The Different Types of German Shepherds
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
There are essentially 3 different general “types” of German Shepherds than can be found in North America. The American show lines, the German show lines, and the European working lines. Each type has its own unique look and personality. When searching for a German Shepherd to add to your family, or to use as a sport or working partner, it is imperative to understand these differences, what they mean, and how to recognize them in order to select the most appropriate dog for your situation.
American Show Lines
Also called the AKC Lines, this category includes the Canadian (CKC) show lines as well. As the name suggests, these are show dogs. The dogs you see at Westminster, or any of the other numerous AKC style dog shows, are American show line dogs. These dogs are bred for and tested in the show ring where they are evaluated for their structure, movement, angulation, color, size, and overall appearance.
After World War II, German Shepherds saw a huge rise in popularity in North America. For the first few decades, there was little difference in physical or mental characteristics between the dogs of America and Europe. Imported European dogs performed well in the American show ring, and many successful breeders were crossing their domestic lines with those of imports. Really, unless you knew from which continent from whence a dog hailed, in most cases you would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between the American or European dog.
But over time, this began to change. Differing interpretations of the breed standard, and different preferences amongst breeders, exhibitors and judges led to the American lines deviating from the standards and rules set forth by the German SV, the founding organization and steward of the German Shepherd Dog. And since then they have continued to go their own way. The result now is that while very little difference exists between the two standards as they are written, vastly differing interpretations of those standards have resulted in an American line dog that neither looks nor acts like the original GSDs imported to North America, or the European dogs of today. An internet search for German and American champion dogs throughout history will show huge changes over the years, and an increasing divergence in type between the North American and European dogs. Many European GSD fanciers have taken to calling this type the "American Shepherd" due to the significant differences in physical characteristics and personality.
The reason for this is the focus of their breeding. American show line breeders have focused on looks, particularly extreme rear angulation and the “flying trot”. Working ability has not been a priority for many breeders of this type for generations. While some few breeders strive to maintain temperament and some form of working ability by also testing their dogs in AKC performance venues such as obedience, agility, herding and tracking, in most cases these aspects of the dog take a backseat to conformation showing and in many cases are disregarded altogether. In fact many conformation show fanciers and organizations openly disdain schutzhund and any endeavor involving protection work. When such an attitude is shown to one of the breed's ancestral jobs and an activity that was created by the founders of the breed for the express purpose of testing breeding stock to ensure the breed retains these necessary traits, it is little wonder that working ability has been lost in most of these lines.
It is important to remember that organizations like the American Kennel Club have no requirements for breeding beyond both parents being registered purebreds of the same breed. Dogs can be bred when they are still puppies themselves, and no health or temperament testing is required. With a total lack of requirements for proving breed worthiness, many breeders don't bother. "AKC
registered" is not a mark of quality; it only means the dog is purebred.
Temperament, nerve, intelligence, and ability to work are not tested in the show ring so they are not considerations for many breeders. The responsible breeders of this type go the extra mile and prove their dog's trainability and health through performance titles and extensive health testing. Unfortunately, as with all the types, not all breeders are responsible.
American show line dogs are almost never schutzhund titled or tested in protection. To find a dog from this bloodline that is even capable of doing this work is very rare. In fact, until very recently the American Kennel Club as an organization has strongly discouraged any sort of schutzhund or protection work due to their irrational fear and ignorance of the way this training is done, the temperament required and its value as a breed worthiness test.
American show line dogs are in general taller and longer in appearance than the European types, with finer bone and narrower bodies and heads. They come in a variety of colors and, while the traditional black and tan saddle pattern is most common, solid blacks, bi-colors, sables, and solid whites are not unusual. Their pigment is usually lighter than in the European dogs, with light tan, cream and silver being far more common than the rich tan and red found in the German show lines and Working lines. Titled dogs will carry the letters “CH” before their registered name, indicating the dog is a conformation show champion.
