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Core Areas of German Shepherd Psychology

 Reviewed 10 March 2019 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion dogphoto

==> German Shepherds are very special in their own right

The German Shepherd breed is as distinguished as a composition of Giacomo Puccini

If you love your dog a LOT, you may feel closely related to your dog, so close that you may often feel that you two share quite a bit of the same psychology, right?

However, believe it or not, there ARE a few differences between your German Shepherd and yourself. wink

Or, for that matter, more often misunderstood, between your German Shepherd and your children: Because too many dog owners treat their dog (particularly their puppy) like they treat or would treat their children. Which is very wrong indeed.

Let's look in this PERIODICAL at some core aspects of the psychology of the German Shepherd dog breed, because you have to


Difference between dog genetics and dog psychology

As a baseline, German Shepherd dogs are fearless, energetic, intelligent and protective. But, while some of the German Shepherd traits are genetic, others are the result of the environment we are providing to our GSD. All these factors impact on our dog's psychology, expressed in its daily behavior.

Dog Psychology = All of the dog's genetic and environmental traits that manifest in behavior

Therefore it's helpful that we always learn more about our German Shepherd, so that we can become a better caretaker day by day. And so that your dog can become a better caretaker of you too.

To start with, just try for a moment to IMAGINE yourself in your GSD's place, to connect with the dog's psychology. We will start with the rather general and obvious areas, and then smoothly expand this to the more specific and inconspicuous areas.

German Shepherd Dog Psychology

Much simplified, we can start off by saying: The German Shepherd dog has needs and traits like every other domesticated dog, but more extreme. This becomes apparent already with the first facet of the dog's psychology:

Pack animal

While every modern domesticated dog still inherits from its wild-dog ancestors the genetic NEED to be the accepted part of a pack, for the GSD this need is more pronounced because the GSD is a herding dog, and the herd (sheep etc) always has been the dog's pack (together with the shepherd).

But it goes further: What makes domesticated dogs domestic is that they have acquired a genetic NEED to be not just the accepted part of any pack, but the accepted part of a human Pack!

This need for a human Pack in order to stay mentally healthy and balanced is unique in the animal world (as far as I know): No other animal, not even the chimpanzee, needs us humans to stay mentally healthy. Quite the contrary: The presence of humans with their hectic, erratic, and emotional behaviors makes many animals sick.

Now again, this NEED to be the accepted part of a human Pack is much more pronounced in the GSD than it is in other dog breeds like say the Poodle, Terrier or Rottweiler. The experience of its pack structure in a human Pack gives the GSD peace, position, confidence and a sense of belonging. A German Shepherd does not like to be alone.

Does not "like" to be? No, that was the wrong wording. A GSD genetically NEEDS a human Pack to stay healthy. Not feeling to belong to a Pack makes this dog anxious, fearful and aggressive. A GSD feels particularly incomplete without its Pack.

But it goes even further: Like all domesticated dogs and their wild ancestors too(!), the GSD does not just seek to be the accepted part of a human Pack, but to be the accepted Pack leader. The leader of your family, oh yes! Again, this trait is particularly pronounced in the German Shepherd dog breed.

We will of course get back to this in future Periodicals, but let me make clear already here: To have the BEST relationship with your GSD (see our mission statement that you already read on the subscribe page!), you must not let your GSD dominate your family Pack in any way! - Instead, make your GSD an equal part of your family, except as regards food and feeding (see in a future Periodical, why and how).

So, make your dog feel accepted, make your dog feel integrated, but do not let your dog feel (s)he's the boss in the family:

  • who can command your attention
  • 'tell' you when to throw the Chuckit ball
  • when to tug the tug toy
  • when to fill the eat-slow bowl with food
  • when to get a treat
  • etc.

Give your dog space, responsibility, care, and love beyond feeding and walking your dog. Never exclude your GSD from the family happenings, but don't make your dog the center of the attention either. To match the German Shepherd dog psychology, most of the time an equal treatment in the family Pack is best (with the exception mentioned above).

Guarding the herd

German Shep-herdDeep engrained in the German Shepherd breed is its instinctive desire to GUARD. This is the result of this dog's genetic roots - the guarding of a herd of sheep. ShepherdFor today's domesticated German Shepherds, the 'herd' is your family, the dog's Pack. Your GSD needs to feel to have your 'permission', and (s)he needs to have the chance (the degree of freedom!) to GUARD your family.

So, once completely house trained, let your dog have free run of the house and premises. Then you will often notice that your dog is trying to 'collect' the 'herd': The GSD is trying to bring all family members together. (S)he will walk around the house to locate every family member and will give them a nudge to move about, towards the others.

Again, this sense of integration is more pronounced with the GSD than with other breeds. Inclusiveness is an important part of the German Shepherd dog psychology: The GSD desires to include and take care of all sheep, ie all family members. Very unlike most other dog breeds (its closest psychological neighbors in this regard are the Collie and the Spaniel). Unless you (or the prior owner/breeder) UNtrained your dog its instinctive behavior, your GSD will frequently reveal its genetic roots and its psychology through its daily behavior.

