The German Shepherd has long been considered the epitome of the dog world. The German Shepherd conjures up images of a dog who has an inherited knowledge of what is right and wrong, who is capable of tending livestock while taking care of his family and a guardian who is naturally devoted to his master. Yet with all these wonderful qualities, we presently find that many modern German Shepherds are lacking in temperament, health and basic fundamental drives. How is it possible that a breed that was once held in such high regard has had such a precipitous decline?
The first place most people will look when trying to obtain a German Shepherd puppy is at the Classified Advertisements section in the local newspaper. One such recent ad reads:
Which is the better buy and how does one go about determining the criteria for a well bred puppy? In this article, I hope to arm the consumer with fundamental knowledge of what advertising ploys have been used to increase the price of the German Shepherd while decreasing the standard.
A pure bred dog has a pedigree which will show you its lineage. The general public has been educated that a German Shepherd should have papers. But what are these "papers and how do they benefit the buyer? The "AKC"( American Kennel Club) registration papers were originally touted as the way to know that your dog was a pure breed. This meant that the parents of your dog were both German Shepherds. This paper has become symbolic of a guarantee of a pure bred dog. Another phrase that breeders use to entice potential buyers is "pink papered" i.e. SV (registered in Germany) papered puppy. This too has been equated with a dog that is superiorly bred. In fact, these papers often don’t guarantee anything other than the dog’s parents had papers and that the puppy is now more marketable because of these papers.
When you go to visit a litter, rather than immediately asking for a dog’s AKC papers, ask to see the parents of your pup. The original advertisement above said quality-imported parents; ask why this breeder imported the parents. What benefit does that pedigree offer and why was the breeding put together? A breeding should be done to improve structure, working aptitude and health. If the sire (father) of the puppies is not available, try to visit him to assess his temperament. Ask the breeder why she chose that particular sire or dam (mother). Find out how long the breeder has been involved with that particular line (ancestry) and why. It is the responsibility of an educated consumer to come armed with questions about the pedigree of the puppy you are thinking about purchasing. With the advent of the computer age pedigree research is easy through the Internet. With a little bit of time you will be able to learn of a line’s particular strengths or weaknesses. With this knowledge the puppy’s pedigree will have more meaning.
If you happen to view puppies that have no AKC papers but the breeder has a hand written record of the puppies’ ancestors and you can view the parents and one or both exhibit the correct traits of a German Shepherd, don’t necessarily discount this puppy. This breeder may have more knowledge about the family tree of that puppy than is shown on a pedigree. This happens with breeders who are not breeding just to sell to the general public, but rather to continue a specific bloodline and trait. A good example of this type of breeding would be dogs in Holland who are used to perform a sport called Ring Sport. In this sport a dog is expect to perform very demanding physical and control exercises. A knowledgeable breeder would base their breeding on a dog’s ability and prior ancestors’ abilities rather than the dogs papers. In a lot of cases, the dogs do not have a pedigree but rather a hand written tree showing the dogs’ lineage. A shepherd who uses his German Shepherd to tend his flock is another example of a breeder who observes the parents, rather than the pedigree. The shepherd will orchestrate a breeding to ensure puppies that have the same traits as his current dog. In this case the breeder would not base a breeding solely on the dogs’ papers.
Unless you plan to breed your puppy, papers are not that important. It is more of a social standing to be able to say that your puppy’s parents were imported and that he has the AKC papers. Most typical dog events will allow a spayed or neutered dog (fixed to ensure no offspring) to participate with or without AKC papers. The one exception is a dog who is being shown in conformation classes (structure and beauty). This animal is expected to have papers that show its pedigree.
In the last twenty years, the German Shepherd has developed increasing health problems. One area of concern has been crippling hip dyplasia. An campaign was started to have breeders x-ray their dogs to try to decrease this genetic problem. Another buzzword used in advertisements that the general public has become familiar with, is whether or not a dog has been OFA’ed. The OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) x-ray is taken of the animal’s hips and then rated. The ratings can be excellent, good, fair and dysplastic. The theory behind the x-rays is that by only breeding animals that have a passing rating, and you will improve the German Shepherds’ hips. The problem with this reasoning is that unless you also x-ray siblings a good or excellent rating can be misunderstood. If the other litter mates had dysplastic hips chances are your puppy will have problems. In reverse, a dysplastic rating can mean little if the other litter mates all had good or excellent hip ratings. Prior to the increasing popularity of the breed after World War II, the German Shepherd was normally used as a working dog. The German Shepherd is descended from herding dogs that were bred for high performance and endurance. Because the dog moved constantly, evidence of bad hips was easily spotted while the dog worked. Breedings back then were based upon the dog’s performance and a dog with poor hips would naturally not be selected as the dog could not keep up with his share of the work. An example such work would to be to tend the shepherd’s flock. Sometimes the dog had to run for twenty or more miles a day. If the dog were incapable of doing this the shepherd would not use him for breeding. In this respect a natural selection would occur based upon performance.