In temperament, these dogs are almost universally softer, more laid back, and lower drive and energy than the dogs from the European lines. Responsible breeders focus on temperament as well as looks and there are many stable, sound American line dogs out there that are suitable for family companions or for participation in some performance events. But unfortunately there are many show line breeders that care only about the physical look of the dog and who will breed dogs with severe temperament faults and health problems so long as those dogs possess the characteristic look that wins in the show ring. Those who don't test their dogs beyond conformation, and ignore the more important factors of health and temperament, should certainly be avoided. Without thorough testing of health and temperament, faults in both can and will appear in the line at some point.
Dogs from this bloodline can make very nice family pets, and those from lines that are also performance titled can often do well in activities such as obedience, tracking, agility and AKC style herding. But as a rule they do not have the hardness, drive and strength of character to make them suitable for schutzhund, personal protection or law enforcement. While some few do participate and do well in these areas, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The ability to excel in these fields is not a focal point of their breeding, nor has it been for many generations, and as a result most of these qualities have been lost in these lines.
American "Pet" Lines
There is a subset of the American dogs bred as pets, usually by pet owners rather than knowledgeable breeders, that are often referred to as "Back-yard Breeders"(BYB). These are dogs that descend from American show lines, occasionally with some European lines mixed in, but are a generation or two, or more, removed from responsible American show line breeding. They are bred by people in their homes and backyards (hence the name) who have all the wrong reasons for breeding; puppies would be fun, the kids could experience the miracle of life, easy way to make a few dollars, and the list goes on. Not only do they usually not title or health screen their breeding stock, in most cases they aren't even aware these things exist, much less their importance. They know nothing about bloodlines or pedigrees, though they'll often advertise their puppies in the newspaper as "champion lines", and they don't care to. They will breed to a dog owned by a friend, family member, neighbor, or someone they meet on the street because it is easy, cheap and convenient.
Most of these breeders aren't bad people, and they don't set out to produce substandard dogs. They do so out of complete ignorance of what it takes to be a responsible breeder, and the importance of thoroughly testing the health and temperament of breeding stock, and a lack of interest in educating themselves on those issues. Many actually believe that being AKC registered or having a champion or two several generations back in the pedigree makes for a quality, breedworthy animal. But while they may not intend to produce dogs with poor health and temperament, that is often the result.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of German Shepherds in North America are this type. And this is the single greatest reason for the poor reputation the German Shepherd had gained in recent years. Dogs bred by people who do not understand the breed, don't test their dogs' health and temperament, and are breeding only for themselves instead of for the betterment of the breed, are an accident waiting to happen. Many these dogs are soft, nervous, spooky, prone to separation anxiety and other behavioral problems, and weak in character. Some so much so that they are dangerous fear biters. Though on the flip side many of them are very soundly temperamented, healthy and well structured dogs that more closely resemble the American line dogs of decades past than the modern version. But when this happens it is due to a tremendous stroke of good luck in playing the genetic lottery, not the result of dedication, study, planning and informed breeding decisions.
If the American version of the German Shepherd appeals to you, make sure to go to a responsible American show line breeder who is active in the breed as a whole, and who thoroughly health screens and strives to prove intelligence, trainability, sound nerve and stable temperament in their breeding stock by also participating and titling in performance events, not just conformation showing.
Never get a dog from a Backyard Breeder. This is nothing but a game of Russian Roulette. Dogs from responsible breeders may cost more initially, but that is minimal compared to the vet and training fees that can accumulate due to health and temperament problems, a lawsuit caused by a dangerous dog, and the heartache that accompanies both.
German Show Lines
Also called “High Lines” and “Sieger Lines”. Again, as the name suggests, these are show dogs. But they are very different from the American show lines in terms of looks and temperament. The primary thing setting the German show lines apart from their American counterparts is that in Germany in order for puppies to be registered as German Shepherds, both parents must have passed health testing and performance evaluations in addition to conformation evaluations. While this doesn’t guarantee a good working dog or a healthy dog, it's a huge step in the right direction and is far better than in the AKC venues where no form of temperament or health testing of breeding stock is required.
