Type and Style Variability in the German Shepherd

I have written in a few publications before, on the topic of genetic diversity, linebreeding, and health, and am now living up to my promise to the club leadership to supply another article on the related topic of phenotype variability as it relates to genotype. That is, “What you see is a clue to what you got.” (“Got” here means “obtained,” not just the teeny-bopper’s or Valley girl’s misuse of the word when they mean “have.”) For it is what you got from the breeders of your dog and its ancestors that you have to work with. If you are a non-breeding owner, you will want to read this to understand more about your dog’s appearance and health; if you are a breeder, you will be looking for all the tools you can find to do better in the next pairing or generation.

I would like to classify certain groups of dogs as subsets of the GSD gene pool for the sake of discussion, and then we can classify them as branches in the process of developing into separate “breeds,” since different strains are in different stages of that particular development. Also, remember that the descriptions of phenotype I will be presenting herein are only generalizations, not absolute, well defined boundaries. There is sufficient variability within each arbitrary group that the exceptions can be found, and there is a cross-over of type, making such boundaries very fuzzy indeed.

First, let’s look at the American GSD, the style predominant at AKC shows. At one time, you might even have further split that into all-breed show, and specialty show types, as many have done. And beyond that, the all-breed group might be split into breed-ring and obedience types. It begins to look like the norm for conservative Baptist and Nazarene churches! As if St. Paul had directed the Church to split as soon as the parking lot had more than a dozen cars. But we can discount the “obedience dog” because we are talking here about breeding, and most obedience GSDs (at least those in AKC rings) are there because they flunked out of breed competition, or the owners bought them only for that purpose, from another obedience competitor who just happened to have a litter; or from a show or pet breeder who predicted at the outset that they would not be great show prospects.

typical GSDCA winner

WUSV Universal Sieger Zambo Riedschlurgi – Austria. June, 2011

The “specialty type” American Shepherd (it stretches imagination to call many of them GSDs) all too often fits the stereotype description given it by its detractors, because the breeders have become blinded by years—even generations—of living in caves of isolationism and “mis-education.” That “breed standard” might read: Large, very deep-chested, extremely stretched dog with narrow head, narrow torso, and no front angulation. Stands very high at shoulders because of a steep-short upper arm, relatively steep shoulder blade, and because it is trained to stand crouched in the rear. Swan neck, held as vertically as possible, is offset by pasterns which are just the opposite, the dog nearly standing on its carpal joint to be preferred, and strong metacarpus a serious fault. Elbows very close together in the lean dog, and even in the heavy variety, by virtue of the forequarters being placed well forward of the narrow, slab-sided ribcage. This will allow the dog to compensate by artfully turning its feet out at the wrists (“east-west”) to maintain balance and prevent falling to one or the other side. Toes are to resemble those of a hare but even longer. Flat feet are to be desired. Topline should show a sharp break where neck meets back, then a sharp “ski” slope to the short pelvis, thus hiding its natural steepness as much as can be expected. In a pose, one rear foot must be placed as close to the front feet as possible, with the entire metatarsus flat on the ground; a dog that actually walks or trots that way is to be rewarded. The other foot is placed at least two feet behind the thighs, with the metatarsus slanting toward the far end of the show-grounds. The rearmost hock will thereby be artfully twisted inward, to complement the ideal turned-out nature of the forelegs. Naturally, the tail will then drag out on the ground when standing and hopefully when moving. Ribs may be slightly sprung or slab-sided, no preference. Bite need not be serviceable, and missing teeth are a mark of “good breeding,” so judges are expected to ignore dentition faults or, better yet, give a perfunctory glance at the incisors only and immediately forget which dogs had which aberrations. Ears that show variety and individuality are desirable, hence it is perfectly honorable to make a Grand Victor or Victrix out of a dog with “friendly ears” (the kind that wave at everyone in the arena), bonnet ears, mule ears, lazy and hard-to-get-erect ears, or any other kind. This standard should sufficiently set apart the “show dog” from the “obedience dog,” which latter is expected to have less variation and show only enough breed type to be identifiable as a close relative, and enough soundness to jump, turn, and carry a dumbbell.

