The German shepherd dog has a devoted fandom of dog lovers around the world — so devoted that this dog breed even has its own acronym, the GSD. The GSD is often associated with loyalty and bravery.
We picture Rin-Tin-Tin leaping across old Hollywood movie screens or K9 Apollo leading the way for search and rescue teams on 9/11. But the GSD also has a less pleasant association: Are German shepherds aggressive?
The truth about dog aggression is that it can affect any breed of dog, especially if the dog doesn't get enough socialization from an early age. But there are dog breeds that are more prone to aggressive behavior because of their breeding or because of genetically inherited mental disorders, like rage syndrome, cognitive dysfunction, or hypothyroidism.
We'll look at the risk factors and statistics surrounding German shepherd aggression. Plus, we'll share tips for dog owners trying to prevent aggression in their German shepherd puppy or adult rescue dog.
Are German Shepherds Aggressive? A Look at the Facts
There are three ways to assess the likelihood that a dog breed will have aggressive tendencies. The first is to look at what they were bred for — this is often the best indicator of a dog's hardwired personality traits.
Next is to look at the breed's health and inherited disorders to determine whether they inherit conditions that put them at risk for aggression. And finally, look at the data surrounding dog bites to see if German shepherds bite more frequently than other breeds. This data will help us discover the answer to: Are German shepherds aggressive?
Were They Bred for Aggression?
German shepherds were originally bred to be working dogs, and this dog has a history of succeeding in all types of work — most of which require a stable temperament.
These dogs started out as herding dogs where an aggressive dog might injure the livestock. But, part of the job of a herding dog is also to protect their herd.
So, they may show aggression when they perceive something to be a threat to their flock, or in the case of a family dog, to their family members.
German shepherds also work as police dogs. While this may bring to mind the image of an aggressive German shepherd, police dogs actually need to have an even temperament and be able to keep their cool in high-stress environments. Otherwise, they would be at risk for biting innocent civilians.
This work requires an intelligent dog that pays close attention to its handler and loves the mental stimulation they get from police dog training, including obedience training, scenting, and search and rescue.
Now we come to the one job that most people associate with aggression — The German shepherd breed is often used as a guard dog. These large dogs have an imposing size and appearance that can scare off strangers, and typically they will act to protect their home and family from a perceived threat.
What constitutes a "perceived threat" will be different for every dog. A well-socialized dog may welcome strangers into their home and only act if their owner appears to be frightened or in pain. An undersocialized dog may perceive every visitor as a threat and need to be put away in a crate or another room whenever you have company.
German shepherds are rarely aggressive towards their owners or family since that is the thing they're protecting. They may at times become overprotective of family members, but this trait should be manageable with proper training.
Do They Inherit Conditions That Would Lead to Aggression?
While German Shepherds are at risk for a variety of health problems from arthritis to pancreatitis, they are not prone to rage syndrome, cognitive dysfunction, hypothyroidism, or brain tumors.
However, GSDs are prone to epilepsy, which has been linked to aggression when it's left untreated. If you're buying a German shepherd puppy, ask the breeder about any history of epilepsy in their dogs and in puppies from previous litters. While a responsible breeder will conduct a variety of health screenings, there isn't currently a genetic test that can predict epilepsy.
If you've had a German shepherd for a long time, and it suddenly starts to show signs of aggression, take your dog to the vet. Even if your GSD doesn't have epilepsy or another condition linked with aggression, their new-found behavior problem may be a sign that they're in pain. Many dogs will behave aggressively if they're in pain, and your dog may need medical attention and pain relief.
Do They Cause a Lot of Dog Bites?
According to recent data, German shepherds rank fourth on the list of dog breeds that bite the most. However, when you consider that German shepherds are the third most popular dog breed in the U.S., this ranking may actually be slightly lower than expected, based on the number of GSDs in the country.
And while the study referenced above listed the top breed as unidentifiable, many local reports list Labrador retrievers as the breed that bites the most people. Labs also happen to be the most popular dog breed, which means there are more of them in the U.S. than any other purebred dog. More Labs means more chance of getting bitten by a Lab — just like how more German shepherds means more chance of getting bitten by a German shepherd.