Thanks to the German breeding regulations requiring all breeding stock to possess schutzhund or herding titles, the German show lines have retained some of their working ability. But the truth is that working ability it is still not a priority for the majority of breeders of this type. German show line dogs are titled in schutzhund because it is a requirement in order for them to compete at the top levels of German style conformation shows, and to breed, not because most German show line breeders place a high priority on maintaining working ability. As with the American show line dogs, the primary focus of German show line breeding is still conformation. If a dog is weak in character and working ability, but possesses the desired size, color, angulation, movement and overall structure, he will still be successfully campaigned within German show line circles, lauded as a wonderful dog, and be bred. Probably a lot.
Many people assume that if a dog has “SchH3” after its name and comes from a long line of schutzhund titled dogs that the dog is a working line dog. Even if they know the dog is from German show lines, they will often assume it will have exceptional working ability because it is titled, or comes from a pedigree of titled dogs. That’s not necessarily the case. Since German breeding regulations require all dogs to have a schutzhund or herding title to breed, both German show and working line dogs will carry those titles. Yet they are still very dissimilar in temperament and working ability, as there is a huge difference between possessing the bare minimum of working ability needed to pass and being able to excel in working endeavors. Just as you will not find many working line dogs at the Sieger shows, you will not find many German show line dogs at the schutzhund championships or tending sheep in the countryside. That alone speaks volumes with regard to the priorities of the breeders, and the abilities of the dogs.
There are some German show line dogs that can work very well, and make excellent schutzhund dogs and working dogs, more so than will be found in the American lines, but it’s far from the norm. Many German show line dogs barely squeak by their titles, often getting them on weak helpers, in familiar surroundings and with extremely lenient judging. There are even cases where these titles are bought, with the dog having never actually set foot on the trial field. The significant numbers of dogs who routinely fail the protection test by failing to engage the helper at the German style conformation shows… regularly as high as 30% of the participants… tells the truth of the story. One must question how some of these dogs got schutzhund titled in the first place, let alone why they are still used in breeding despite having tucked tail and run off the field when confronted by the helper... often on numerous occasions and at some of the most prestigious shows in the world, where only the "best of the best" are allowed to compete.
In terms of looks, most German show lines are very similar in structure, coat and color. The line in general has an almost “cookie cutter” appearance, with all dogs looking pretty much the same. They tend to be more substantial than the American show line dogs; larger, with stockier builds, heavier bone and broader heads. Just as the sloped back and extreme angulation have become the stereotype for the American show line dogs, many German show line dogs have a curved or “roached” back, where the spine angles up behind the withers, peaks, and then slopes downward again towards the croup. Plush coats are highly desired, and because of this many German show line dogs carry the recessive gene for long coats… and thus many litters of German show line dogs will have a long coat or two. German show lines are almost exclusively black and red or black and tan in color, with the traditional saddle pattern. Blanket pattern and sables do occur on occasion, but they are very rare. Blacks and bi-colors are essentially extinct colors in the German show lines.
Because of the German breeding requirements, as a group the German show line dogs are of stronger temperament and character, and overall better health, than the American show lines. Though certainly this is not true of every individual or every breeding kennel. They also tend to be higher drive and energy, and are typically better suited for working and sport endeavors than the American lines. German show line dogs can make excellent family companions, and can also be excellent choices for competitive obedience, tracking, therapy and many areas of service dog work. Those whose breeders still actively try to maintain some working ability in their lines can make good schutzhund dogs for people wanting to participate in schutzhund on a recreational basis. But as a whole, the German show lines aren’t the best choice for someone wanting a dog for competitive schutzhund or ringsport, law enforcement or other types of protection work.
