Overall Structure

Written & Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA


Now that we have all these bits and pieces, it's time to assemble them into a complete animal and see how all these parts work together to create a correct German shepherd dog. It's easy enough to judge whether a particular part is correct all by itself, but it is much more difficult to judge if that part works correctly and in balance with the whole.

Perhaps it would be wise to first clarify the idea of an "ideal" dog. One often hears commentators referring to the Standard as the only correct type, and that differences in type indicate unacceptable deviations from the Standard. Of course, by correct they usually mean their own particular preferred type. However, the Standard is a written blueprint, an abstract which defines in prose the margins within which a dog can be considered correct. It is not a graphic depiction. The idea of perfection really has no meaning here. It's impossible to define so narrowly. There are many colours and patterns which are all considered correct. There are many subtle but acceptable variations of coat. Size of bone can vary to some degree, as can rear angulation, ear shape, body size and proportion. A strong West German head, a broad, square East German head, and even a more elegant American head can all meet the specifications for a correct head. That's not to say that the eye that is accustomed to the DDR head won't consider the American head too refined, and that the American fancier won't regard the DDR head as coarse, but if you actually get out the tape measure, both can be found to fall within the standard. There is plenty of room within the standard for personal preference, and those that harp on this or that type being the only acceptable type are just promoting their own ideal.

This also means, more importantly, that there is room in the standard for genetic variation. The German shepherd dog, as a breed, probably shows greater variation in type than any other, and this is no bad thing. It should be obvious that it is genetically impossible to produce the so-called "perfect" dog, even if it could be so narrowly defined. One can only produce animals that have as few flaws, and as many strengths, as possible. If a large population of dogs begin to look as if they have all popped out of the same cookie cutter, that can only mean that these dogs possess many of the same strengths, and many of the same flaws. It means that correcting those flaws will become more and more difficult if that population begins to push out other populations that have different strengths and flaws. If one breeder's dogs show great consistency of type, it indicates a breeder who knows exactly what he prefers under the standard. If all breeders' dogs show the same consistency of type, it might indicate that a show ring induced fashion has taken hold, and that the dogs of breeders who are out of fashion are not receiving sufficient recognition. If the fashion stipulates that a dog must be strongly angulated in the rear to win, animals that do not possess such angulation, however excellent they might otherwise be, may be overlooked. Worse, when a single physical type becomes fashionable, non visible attributes can suffer. The breeder whose dogs vary in appearance, but who consistently possess good hips and elbows, and are stamped with a distinctive, strong working temperament, may not receive the same recognition as the breeder of cookie cutter dogs.

Rather than illustrate one "ideal" dog, which would invariably reflect my own taste, I have shown examples of several different physical types, all of which can be considered correct. They include a V rated West German showline dog, a V rated East German dog, a multi CC winning English Champion, an early American bred Grand Victor, a multi-Select Canadian Champion, a V rated West German working bred, and a V rated Czech dog. These dogs represent the best of their particular bloodlines, and it's not that easy to tell them apart. They are really not that different, even though they represent varied families that possess some fairly significant differences (the dogs are identified at the end of the article).

Whatever the type, the Standard does stipulate some parameters. Height at the withers for males is set at between 60cm and 65cm (23.62" to 25.59"), with a one centimeter margin either way for a KK2 rating. For bitches, height at the withers is set at between 55cm and 60 cm (21.65" to 23.62"), also with a one centimeter margin either way for a KK2 rating. Correct body weight for males is between 30kg and 40kg (66.13lbs to 88.18lbs), and for females is between 22kg and 32kg (48.5lbs to 70.43). This is for animals in good working condition. This range provides for animals which are large enough to protect themselves and their handlers, or to handle stock, while being small enough to perform searches in tight places, or accompany a blind person in public areas, such as buses. These size requirements are a compromise between strength and speed. The Rottweiler is stronger, and the Malinois is faster, but the medium sized shepherd has the best combination of physical attributes to perform a wider variety of jobs than either of those breeds. For instance, a male who weighs 100lbs is one awfully big dog. His mass can be an advantage in manwork, but getting over very high jumps many times over many years could take its toll on his back and joints, even if he is in top condition. A male much under 70lbs however, probably doesn't have the weight to effectively back up his bite in police or protection work. No doubt there are those who will disagree, but this is the experience of several large Canadian K9 units. A medium large dog carries an intimidation factor that a small dog generally doesn't, and his size alone can stop a fight before it begins. Size is also required to produce a deep, resonant bark that has some authority to it. A shepherd shouldn't squeak.

Secondary sex characteristics are also important. When a bloodline begins to degenerate, it seems that one of the first elements to go is sex definition. A male should look like a male, and act like one too. He can be twenty or more pounds heavier than the bitch, and he should have a proportionately larger, heavier skull, with a heavier neck and shoulders. He should also show a little swagger, a touch of canine machismo. Even a male on the smaller end of the scale can be intensely masculine if he has the attitude. The bitch will be smaller and more refined, but not in any sense of weakness. Femininity is not fragility. As usual, it is probably preferable to err on the side of strength. A very refined family may produce exquisite bitches, but it may also produce exquisite, effeminate males. Likewise, a family of strong, doggy bitches will probably also produce powerful, masculine males. The latter is preferable (Fig 8).