A literature review by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) found a strong link between the prevalence of breed-specific bite incidents and the regional popularity of the breed. For example, in some regions of Canada where sled dogs are the most popular breeds, Siberian huskies caused the most dog bites.
The AVMA review also found that with many (but not all) large breeds, the number of bites by that breed went up during times when the breed's popularity went up. For example, Rottweilers experienced a spike in popularity in the early ‘90s. A few years later, around the time that those Rottweiler puppies would have reached maturity, there was a spike in the number of reported dog bites by Rottweilers.
This same study found that, compared to their prevalence in the dog population, small and medium-sized dogs were more likely to bite than large dogs. But bites by large dogs were more likely to be reported because they cause more damage. Because an aggressive large dog is more dangerous than an aggressive toy breed, large dogs are also more likely to get treatment and training to prevent their aggression. And lack of training may be part of the reason aggression was more prevalent in small and medium dogs.
Data from the National Canine Research Council also found that media reports are unreliable when it comes to breed identification, and even 75% of animal professionals were wrong when they attempted to visually identify a dog breed.
This research found that situational factors not related to a dog's breed were more likely to lead to biting. The situational risk factors included a dog owner's mismanagement and neglect of the dog, the bite victim being a stranger, and the dog not being spayed or neutered. Because purebred German shepherd puppies come from breeders, rather than rescue organizations, owners are not typically required to get their GSDs spayed or neutered.
So, it seems that any increased risk of a dog bite from German shepherds may be based — at least in part — on the increased number of GSDs in the population. And that's if the breed reporting can be trusted at all.
Ultimately, any dog can bite if they're not trained and socialized from a young age. However, because German shepherds are large and powerful dogs, their bite will do more damage than the bite of a chihuahua — making it even more important for German shepherd owners to sign their pet up for obedience training.
How to Prevent Aggressive Behavior
The majority of aggressive behavior is preventable. Here's what you can do as a German shepherd owner:
Start Socializing at an Early Age
Dog owners can raise well-adjusted pets by introducing their dogs to as many different kinds of people and environments as possible, starting at an early age.
Take your puppy to parks, restaurants, sports games, and any other dog-friendly locales you can find. While you're there, ask people of all different heights, skin tones, ages, abilities, and genders to interact with your German shepherd puppy. And make sure your pup gets plenty of treats at each new location and from each new person they meet.
Take Your Puppy to Training Classes
Sign up for obedience training to further socialize your pet and prevent common issues like puppy nipping. Look for dog trainers who use positive reinforcement training. While dominance-based dog training used to be a popular technique, animal behaviorists now recommend against it, partially because these techniques can sometimes cause dog aggression.
Rehabilitate Older Dogs
If you're rescuing or fostering an older GSD or GSD mix and the dog already has behavior problems, work with an animal behaviorist to find the best positive reinforcement techniques to rehabilitate your pet. If your adult dog has aggressive tendencies, train them to enjoy wearing a muzzle and make sure they wear it whenever they're around new people.
Recognize the Signs of Aggression
Even if your dog is perfectly trained, they may still behave aggressively if they feel frightened or threatened. Watch your dog's body language for early signs of fear and aggression, including a lowered head, tucked tail, pinned-back ears, growling, and snarling. Remove your dog from the intimidating situation before the behavior progresses to lunging or biting.
As a vigilant dog owner, you can help prevent dog aggression and keep your pet feeling safe and calm.
German Shepherds Are Good Dogs
So, are German shepherds aggressive? While any dog can show aggressive tendencies if they aren't socialized from a young age, German shepherds don't appear to be more at risk for aggression than any other dog breed.
As a German shepherd owner, we know you want the best for your dog — from the best food for German shepherds to the best dog training. These intelligent dogs are easy to train, so sign them up for positivity-based obedience classes to help them become better behaved and better adjusted canine citizens.To learn more about your dog's health and wellness, check out the Native Pet blog.