German Shepherd as a Family Dog: a Bad or a Good Idea?

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC) German Shepherds are currently the second most popular dog breed in America. So it’s not surprising that you can find plenty of websites that will tell you they make the ideal family dog. But you can also talk to your local shelter or German Shepherd rescue and find out how many 18 to 24-month-old German Shepherds they take in. Taking everything into account, is getting a German Shepherd as a family dog a bad or a good idea?

Although this article is specifically about German Shepherds, the principles that will be described are applicable to many of the working and herding breeds. In general, some characteristics these breeds share are

natural athleticism,
high prey drive,
high intelligence,
high energy,
stubbornness,
alertness,
loyalty.

Many of these characteristics arise from what you want in a working dog. For example, I used to be a wilderness search and rescue area dog handler. If you’re searching for a given area for a person then you want a smart athlete that can remain independently focused on the task at hand for long periods of time. But the flip side of these characteristics can be less desirable. An athlete will not be content with a half hour walk once a day. That independence can result in a dog that is convinced they are the center of the world and object to anybody or anything that challenges that position. Strong focus can translate as very stubborn.

2 German Shepherds and a Mix That Were Almost Given Up

Years ago when I was walking my 5-year-old German Shepherd, I was approached by a neighbor who was walking her 1-year-old GSD. She wanted to know why mine was walking so calmly next to me while hers was trying to drag her every way other than up. I gave her a few tips, showed her a trick and we parted ways. I next saw them a few months later and her dog was walking calmly at her side!

About the same time, I met another neighbor walking his 18-month-old German Shepherd who told me he was considering taking the dog to a shelter. When I asked why he said it was because the dog wasn’t listening to him and his 2 daughters. I met with all of them at their home on a weekend and was able to show them what they needed to change. This story ended very well. Not only did they not take the dog to a shelter, when it later developed a rare disease and started losing her sight, they responded by getting another German Shepherd to be her companion!

Pretty GSD/Husky mix looking royal.

Pretty GSD/Husky mix looking royal.

The third dog is actually a German Shepherd / Husky mix and is lying on the floor next to me as I type this. Long story about how she ended up with us at age 16 months. Suffice it to say she turned out to suffer from generalized anxiety and had no basic obedience training. Had limited exposure to different environments. Had no idea she was not the center of the universe! After 9 months of daily training and 4 to 5 miles of daily walks, she is getting close to the dog we want to have. Still occasionally lunges at the 2 cats and there is the occasional hysterical fit, but she has learned a lot of impulse control!

German Shepherds as a Family Dog:  Bad Idea

Some people think the quintessential family dog is loving, goofy, has plenty of energy and innately wants to please its people. If this describes you, then you should look at a Labrador Retriever or a Golden Shepherd. I’ll play devil’s advocate in this section and let you know why a German Shepherd is a bad idea for a family dog. Let’s consider some traits and characteristics.

Legal Liabilities Like it or not many of the United States communities and landlords can currently discriminate against certain dogs based on their breed. German Shepherds are almost always on the list of banned dogs.

Shedding Some people think the ideal family dog has no tail and short hair. A German Shedder would be these peoples’ nightmare! They shed all the time and it gets especially bad twice a year when they “blow” their undercoat. Their tail can clear a coffee table in one swing.

Breeding German Shepherd breeders can choose from a wide array of innate abilities. A dog bred from strong Schutzhund (a protection dog sport) lines, for example, will not make an ideal family dog. If you get your dog from a rescue then you really don’t know the breeding or environmental history of the dog. You could easily end up with a dog that is fearful, insecure, aggressive, hyperactive or nervous.

Intelligence German Shepherds are highly intelligent dogs that can easily end up training their people rather than the other way around. Once they figure out an exercise’s end game, they are notorious for wanting to jump straight to that and skip the steps in the middle. They will teach you the meaning of “too smart for their own good”.

Loyalty/Protection German Shepherds typically start developing their sense of self and accompanying protection instincts between 12 and 18 months of age. This can make them suspicious of anyone and everyone. Worse, some German Shepherds have been bred to be shy, whether intentionally or not, which can amplify these suspicions.

Energy/Exercise Like any working dog, German Shepherds need a job. If you don’t provide one, they will find one of their own. And you probably won’t like what they choose!

Prey Drive Like a lot of working dogs, German Shepherds are often bred for what’s known as a high prey drive. This means if they see something running, or just moving quickly, they want to chase it. That obviously can include the family cat(s). It can also make them hard to control on a walk if anything moves quickly in their environment. I had one puppy that came unglued when a large grasshopper jumped in front of her!

German Shepherds as a Family Dog:  Good Idea

Hugging my GSD Family Dog.

Hugging my GSD Family Dog.

Now let’s review the reasons that German Shepherds make the best family dogs!

Presence German Shepherds are large dogs that immediately command respect. Once you get over feeling annoyed as people cross the street when you’re walking your dog, you’ll learn to appreciate the fact that no one breaks into a house with a German Shepherd!

Socialization With proper training, your German Shepherd can expect that all people and other animals are fundamentally good and so enjoy their company. They’ll play well with your friends’ dog(s) and your friends. The key is to begin socializing early.

Breeding Just as there are irresponsible breeders, there are also fantastic breeders. Pet lines or show lines will make a better family dog than strong working lines. If you want to go this route, you will need to spend some money, but you can be picky and get a dog whose parents’ hips have been certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) “Good” and/or “Excellent” which means your dog will have a very small chance of having dysplasia.

Intelligence German Shepherds are a very intelligent breed who can solve problems. They can be trained to independently perform complex tasks for their owner(s).

Loyalty/Protection German Shepherds naturally bond to their family and seek to protect them from harm. With proper training they will love, respect and care for their people. Even if you just run to the store, upon your return they will greet you like you’ve been gone for years!

Energy/Exercise German Shepherds are natural athletes with a lot of energy. It takes a LOT to tire one out. Your children can play with them as long as they want! They can easily handle 4 to 5 miles of walking/jogging a day. And they’ll still be willing to play ball in the park afterward!

Prey Drive Dogs with a high prey drive tend to be very trainable. The hardest dog to train is the one that doesn’t care about anything. But if your dog loves the ball or toy, then giving the ball is a reward, withholding the ball is a correction. You can use these 2 motivators to train all kinds of different behaviors.

Conclusion

German Shepherds can be a great choice for a family dog as long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into. As you can see in the last 2 sections, the same qualities that make them a poor choice for a family dog can also make them a good choice. The difference is training and socialization. Socialization is most important when they are young – 4 to 8 months. Training never ending. So is getting a German Shepherd as a family dog a bad or a good idea? Yes!

3 Comments

  1. I personally wouldn’t want a German Shepherd. That’s way too much energy for me. But they are beautiful dogs. I’ve met a couple of Police German Shepherds, and even though they were on duty, they were more than willing to shake hands and give kisses. I can definitely see these dogs being wonderful family members!

    • Hi Joseph,

      GSDs are great dogs, but I do think people need to do enough research to know what they’re getting themselves into. They are certainly not ideal for someone who wants a dog that will quietly lay around the house all the time!

      I hope you have 4-legged friends that fit into your household. There is a saying that a dog makes a house a home!

      Matthew

  2. suzanne

    Hi and thanks for your review. We own 2 larger shelties right now, but having moved to an acreage, we’d love to buy a shepherd some day. I love them! I think an acreage would be a great place for a larger dog like this. Lot’s of space and grandkids haha.
    Cheers,
    Suzanne

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