UNtrained, you may wonder? Can it not be that my breeder "UNbred" this trait through selective breeding?

No, I would argue. Definitely not. Here's why: The breed-specific character traits that we know of various dog breeds today did not just 'suddenly' emerge on the date a breed (any breed!) was officially established, ie registered by a "kennel club" - which for the German Shepherd Dog would be just 120 years ago. No, the breed-specific character traits like those discussed here have been selectively "raised" in each dog breed and their ancestors for thousands of years!

But the "modern" GSD only became a "couch dog" in the last 60 or so years (and only in certain "yuppie" countries anyway). Genetically it is not possible to change fundamental character traits in this short period of time. - But this does not mean that you, the prior owner, or breeder cannot have trained your dog in a way that made certain GSD-typical characteristics become almost unnoticeable.

Clear? Good.

Need of Alpha leader

The prior point is closely related to this next point. Continue to IMAGINE yourself in your GSD's place for a moment... ie think you are a dog. grin

In the world of your German Shepherd, the status of Alpha (leader) is significant. Like ALL dogs, (s)he sees the world in the way of being either dominant or submissive. In the psychology of dogs there is no concept of "two even partners". This is a human concept!

However, the psychology of a GSD comes almost closest to this human concept: Maybe just behind the Collie, the German Shepherd is easiest with accepting an even partner, and being treated like an even partner - without the resulting behavior problems that this would entail with other dog breeds. Again, unless you (or the prior owner/breeder) UNtrained your dog this genetic component of its psychology - eg through excessive focus on "Obedience Training" methods.

This is what too many GSD owners get wrong: To strike the right balance between giving their GSD the necessary freedom to play its role as guardian of the family Pack, and nonetheless maintaining the Alpha role at all times (the Pack leader position).

Again, maintaining the Alpha role at all times does not mean that you shouldn't strive for a pretty much equal position with your GSD, but it means that you should nonetheless establish yourself as the accepted Pack leader in your dog's family Pack - the one who ultimately determines what happens when: whether it's about giving attention, feeding the dog, throwing a ball, or whatever.

When you become your GSD's Alpha, your dog will experience you as a source of confidence and positive energy. This is crucial support for the German Shepherd in order to be able to guard all its 'sheep' - which is a huge management exercise already for a human shepherd, and more so, for a dog shepherd!

Note that GSDs generally have a strong willingness to follow you - if you are the accepted Alpha. Because then they respect you as the 'shepherd', and they are eager to fulfil their role as guardian of the 'sheep' (ie of all family members).

*** But maybe you are worried that if you establish yourself too much as the Alpha leader, your dog might not guard (protect) you too? ***

Indeed, this is a common question of many GSD owners. Some of them even express:

"I got the German Shepherd to protect ALL of us in the family, including myself. I fear that if I become too dominant then our dog might think that I can, or should, look after myself in the face of danger, because I am the 'boss'."

You need not worry about this! Yes, your GSD would still guard and protect you too when you are in need (unless of course you have treated your dog badly with harsh methods of "Obedience Training"!). You may or may not have noticed that on a meadow the shepherd dog is not only circling the sheep but also the shepherd himself. - To guard its entire pack is engrained in the German Shepherd psychology! And the accepted Alpha is considered part of the pack too.

As said above, 'guarding the herd' and the 'need of an Alpha leader' are closely related:

If you are the accepted Alpha, your German Shepherd will always look for your instructions, PRAISE, and APPROVAL. Note that the word 'instructions' is in small letters, while the words 'PRAISE' and 'APPROVAL' both are in capital letters. - Why I did this?

Because your GSD - once fully trained indoors (see the House Training guide) and fully trained outdoors (see the Leash Training guide) - will need fairly few 'instructions', what to do, where, and when. The German Shepherd is a very autonomous, self-organized breed. In fact, I don't know of any other dog breed that is as autonomous and self-organized as the GSD is. Hence 'instructions' in small letters.

Conversely, the GSD needs a lot of PRAISE and a lot of APPROVAL. Compare the 'job' of your dog (to manage all the 'sheep', ie the family members) to the job of the CEO of a company (who also manages all the 'sheep', ie the staff). Being the manager of everything, the CEO's most likely chance to get PRAISE is to collect it eagerly at home from the spouse, and to get APPROVAL he hires 'Business Consultants' and 'Auditors' and makes the shareholders pay them for confirming that HE did a great job...

Now if you don't PRAISE your GSD and APPROVE its actions, who will? No one will!

And like the CEO cannot stay sane without at least the PRAISE of the spouse, and cannot stay in the job without the APPROVAL of his actions (towards the shareholders and the media), the GSD cannot stay sane and remain the family dog if you don't PRAISE your dog and APPROVE its actions. Frequently.

Was this clear enough? Good. (As an author, I like to be clear with my words) wink

Maybe you thought this analogy with the CEO of a company is a bit far-fetched? - No, not at all. What do you think why the German Shepherd is the prime choice of most institutions worldwide that employ dogs?

