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What Were German Shepherds Bred For?- History, Roles & Jobs

While most dogs now live idle and comfortable lives, they were all originally bred for a reason. In most cases, dogs were developed to benefit humans. And with the German Shepherd’s physique, it’s not a surprise they were great working dogs.

But, what were German Shepherds bred for? German Shepherds are a relatively new breed (only just over 100 years old) despite strongly resembling their wolf ancestors. German Shepherds were, as the name implies, bred as a herding dog. Specifically, they helped their owners with herding sheep and guarding the flock.

But German Shepherds have come a long way since then. They’ve evolved into multi-purpose work dogs in a multitude of fields. Read more to learn about this incredibly intelligent and versatile dog breed and what its future may hold in store.

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What German Shepherds Were Originally Bred For

It is all in their name. While some dog breeds might not give you any information about their origin or why they were originally bred, a German Shepherd’s identity is out in the open.

German Shepherds make it easy. As their name implies, they were originally bred in Germany for none other than shepherding (the herding of sheep). And while they’re not known for herding today, plenty of them still herd!

But of course, there’s much more to these dogs than just herding on a farm. Unfortunately, many of the old German Shepherd herding lines were abandoned, as it became more profitable breeding for the new GSD show lines.

The true German herding lines were lost around the same time the split between the working and show lines became prominent.

– Chip Blasiole (GermanShepherds.com)

The German Shepherd of way back then may have been quite different from today’s. In fact, many believe that these dogs were much smaller back then. Plus – straight-backed dogs, for example, are much more sought after than before.

Though relatively new as a breed, they have a history filled with all manner of jobs and stories. Let’s take a look. 

German Shepherd Origins

Only by about the 1850s did people in Europe start trying to standardize dog breeds. So while the German Shepherd breed only officially became realized in the later part of the 1800s, it didn’t simply appear out of thin air. 

The first official German Shepherd made its appearance in Germany in 1899. Back then, working dog breeds were far more popular than toy or small breeds. Few people had dogs as “companions.” After all, they were far more useful in practical terms.

However, during these times, most shepherding dogs in Germany were referred to as a more generic “German Shepherd Dogs.” So the name took some time to actually mean what it does today.

How Do German Shepherds Compare to Other Herding Dogs?

When it comes to herding, few breeds can compare to the sheer intelligence and power of the athletic German Shepherd. Not only were German Shepherds excellent for herding sheep, but they could also protect the flocks from predators. 

Their intimidating physicality and loud barks were often more than enough to scare off animals that might see sheep as snacks, such as wolves. In other words, they were very useful dogs that took up several roles on farms.

But even if the predators did not run away, a German Shepherd could just as often put up a fight.

Specifically as a dog for herding sheep, they were and are perhaps the best choice. But for herding larger animals, it might be better to go with a smaller dog, such as the Corgi. Yes, this might seem a bit counterintuitive, but we will explain.

Sometimes the animals being herded are not always the most cooperative. So, they might display a little aggression in the form of a kick here and there. 

For smaller animals like a sheep, this won’t pose much risk to a German Shepherd. But what about cattle? A kick from a cow could seriously injure even a German Shepherd. 

So, for these animals it is better to have a Corgi or other shorter breed. Any kicks would just fly over their heads, leaving them unharmed. German Shepherds are much larger, thus, becoming a much bigger target for flying hooves.

So be sure to have the right dog for the job whenever you need to herd other animals. But, on a side note, German Shepherds might herd their owners (including kids) as well. That is, only if they’re not trained properly!

Herding: Border Collies vs. GSDs

Border Collies are renowned as one of the best herding dogs, ever. However, the herding style of the BC is a lot different than that of the German Shepherd.

The Border Collie is a herder, driver and gatherer. It’s what makes them the top sheep herding dog in the world. These dogs possess the instincts to gather flocks, but also the speed to chase them down if need be.

Border Collies are also crafty, as they have the agility and skills to get around large and small flocks, but also stalk them so they gather. They know exactly how put sheep in position with their movements around the flock.

The BC and the GSD work very differently because they are doing two different jobs, with different sheep and conditions.

– Moobli (PetForums UK)

On the other hand, German Shepherds are what we call a Tender. That is, they keep these sheep flocks gathered in just one area, and only move them in an orderly manner. They do so by regulating the side of the flock.

Of course, German Shepherds are much bigger than most herding dogs. And while they are quick, they don’t really have the same agility as the Border Collie or Aussie. They need to herd in this very specific way, though it works very well.

It’s worth noting that this herding style is still being practiced in Germany today. And of course, the German Shepherds are the favorites for this particular type of herding.

What Do German Shepherds Do Now?

Though you can still find German Shepherds herding sheep around the world, their resume has quickly expanded to include quite a few other jobs. With their exceptional intelligence and athletic builds, they can fill all kinds of rolls. 

Below is a quick list of the top jobs that German Shepherds have nowadays. However, most of the GSDs are simply family companions today.

German Shepherds as Police Dogs

Combine intelligence, athleticism, loyalty, and a powerful nose and you have one superb police dog. In this case, the German Shepherd fits the bill.

German Shepherds have long been the go-to breed for police K-9 units, using their intimidating yet fearful presence, and powerful sniffers to bring down criminals. 

These dogs can do it all! From detecting illegal substances to sniffing out bombs, German Shepherds keep the world safer one day at a time. It’s really no surprise that they’ve been working with the police force for over 100 years!