Within the category of European working lines there are several subsets: West German Working, Czech, East German/DDR, Dutch, Belgian. Each brings with it slight variations in look and temperament. The Dutch and Belgian dogs, while they would be considered of West German lines in terms of pedigree, due to preferences of the breeders in those countries tend to be higher drive and lower threshold than the other types. Having developed in communist Eastern Europe, the very different preferences, purposes and culture of the time led to the Czech and DDR dogs tending to be more suspicious of strangers, civil, defensive and slower to mature. But they all belong together under the term “working lines” for two reasons. First, they all share far more in common with each other than they do with either the American show line or German show line dogs in terms of looks and temperament. And second, they all share one common focus of breeding; working ability.
Plain and simple, working lines are bred for their working ability. Dogs are judged for breed worthiness, and breeding partners are selected based on their ability to not only work well, but also to produce strong, balanced working dogs. Rather than looking at angulation or movement or color, working line breeders focus on traits like drive, courage, hardness, intelligence, willingness and overall strength of nerve and temperament. The goal is to produce a dog who will not just prove to be sufficient to obtain titles in herding or schutzhund, but who will excel in a variety of working endeavors.
Health is a huge priority for working line breeders because it is necessary for their goals. No matter how excellent the dog is mentally, if he is unhealthy he is useless as a working dog. Likewise with structure. While many working line breeders do some conformation showing with their dogs, many do not. In all cases, the primary judge of structure is the dog’s ability to do the work he is asked to do, not whether or not he draws compliments from a conformation judge. These dogs must be quick and agile, strong and powerful, show great endurance and have bodies that can withstand a great deal of physical stress day in and day out. Working line breeders breed for practical, utilitarian structure. A structure that allows the dog to do his job. Not for the latest fads seen in the conformation show ring. The structure of the working lines has changed little over time, and in terms of looks the modern working dog much more closely resembles the original GSDs and those who were first imported to North America than does either of the modern show lines.
As they are not bred for a specific physical appearance favored in a show ring, dogs from the working lines come in all manner of sizes, colors and shapes. Some are shorter coupled and stockier. Some are taller and leaner. While most are standard stock coats, plush and long coats do occasionally crop up. They come in most every color of the German Shepherd rainbow, and while sable is most common (simply because it is genetically most dominant), black and tans of both the saddle and blanket varieties are often seen, as are solid blacks and bi-colors.
Because working ability, both in terms of temperament and utilitarian structure, has remained the paramount goal of working line breeders, of all the types of GSD the working lines remain the most true to the origin of the German Shepherd Dog breed as an all around working dog. They have been less influenced by conformation show trends, and weakening of temperament for show and pet breeding, and in both looks and personality they are the modern type most similar to the GSDs of the past.
In terms of temperament, working dogs are higher drive, higher energy and also possess harder, tougher more attitudinal personalities than dogs of the other types. Many of these dogs have a tremendous work ethic and desire to do things with their owners, and some can be quite demanding in their needs for physical exercise and mental stimulation. And while it's not true that all working line dogs need a job, indeed most are happiest when they have one. Therefore these dogs are the ideal choice for someone who is looking for a dog for schutzhund, ring sport or other protection sports, police work, search and rescue, personal protection, security/guard work, drug/explosives detection, or competitive level obedience, tracking or agility.
While they can and do make excellent family companions, they are not suitable for someone wanting an easy going, laid back, couch potato dog or who doesn’t have the ability or desire to spend a lot of time interacting with the dog. More so than the other types of GSDs, working lines require regular exercise, mental stimulation through training, and clear, fair, consistent leadership from their owners. Because of this, they are only suitable for companion homes where the family is active and can commit to training the dog and ensuring that the dog receives quality time interacting with the family on a daily basis.