The all-breed AKC Shepherd has a wider Standard in some respects, but its appearance is often intermediate between the normal, historical GSD structure and that of the American Shepherd. Its Standard might include such terms as: large, flashy in color and coat condition, plush and soft in temperament, fat, and certainly having a well-known handler on the other end of the leash. This variety does not have to be as long or angulated as the specialty AKC dog, should be sound going away and not too bad coming in (elbows out is bad, but high-stepping like the specialty dog is perfectly acceptable). As long as it shows a vertical “swan neck” and high head carriage, is under maximum control with alert expression while standing, and is under sufficient control with animation while racing around, especially in the Group ring, it can prance as high as an SS trooper on amphetamines and still meet “the all-breed Standard.” Bite and full mouth not required. Bulk more important than dryness.

The White Shepherd (a.k.a. white GSD, depending on which club is promoting it) is often quite square, level topline, very long in body, especially between the shoulder blade and pelvis. Pasterns are strong, hock action is firm and true. Angulation in rear is moderate, but rather open (straight, vertical) in front. Both this variety and the all-breed colored one stands with the kneecap actually higher than the hock, which makes them look very different from the specialty AKC dog. Croups on the white dogs are short and steep, in order to add to the boxy look and the long mid-piece. Heads are as fine as the specialty AKC dog, although interbreeding between these varieties has been rare in recent years. It is more likely that “crossing” with the all-breed type is used. Long coats are rare, and incidence of light eyes is about on a par with the first variety. One of the clubs is moving in the direction of separate breed classification. They foolishly thought they would be applauded and assisted by the GSDCA, whose members mostly are vituperative and eager to bury the whites. But strangely, the white-separatist movement has been opposed by the GSDCA (whose voice is the only one heard at 51 Madison Ave.) so they are in limbo. (Can’t live with ‘em, don’t want to live without ‘em… or their registration money, actually).

On the other hand, if we are to recognize and back the separation efforts, maybe we should not joke about their actual Standard or the de facto one as I have above. The actual Standard is close to that of the others above and the next one. And most of the better white dogs are closer to representing the GSD Standards (AKC, KC, or SV) than you might think. I have judged White GSD shows in America (including many times that club’s national specialty) and abroad (the all-Europe international show, photo above).

Perhaps under attack even more by GSDCA folk is the long-established separatist movement, but younger variety known as the “Shiloh Shepherd.” While the whites were here from the beginning (one of the founders of the GSD club in America had whites, and the U.S.’ biggest financial backer of shows for GSDs had whites), the Shiloh Shepherd started about 35 years ago by a woman who wanted the “old-fashioned” style, by which she meant a very large, imposing, friendly, level-back dog. Unfortunately, her limited gene pool was the same as the American Shepherd: Lance’s descendants and a few others. The drive for size allowed a large number of long-coats since there were not enough shorter-coated giants for her. Today, most Shilohs are not dual-registered as GSDs, only in their own registry. Which makes the hatred toward their owners and dogs all the more confusing, since they are certainly not a threat to the GSD market. The buyer that is drawn to the Shiloh is looking for a more normal dog than the extreme caricature they see in the AKC specialty ring. Shilohs are often loose (not firm and dry), have many missing teeth (not surprising, considering their in-bred ancestry), and about the same size as the larger American Shepherds, although the light pigment and heavy coat makes many appear larger than they really are, and the breeding emphasis is on great size. They are very “soft” in temperament, sociable with other dogs, and often shy with human strangers. They are required to have at least an acceptable level of hip joint congruity before full registration and breeding privileges are granted.

a Shiloh Shepherd with a miniature horse.