However, it is important not to approach a police German Shepherd while they are on duty. They are specifically trained to behave a certain way on the job. So getting too close to one could be a bit too dangerous. 

Instead, just admire them from afar and they will happily do their jobs. 

German Shepherds as Rescue Dogs

Again, the German Shepherd’s keen nose and sharp mind pull through as a rescue dog. In the wake of all kinds of disasters, German Shepherds can help find survivors. Plus, they’re some of the best at this job!

Whether they are searching for citizens trapped beneath rubble or swimming across flooded lanes, German Shepherds have already saved scores of citizens. 

In fact, it was a German Shepherd and his officer who found the final survivor of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite the alarming amount of debris on the site, this German Shepherd had no problems navigating through the mess.

If you find yourself in New York City or Washington D.C., you may very well find statues honoring the brave German Shepherds who helped save those affected by the events of 9/11.

German Shepherds as Service Dogs

Following the first World War, German Shepherds saw their first stint as service dogs. Specifically, they began being trained as seeing-eye dogs for war veterans. 

They quickly picked up on the training and proved themselves to be excellent at the job. However, with the unpopularity of anything German at that period (because of the wars) it took some time for their popularity to spread.

But once it did, they took off. Now, German Shepherds are one of the best options for service dogs of all kinds, ranging from therapy animals to seeing-eye dogs. 

German Shepherds as Agility Dogs

German Shepherds are fit! They’re also quick dogs with their large strides. There’s no denying that. But even though they boast a larger size, they also display a surprising amount of agility.

They regularly are at the top of the charts for agility contests. In fact, plenty of German Shepherds have gone on to win championships in this field. They learn courses quickly and their powerful builds do the rest.

Conformation Animal

Though the external characteristics of a German Shepherd are different from years back, they still show stunning traits. 

Though this is less of a job and more of something a German Shepherd naturally has, it is still something they are bred for, so we will keep in on the list. 

Obedience Dog

We go on and on about how intelligent German Shepherds are, but it is only because it’s one of their standout traits. In fact, they’re one of the smartest dog breeds in the world for obedience intelligence – only behind the Poodle and Border Collie

As obedience dogs, German Shepherd truly shine, learning commands and tasks with lightning fast ease. They can learn a new command with less than 5 repetitions! And then those same brains ensure they can stay calm and rarely get confused.

So it is no surprise that German Shepherds regularly outshine the competition at shows when it comes to obedience. The GSDs are just really intelligent dogs that love to work, even if it means some obedience work.

German Shepherds as Sentinel Dogs

As a sentinel dog (or a guard dog, as it is more commonly called) German Shepherds again prove superior. Because they’re a loyal breed, they already have an innate protective energy toward their owners and their family. 

You would think, after guarding sheep flocks for so many decades, they would possess the instincts to do the same with their owners. Well, you’re right – they do!

When that instinct is trained and honed, they can make excellent sentinel dogs. Not only are they incredibly perceptive (nothing gets by them), but their powerful barks and builds can intimidate even the most brave-hearted of intruders.

So if you have a home, family, bank vault, or otherwise valuable thing that needs guarding, a German Shepherd may be right for you.

German Shepherds as Therapy Dog

Though this may technically count as a service dog, we believed it deserved its own spot on this list. And yes, German Shepherds can be great therapy dogs too!

Many of these other jobs highlight a German Shepherd’s physical abilities and its intimidating appearance, but we wanted to make sure you knew about their softer side.

Therapy dogs help people for a range of reasons. Whether it’s a school, home, or hospital, or nursing home, a German Shepherd can help those around it with its loyal demeanor and sensitive nature.

They provide their owners or those around them with a sense of warmth and companionship, which makes this breed one of our favorites easily.

GSD as Film Stars?

That’s right, more than one German Shepherd has made an appearance in a live-action film. No GSD is as famous as Rin Tin Tin from the 1920s. He frequently appeared in major movies, which boosted the overall popularity of these dogs.

Their personable temperaments and quick learning make them ideal for acting in films. Well, not acting exactly, but they can perform what they are trained to do flawlessly.

Though others breeds might have the major roles in films like Air Bud and Beethoven, the German Shepherd has made tons of supporting role appearances in big budget films, such as I Am Legend alongside Will Smith.

The Family Companion

Last, but certainly not least, German Shepherds make great members of the family. Though this is not precisely a “job,” it is still important.

German Shepherds provide warm companionship and can be a lifelong friend to a family that treats them well.

It might not be the flashiest of jobs, but this one nonetheless positively impacts those around. As any German Shepherd owner can attest to, they are a fair amount of work, but they are certainly worth it. 


Now you know what German Shepherds were bred for, but what does your GSD do? We would love to hear stories about your German Shepherds (or those of friends and family) and how they have moved beyond their shepherding roots. Share your stories in the comments below!

RELATED QUESTIONS:

  1. Can German Shepherds Live in Apartments? – The GSD is undeniably a large dog, so you may be wondering if they’re fit for apartment life. Well, they are, but only if you make sure they have all the necessities that they require.
  2. Are German Shepherds Good With Cats? – Bringing such a large dog into a family with a small cat can be scary for many owners. However, there is good news. The two can peacefully co-exist, that is, if you properly train and socialize the two.
  3. Can German Shepherds Swim? – And do German Shepherds actually like water? Well, it really depends on the dog. However, there are plenty of evidence that suggest they’ll do just fine, if not thrive, when swimming. Just make sure to follow these tips.

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