a very specific set of standards and the dogs in a litter that do not adhere to those standards are generally not bred. This is not true of working stock, who can look exactly the same as a show dog, with the typical black saddle and tan body, or can be completely black or even completely tan. Sable is the most common color for working stock German shepherds, since sable is the dominant color gene in this breed.
When it comes to temperament, these dogs often have more intense personalities than their show counterparts. This often because breeders of these types focused on energy and loyalty when selecting individuals to breed. They love working and some owners might find that if they do not find some sort of job for their dog, that shepherd will start acting out. Not every working dog will demand to be a drug sniffer or a security guard, but they will often demand to be near their owners almost constantly. GSD’s will love to learn tricks and even some more advanced tasks like fetching specific items or opening doors.
No German shepherd wants to be a couch potato. They are not a laid back breed and they are usually happiest when their owners are not laid back, either. Contrary to popular belief, however, they are very gentle with children and they do not get rattled or annoyed easily. You’ll find them patient with ear-pulling toddlers, as well as loud teenagers, as long as they get their daily exercise. More on the breeding history of these workdogs can also be found in the classic book of Max von Stephanitz.