With all the pieces assembled, we should have a dog that is slightly longer than tall. Wolves and wild dogs range from nearly square in proportion, to very slightly rectangular. The standard suggests that the dog's length should be 10% to 17% greater than its height. This translates in units to proportions of 8.5:10 to 9.1:10. A height of less than 8.5 units results in a very low stationed animal that is probably too short in the legs. Greater than 9.1 units results in an animal of Doberman proportions. Height is measured from the highest point of the withers, which is at about the top of the shoulder blade. Length is measured from the point of the prosternum in the middle of the forechest, to the ischial tuberosity, which is the rearmost projection of the pelvis (Fig 9a & 9b - correct dogs).

A square dog is an effective galloper and jumper because of its relatively long legs, but to execute an efficient trot, a slightly more rectangular proportion is desirable. Even the Standardbred trotter shows a somewhat lower station than other breeds of horse. However, while a good, efficient trot is an asset to a working dog, the shepherd should not be so specialized that it can display only a spectacular trot, at the expense of galloping and jumping ability. A very long body lacks propulsive power, compromises agility and is vulnerable to injury. Very short legs reduce stride and therefore speed and jumping ability. The English Alsatian of the 1960's reached almost Corgi-like proportions, which is not acceptable (Fig 10 - Alsation). Given a choice between the dog who is too square, and the dog who is too low stationed, the square dog is the more athletic, and therefore the more desirable (Fig 11 - square dog). Truly square dogs are unusual in this breed; I have illustrated an animal that is exactly square, and it does appear a little odd. Most canines are a little longer than tall. The last thing to consider in the static dog, though by no means the least, is balance. This isn't really something that one can judge with a tape measure. One has to develop an eye for it. Balance is generally said to be a match between fore and rear angulation. That's part of it, but only part. The dog should have an appearance of harmony. No single characteristic should stand out, whether particularly good or particularly bad. It should be a complete picture. The dog that is ever-so-slightly flawed in many ways, but who presents a flowing, harmonious picture, is preferable to the magnificent specimen who possesses a single, ghastly fault. If a particular characteristic is over or underdeveloped, the rest of the dog's structure must adapt to ensure smooth operation of the whole. For instance, a short coupled dog with a bit too much rear angulation will tend to side-wind. The same dog with a little extra length of body will be able to absorb his drive and move with more coordination. There is a certain element of subjectivity involved in judging dogs. For some, certain flaws will always spoil the overall picture. For me, it's roached backs, snipy muzzles, faded pigment and weak pasterns. Dogs with these problems will always look unbalanced to me, even though I know there are perfectly acceptable animals who possess them. These faults just leap out at me to such a degree that they tend to overshadow the dog's better points. No doubt there are flaws that are of little consequence to me that would be intolerable to someone else. That's part of one's personal preference in type. Overall though, the balanced dog is the one that presents the picture of unexaggerated beauty, easy movement and joy in its physical abilities.

The whole package must be wrapped up in a coat which is capable of withstanding temperatures ranging over a 150 degree variance. Animals working in the tropics must tolerate temperatures of well over 100 degrees, while those in the Canadian north may face temperatures of minus 40, so cold that exposed skin can freeze almost instantly. Obviously then, the amount of undercoat a dog carries will depend entirely on the climate he lives in, and should be judged accordingly. A very short or mole coat may be less attractive, but it could cope with extreme heat better (Fig 12). Normal coated dogs who possess the recessive long coat gene seem to show a little extra plushness and density (Fig 13). True long coats, which are no longer acceptable under the standard, can vary from an apparently normal coat with a bit of fringing at the ears and behind the legs, to a coat that a show collie would envy (Fig 14). The latter can be a chore to groom, and is not really practical, but it is weatherproof. I've never seen a coat which had no undercoat at all, but I've noticed that in very long coats, the long, soft undercoat mingles with the long, soft guard hairs so that they can be very hard to tell apart. The coat should be flat, not kinky or curled, but this is probably more esthetic that strictly practical. There are any number of hardy, cold weather breeds with curly and broken coats that have braved icy waters and winds for generations. While no one would want to see a kinky coated shepherd, a little wavy hair over the back or croup is not uncommon and is of no practical consequence whatever.

There is a phenomena that is well know to artists, of which dog fanciers should be aware. If you stare at something long enough, you cease to recognize it. A painter can be completely oblivious to even a serious design problem, just because he has stared at it for so long. If he puts the painting away for a few days, and then looks again, the problem will leap off the canvas at him. I've noticed the same thing in dogs. In some forms it's called kennel blindness. One can sincerely be unaware of the problems in one's own dogs. If all you ever see are you own dogs and those of your favored type, it becomes very hard to objectively judge them. Similarly, dogs of other types will look foreign and incorrect. A correctly angulated dog in a ring of overangulated dogs will give the optical illusion of being incorrect, just because it's so different. This is also when extremes can creep in. I've met breeders who have been breeding and showing grossly overangulated animals for so long, that not only do they prefer them, they sincerely believe that the extreme, sickle hocked rear is more powerful, efficient and more beautiful than the correct rear. I once listened to a Canadian National Judge critique a dog built like a freight train as being, "perhaps a little long". All her dogs were very long, so this caterpillar did not look excessive to her. To develop one's "eye", I think you need to see all types within the breed, whether you like them or not. It will keep your powers of observation well rounded. Even better, spend some time looking at other breeds as well, especially the good moving sporting and hound breeds. When you can appreciate beautiful, balanced movement in a toy breed, you know you're learning something.

1. V rated West German showline dog,
2. V rated East German dog,
3. Multi-CC winning English Champion,
4. Early American bred Grand Victor,
5. Multi-Select Canadian Champion,
6. V rated West German working bred,
7. V rated Czech dog.