With our increasing technology, the German Shepherd is normally no longer used for true work and therefore it is hard to weed out the poorly structured dogs. An OFA does show that the breeder has taken time to x-ray their stock, but I would encourage the buyer to ask for more than just an OFA certificate for the sire and dam. Hopefully the breeder would have knowledge of the sire’s/dam’s siblings and parents. If this is a repeat breeding, what are the older puppies OFA ratings? When you ask to see the sire and dam notice if their movement is fluid, as if they are walking on a silk sheet, or do they appear to have jerky, uncoordinated movement. Have the owners play with their dog. Notice how the dog chases the ball or stick. Take note of how long the animal will play before tiring out. Does the German Shepherd appear to be overweight or in good shape? A lot of information can be obtained on sight alone. Do not be fooled by the shiny white official looking document from the OFA. This document does not give you a guarantee of a dog who will not have problems later on in life.
Other qualities can also be assessed by meeting the sire/dam of your puppy. When meeting the parents of your puppy take note on how the German Shepherd interacts with the family. Is the dam attentive to her puppies and does she allows others to play with them? Can you and your children approach the dam? Take notice of the dam’s body posture. Is the dam relaxed or is her hair up? Does she greet you with a swinging tail or a low growl and slightly tucked tail? Is the dam allowed throughout the house or confined to a kennel run outside? Will the dam approach and sniff you or does she attempt to nip? If the female is not approachable and cannot be handled then decline a puppy from this litter. Any fearful behavior such as a fast high pitched barking shows a dog who has poor nerves. The Standard (AKC Description of temperament and structure) states that a German Shepherd is steady in nerves, self-confident, calm and impartial.
A puppy spends at least the first seven weeks with his mom and most of his temperament will be solidified by the imprinting that he receives from his mother. If she is ill tempered and shy the puppies will also have these problems as they mature. Do not excuse this behavior no matter what the breeder tells you. A German Shepherd that has sound temperament is approachable by anyone, is neither aggressive nor passive but observes the situation at hand.
Finally observe the puppies. Do they interact with the breeder and the dam? A puppy that has been well socialized will show natural curiosity around people and his area. Throw out a ball and notice which puppy chases it. Drop a set of keys on the floor; do the puppies try to find where the noise came from or do they run from the noise? Do the puppies want to be petted and if so, notice if they smell sweet and clean. A puppy who has poor hygiene can become problematic later when trying to housebreak him. A puppy should show all the characteristics set forth in the German Shepherd Standard. A puppy will display an intelligent curious attitude. A puppy who has the correct temperament will be willing to follow you while trying to interact with you. A example of a poorly bred puppy would be if he was were huddled in the corner with down cast eyes. Such a puppy is exhibiting poor temperament and is not a pup that should be brought into your home. Remember this puppy will be a big investment of time and money for you and your family for the next fourteen years.
Another quality mentioned in ads is titled parents. What is this title and what does it mean? To the consumer. the title is an added bonus that is supposed to assure you that your puppy’s parents have the capability to do the work they were bred for. But titles can also just be another catch phrase that ensures receiving more money for the puppies. One such title that is touted in many ads is a Schutzhund title. A Schutzhund title is supposed to ensure that the dog is capable of tracking, obedience and protection. But you as the consumer should be aware of how the title was earned. If it was a local club, chances are the dog does some of the work, but not to the standard that a dog is held to in a regional or national trial. How many trials did the dog attend to obtain the title and was it under different judges? Was the title put on by the owner or by another handler? If the dog has titles in AKC obedience, the dog had to show under three different judges to earn each title. An obedience title is earned when a dog obeys a variety of commands (including retrieving objects and jumping) in and around other dogs and distractions. A tracking title will tell you that the dog showed the capability to find items left on the ground by following scents left by a tracklayer.
If the dog is a police dog can he be approached? Remember the correct temperament would allow you to approach the dog without being harmed. Even if both sire/dam are titled, this does not ensure that the puppies will be able to obtain these certificates. But rather this shows that the owner took time to work his German Shepherd. If you go see a litter in which the dam is considered the family pet but herds the goats, plays with the neighborhood children and loves to fetch, don’t discount these puppies because she does not have a certificate saying she has been titled. To me a family companion who is willing to work for her owner is showing me a dog that has the capability to think and learn.
By keeping these different points in mind you can obtain a puppy who will become a valuable asset to your family. A good puppy can be purchased for as little as two hundred dollars yet others will cost up to three thousand dollars or more. Remember more money does not necessarily equal a better dog. Make sure that the breeder has a good knowledge of the genetics of your puppy. A responsible breeder should not only tell you the good points but also the flaws in their dogs’ lines. Is that breeder willing to cull (kill) a puppy who does not meet the basic standard, or do they only try to have as many puppies live as possible to make more money on the breeding? Ask why the female was bred? Did the breeder want to retain a puppy for themselves, or just to have a litter to sell? How many females does that breeder have and do they appear to have a good relationship with the breeder? Are the females house dogs or do they live in kennel runs? Remember, temperament is the most essential ingredient that a puppy needs to have. If the parents do not exhibit proper temperament, neither will the puppies. Remember that buzzwords help to increase the profitability of puppies, but does not ensure a good puppy. With some research and the aptitude to observe the puppies and parents you can obtain a quality German Shepherd that will enhance the quality of your life.