If properly raised and trained, a well bred GSD of working lines has a temperament that is exemplary for the family situation. They are protective, yet gentle with children, and their nerve and temperament is impeccable. These are not dogs that are rattled or frightened easily, making them stable, reliable companions. If a dog has the strength of character to handle the stress of competing in the protection sports, or working day in and day out searching for drugs, lost children and bad guys, dealing with everyday life in the family setting is a piece of cake.
It is important to note here that just as singular focus on conformation showing has altered the look and temperament of the show lines over the decades, the same is also happening in the working lines although here the focus is on winning sport competitions rather than conformation shows. As schutzhund, now IPO, has developed into more of a competitive sport and less of a breed test in many cases, breeders, exhibitors and judges have gravitated to certain types of dogs that possess the traits that make for successful competition dogs. And in many cases this specialized breeding has lead to sacrificing overall balance and general utility in favor of focusing on a more narrow set of specific drives and temperament traits. Many of these dogs that excel on the sport field lack characteristics needed to also be able to perform other forms of work and serve as good family companions. This means that with the working lines, just as with any other type, it is important to investigate the focus of the breeder's program and their track record of success to ensure that it fits with your goals and lifestyle.
Working Line German Shepherds ... and why we breed them. The German Shepherd Dog breed was originally designed to be an all around working dog. They herded and protected livestock, guarded family and property, were utilized for tracking and search and rescue, and accompanied law enforcement and military personnel on patrol. To produce a dog with the correct physical and mental characteristics to perform all of these tasks, while at the same time being a loving and loyal family pet, was the goal of the founders of the breed. Fortunately for all of us, they succeeded, and the result was the most widely recognized, admired and popular breed on Earth. It was the GSD's ability to excel at any and every task its human owners could put in front of it that earned the breed its reputation as the world's premier working dog. What we call “working bloodlines” today are the dogs that still possess these characteristics, and remain true to their working heritage. While the German Shepherd Dog has seen huge increases in popularity over the past several decades, this has been more detrimental than advantageous for the breed as a whole. Most German Shepherd Dogs in the world today, and almost all that can be found in the United States, have lost their working ability. They have been bred to win in the conformation show ring, or to serve solely as family pets, without true understanding or regard for the breed’s origin and intended purpose. In most cases, the characteristics that are required for a working dog have been neglected either intentionally in favor of breeding for looks, or unintentionally through ignorance and lack of use. The result is that the German Shepherd Dog’s working ability has been diluted to the point that it is virtually nonexistent in many German Shepherds and relatively few GSDs today can do the work their ancestors did.
Maintaining the original characteristics of the breed is an all important part of ensuring the longevity and quality of the German Shepherd breed as a whole. This is what we and other working bloodline GSD breeders strive to accomplish. By breeding dogs only from European working bloodlines, and carefully selecting our breeding stock so that we breed only those with the best working ability, we are helping to ensure that some representatives of the breed remain true to their origins.
The characteristics of a good "Working" dog. Drive, Temperament, Nerves and Physical Soundness.
Drive is an instinctual response. It is triggered by outside stimuli, and can be traced back to survival instincts in wild canids. Something like prey drive has its origins in the natural hunting behaviors of wolves... stalk, flush, chase, catch, shake, kill. These responses are automatic, strong, and once triggered can seem almost insatiable. Human selection through breeding has changed and molded these drives over time. We have endowed certain breeds with certain drives as they relate to the intended purpose of the dog. Yet even within those breeds, individual dogs have different drives and levels of drive.
There are many different types of drive: food drive, hunt drive, prey drive, defense drive, social drive, and others. Many of these, in one form or another, are important characteristics for working dogs to possess, but prey drive is the most imperative. Prey drive is the dog’s need to chase and catch his “prey”. Prey is simply defined as anything that a dog can chase and catch, from those pesky squirrels to a tennis ball. A simple game of fetch is a great example. The dog runs after the ball, catches it, and brings it back so he can chase it again. The dog’s desire to do this is a result of his prey drive.
