The Head of the German Shepherd Dog

The issue of what is a correct head comes up every once in a while. I believe the reason is because the percentage of newer people in the sport and breed increases and changes steadily, and they often come into the family without proper tutoring by knowledgeable elders or sufficient study of their own.

The importance of the head is quite great, although often neglected. It is by far the most essential single element in the total picture of “breed type.” The head is what draws the eye when dog and human encounter one another. Even the dog looks at a human’s eyes and head carriage to see expression, threat, intention, and other subtle messages. When we look at dogs, either as pets or subjects in a show ring, they give us very important first and lasting impressions. It is a subtle but definite combination of ear and neck carriage, of whether the dog looks at us with a “sideways” or a more frontal or direct glance. Even if the dog’s attention is elsewhere, expression is noted by the human observing it, either subconsciously or in critical evaluation.

HEAD (Translated from the WUSV Breed Standard by Fred Lanting, SV Zuchtrichter)

“The head is to be wedge-shaped, large but in proportion to the body, with length about 40% of the dog’s height at the withers, without being clumsy or overly long. It is dry in its general appearance, and moderately broad between the ears. The forehead as seen from the front and from the side is only little arched, and without a central furrow or with only a slightly implied one.

“The proportion of backskull to foreface is 50:50. The breadth of backskull corresponds approximately to its length. The top of the head [seen from above] from the ears to the nose is a fairly continuous wedge-shaped taper, with a slanting but not too-sharply defined stop. Upper and lower jaws are definitely strong. The muzzle is straight, neither a saddle shape nor an arch being desirable. The lips are tight, closing well, and of dark color.”

Fig 1 - The ideal GSD head gives the impression of parallel planes on muzzle and skull, with lengths about equal

Keeping in mind the relative importance that von Stephanitz put on utility vs. superficial beauty (soundness vs. looks), we recall his words: “The Shepherd-dog is a working dog… and usefulness ranks higher than beauty… nobility consists in a balance and proportion of each part.” Later in the same chapter he says, “The first glance must take in the general picture: expression…” (etc.). And, “It is the principal part… and through the features of the head, the dog’s type, character, and nature can be most easily recognized.” He goes on to warn about the too-long and too-narrow heads (we see such in many modern Collies) and warns also against trying to use calipers and rulers rather than our eyes and judgment. “There are no regular standards of proportion for the head. Each head must be tuned to the general harmony of the body, and this is quite different for dogs than for bitches.” He also stresses the importance of it being proportionate to the rest of the body, but we almost never see a GSD in the ring that has a head out of proportion with its body. More likely, we’ll sometimes see a lack of masculinity or femininity.

There is, really, quite a bit of leeway if you look very closely at Rittmeister Max’s words and pictures of excellent breed examples since his day. If you see enough GSD heads and train your eyes to be analytical, you can observe differences that are completely missed by the novice. I urge you to look at live dogs and well-made lateral photos, but don’t be much swayed by drawings, no matter how life-like. The sketch used by the SV for so many years (see it superimposed on Figure 1, the attached photo of a Caribbean import) is good for explaining, but it is still not a photograph of a live dog. Note the difference between the more desirable parallel head planes in the drawing and the slightly coarse (rugged?) look in the male above it. There is room for both, but some preference for those proportions and angles in the sketch. Even though the unisex drawing was purposely made to not indicate one gender over the other.

Fig 2 - Impression of parallel head planes with ears "on alert"

The next picture I call your attention to (Figure 2) is of my linebred Bernd Kallengarten dog of 50 or so years ago, a big red dog of tremendous courage. “Tiki” shows, in this photo, lines as parallel as you can get between foreface and backskull, the bridge or eyebrows marking the division. But, as most of you know, and any teacher of anatomy will agree, there are no straight lines in nature except for surfaces of crystals or perhaps the path of a lightbeam. What we see as straight is an illusion. There are curves, and our eyes are accustomed to averaging them out so that we see instead the impression of a straight edge.

Fig 3 - Azzi. Impressions of good parallel head planes.

The erect alert ears of a GSD hide much of the curve of the cranium. However, even when a dog holds its ears back, it may give the impression of a somewhat flat skull and parallel planes, as in the picture of a nice bitch I had in the mid-`70s (Figure 3):

Figures 2 & 3 Left: “Tiki”; Right: Azzi. Impressions of good parallel head planes.

Figure 4 is an early dog in Germany (SZ # 225800), Flott Forellenbach, chosen to show you a desirable near-parallel image. He has a slightFig 4 - An early dog in Germany “bridge” between his eyes, which is a less abrupt transition from muzzle to backskull than is seen mostly today. The last von Stephanitz book (1933) had many such good pictures of correct head planes. In none of these photos should there be any question in an experienced dog-person’s eye as to which gender the dog is. And that brings up the very difficult question of how does one teach a novice what the differences are. It is so hard to describe, even with photos, because they are so slight. Some may say that the orbital region in males is wider, or that males tend to have eyes slightly more forward-facing. Some say that the head is larger in proportion to the torso, but that’s not right, either, since we can see differences without looking below the collar. We must therefore, use the teaching methods of apprenticeship and verbal critiques (encouraging show-goers to be ringside to hear the judge’s comments and try to see what he/she sees.

In the past few decades, the parallel planes look has suffered a little due to neglect (more emphasis on other things), but there are still fairly recent examples of good heads with near-parallel planes that you can find if you search the archives. Just to name a few that are no longer active: Quantum Arminius, Orbit Hühnegrab, Hill Farbenspiel, Tiras Roten Feld, Odin Holtkämper Hof, Yasmin Nieuwlandshof, and Wafa Casa Cacozza.

Remember, the dog doesn’t run on its head, but the head is an important marker for breed type, and Type is what distinguishes this breed from others.

Fred Lanting

Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge, has judged numerous countries’ Sieger Shows and Landesgruppen events, and has many years experience as one of only two SV breed judges in the US. He presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD and Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. He conducts annual non-profit sightseeing tours of Europe, centered on the Sieger Show (biggest breed show in the world) and BSP.

Books by Fred Lanting