A top working-lines dog, Javier Talka Marta in 2009

The “workin’ dawg”: This is a subset of the variety called “Imported GSD.” The real Standard is the universally-accepted one published by the World Union of GSD clubs (WUSV) and the FCI, but considerable leniency is allowed in regard to conformation to that Standard. Most are of Eastern Germany or other Soviet-bloc origin, in hopes or actual success in getting the working qualities (the Communists usually couldn’t afford “pretty” dogs; they had to bite, have good hips, and live a long time). Therefore, most of them are “Koerklasse-2” (breeding quality level 2) which means allowed to breed but not especially recommended. The practical Standard might read: One cm over or under size limits though usually small-looking compared to the show dog, somewhat straight in front and rear angulation, somewhat weak back, short croup, very good pigment with much black (some solid black, many sables), strong feet, and not necessarily firm in elbows. Of course, full dentition is preferred for good protection work such as hitting the sleeve with enough force to take down a 300-lb “helper” if he’s not perfectly agile, but missing teeth is one cause for being put into Kkl-2. Some workin’ dawgs are not even “Koerklasse-able” because of more missing teeth, off-size, or just plain ugly. But you would think this variety the most beautiful companion in the world if you had to walk through a bad neighborhood or parking lot at night!

The “high-line” dog, also known as the German Showdog, is the other subset of the import variety. Here the Standard is so rigorously enforced and tight that a newcomer has no idea that all those dogs in a show are not littermates. This variety is dry and firm, comes in a variety of pigment from acceptable to very good, is within the size limits (actually measured more than once before being allowed to breed), and has all its teeth and a normal bite with none of the overcrowding of the lower jaw as seen in the first four varieties. Most are cowhocked, but none are extreme in their rear angulation. Front angles and upper arms much better than any of the above. Pasterns almost 100% correct, earset correct, secondary sex characteristics pronounced. Most do not work frequently enough to present a really good bite at the National (“Sieger”) Shows to impress the workin’ dawg people or even half of the show crowd in the audience. Because of decades of one-family management of the breed and breed club (SV) in Germany, and the emphasis on powerful rear drive and long croups, the appearance of the average winner has turned off many a prospect. Toplines often (not always) and for decades following were so different that this feature was all that the pet owner and the GSDCA fanatic could see… nothing further. The few weak backs, if any, certainly disappeared, but in their place we saw the “boomerang” or “banana” back winning. While von Stephanitz some 80 years or more earlier had warned against “the hyena dog,” it was there, wearing the emperor’s new clothes. Only in the 1990s did new management emphasize the normal topline and start the pendulum back toward center. A very steep croup was called “correct,” although it was only relatively correct in that most of them were at the proper angle from the lumbar spine right before it. It gave the impression, but not always the actuality, of being ideally long when it seemed to meld into a portion of the topline that had already started downhill. Quarantine countries got stuck with these problems longer than it affected Germany. SV judges are inhibited, discouraged, from recognizing how steep the croups are.

Typical German dogs: excellent forechest, good rear angulation, and a slight variety of toplines.
Above: Typical German dogs: excellent forechest, good rear angulation, and a slight variety of toplines.

In England, there is yet another colony or variety called the Alsatian. This is as heavy as the bulkiest old-fashioned American Shepherd, as low-stationed as the shortest-legged in the States, and is popularly known as “the sausage dog” there as a result. The Alsatian is typically light in color, soft and plush like a Shiloh cut off somewhere in the legs, often soft in pasterns and turned out in feet, with great variety within its own category. Very few of these get exported anywhere in the world, just as is the case with American GSDs, because nearly everybody in the world except parts of America and Canada know what a GSD is supposed to look like in reference to proportions and the hint of working qualities. England also has the “Germanic” or international type in larger numbers, but because of the quarantine, they had a slow climb out of the “broken back” hole they had dug and fallen into. They and (worse) the Australians were forced by quarantine rules to recover at a slower rate than did their “Deutsche-ophile” colleagues in Germany and North America. (See another article of mine on the Alsatian.)

“Banana-” or Boomerang-” back, Australia

different types at Crufts: Germanic, Alsatian

While I’ve tried to present a humorous view of the various “Standards” and “varieties” of the GSD breed, I have no doubt that I will have succeeded in upsetting enough followers of each camp so that I should perhaps give my home address as somewhere in Belize. But, hey! you have to make fun of yourself (and others) once in a while to make a point. People who draw caricatures at conventions and sidewalk art shows are the most popular of artists, since they exaggerate features that the subject has overlooked because of vanity, kennel blindness, lack of time, no interest in self-evaluation, or just plain dullness (which always has lack of humor and insight at its core). Whatever else you might say about their work, they do give a different perspective.

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