Some dogs have no prey drive at all, and will ignore a ball that is thrown. Many dogs have mild to moderate prey drive and enjoy loping after a ball from time to time. Others, including most working lines, will have a prey drive so strong they will chase that ball like life depends on it until ready to drop from exhaustion. A working dog must have strong prey drive, as this drive is one of the primary tools that will be utilized for all aspects of training - from tracking to protection work to obedience to drug detection. Drives give the dog a reason to work, and a love of his work, and provide the trainer with an easy, inborn system with which to motivate, reward and correct his dog. Many other drives, such as food, hunt and pack, are also important to working dogs. Though which particular drives, in what combination and strength, are ideal will vary slightly with the work to be performed.
Temperament is a pretty subjective term that describes a dog’s overall attitude and personality. There are as many different ways to judge temperament as there are people and dogs. But however defined, working dogs must have exceptional temperament and possess some specific traits. They are energetic and take great joy in working with their owners. They are approachable by strangers, yet aware and protective. They must be calm and gentle with children, but show courage and confidence when they or their family is threatened. And they must have the intelligence and discretion to read a situation and respond accordingly. They should be curious, not shy, when placed in new surroundings. They must show loyalty and an overwhelming desire to please their handlers. Closely related to temperament is a dog’s nerves. Nerve refers to the dog’s reaction when placed in a stressful, or possibly potentially threatening, situation. A dog with solid nerves will not back down from a challenge. In protection work, when the helper gets tough, the dog gets tougher. They show confidence and courage in every situation and when faced with a threat, the dog will confront the threat rather than try to avoid it. Dogs with strong nerve are not rattled easily. By contrast, a weak nerved dog is easily rattled, and may become nervous and frightened when faced with strange people, sights, sounds, objects and places. He will perceive threats when none in fact exist, and will react to a threat by trying to escape. If he can’t run away, he will either shut down, cowering and showing submissive and avoidant body language, or will lash out in an attempt to make the threat leave. He will not meet the threat head on, with confidence. A weak nerved personal protection or patrol dog is a life threatening liability. Not only must the dog possess strong character, but he must also be what we call "environmentally sound". A dog with strong nerves is not bothered by loud and hectic surroundings, crowds, traffic, sharp noises, slick floors, enclosed spaces, darkness, unsure footing or heights. Environmental soundness is another aspect of nerve that is imperative in a good working dog.
While it is important that a working dog possess the appropriate mental characteristics, these are all for naught if the dog is physically incapable of doing the work. Physical soundness should be a goal of every breeding program. For working dogs, this means that the dog possesses the strength, speed, agility and coordination to perform his job.
Working dogs also tend to be smaller on average than what many members of the public consider to be 'normal' for German Shepherd Dog, which in fact means that they are closer to the breed standard. Many North American pet GSDs are in fact oversized, as are many dogs from both the American and German show lines. While larger size may on the surface seem to be an advantage for a protection or patrol dog, the fact is that oversized German Shepherds are most often slow and clumsy compared to their standard sized counterparts and tend to have a shorter working life as over the years those extra pounds take their toll on the joints and tissues. While a larger dog may seem to be more of a man stopper when it comes to protection work, he's also going to have a very difficult time doing a drug search in the back of a small car. As the German Shepherd is supposed to be a Jack-of-all-Trades type working dog, maintaining moderate size is important.
In addition to possessing proper size and overall athleticism, it is of utmost importance that working dogs be in excellent overall health and free of hip dysplasia and other diseases. This is the product of good breeding and good overall health care on the part of the handler. Nothing is more disappointing than putting the time and effort into training a dog for work or sport competition only to have it become physically incapable of doing the work once it’s training is complete. For more information about the different aspects of temperament, the importance of temperament testing breeding stock, and how genetic temperament impacts a dog's ability to serve both as a working partner and a trustworthy home companion, this article is one of the best ever written: The Elements of Temperament by Joy Tiz.