They choose the German Shepherd because this dog breed is the proven champion in so many regards. They choose the GSD because it outperforms all other dog breeds in so many crucial 'management' areas combined: guarding, protecting, organizing, integrating, planning, controlling, tracking, guiding, rescuing, cheerleading, etc. While for each of these areas you could probably find a more effective specialist breed, when you need one dog to combine all these skills then you can't get around the top generalist: the GSD. This is why the (original!) GSD is globally considered the top 'working dog'.

And the roots of all this is the careful and explicit breeding of these traits and skills in Germany that started in the second half of the 19th century and became more widely known as a distinguished dog breed towards the end of the 19th century, ie around the 1890s (I will at some point publish a book on nothing but the German Shepherd that also incorporates the key insights of the alleged breed founder Max v. Stephanitz's own book The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture - which I can read in its original German language, but no worries, I will publish in the English language). wink

So, give your GSD the PRAISE and APPROVAL (s)he desires and deserves for being such an effective manager of your family Pack. Strike the right balance with your role of being the Alpha leader. If you can't or don't want to overcome your own 'resistance' to strike the right balance, then a different dog breed will be better for you. One that more readily accepts to have its every move "obedience-controlled". The GSD does not - and should not, because the GSD wasn't bred for that!


Communication too is an important part of learning about your German Shepherd's psychology. You need to know how your dog tries to convey his or her messages to you, or you won't be able to communicate with your dog(!): In what situations does your dog bark, seek eye contact or use facial expressions and body language?

For example: Depending on how long you have been familiar with dogs, you must have noticed that when your dog is hungry (s)he barks in a different tone as to when, say, your dog is excited and wants to play. Have you noticed?

Again, both the variety and subtlety how the dog communicates is more pronounced in the GSD than in most other dog breeds. So, spend more time with your German Shepherd to get to know HOW, WHY and WHEN your dog uses WHICH form of communication to convey its messages and feelings to you. It's worth it! You will often notice how much your understanding of your GSD improves the more you learn how your dog communicates.

'GSD Communication' is such a massive topic that we will of course often cover this in future PERIODICALS.

Intelligence and Energy

The German Shepherd dog has the innate qualities of being intelligent and full of energy. Not only physical energy, but eagerness to learn too. Which is why a GSD owner must share this quality too (the eagerness to learn), or else the GSD will soon outperform you in so many regards of daily living that you will feel 'overwhelmed' - and give up on the dog!

Really, if you want an undemanding dog that lazily lingers on the couch most of the day and doesn't challenge your mind either (beyond the "Oh, is it time for feeding already?"), then by all means, don't get a GSD! Because, a GSD then would be your worst choice.

Conversely, if you enjoy to be challenged (both physically and mentally), then there is no better choice than the GSD. Because, a GSD too enjoys to perform and is eager to learn ever more!

When you "try to look into your dog's mind by looking in its eyes", you will see that the GSD always wants to EXPLORE the environment, ACCOMPLISH tasks, and EXPERIENCE adventures. Looking into the eyes of a German Shepherd (I find) this becomes immediately apparent - much more than with almost any other dog breed.

The German Shepherd wants to EXPLORE, ACCOMPLISH, and EXPERIENCE.


GSD adventuresAnd the German Shepherd's high level of intelligence and energy indeed allows this dog to EXPLORE its surroundings very well, to ACCOMPLISH a wide range of tasks, and to EXPERIENCE adventures of often a unique nature.


Take part in your GSD's adventures, have FUN!

Constantly give your German Shepherd new challenges. A fountain of ideas (of course including 'how-to') is Kyra Sundance' book 101 Dog Tricks. This will nourish your German Shepherd's demands of being busy, working smart, and receiving the appropriate praise for it. Also, you will appreciate how these 'dog tricks' relax and calm down this high-energy dog. Don't let the many images of smaller dogs confuse you: All exercises are well-suited for a GSD too.

Your German Shepherd also needs a good energy outlet, so get your dog to swim, run, hike and exercise a LOT. Diverse and regular exercise! This will allow your GSD to balance its high level of intelligence and energy.


The last German Shepherd dog psychology facet I want to mention here (because I wrote already far too much in this Periodical) is Socialization - but in future Periodicals we will have to discuss even more GSD characteristics.

Your German Shepherd will always demand to be a close part of the family action. This is the GSD's 'herding' quality. Nonetheless your dog may sometimes seem aloof. If that's not due to being ill at the time, you may need to reconnect your dog to its surroundings and 'pack', ie to your family: act integrative, like the GSD normally is too.

Aim to make your dog feel like an even part of the family Pack. Give your GSD a specific role in the family, a role that everyone respects and appreciates. This will be a healthy experience, and a learning experience too - both for your German Shepherd and for your family members.

However, at least as important as the above is that you regularly make your dog interact with other people, other animals and different places. Permanently socialize your GSD, and take your dog as much with you as you can.

Why is this socialization outside the dog's family Pack so important when you have a GSD?

I would say, because of the combination of all the psychology facets mentioned above, and how pronounced they are in the GSD. For example, consider this:

Being an extreme form of a Pack animal (1) that is eager to guard its 'herd' (2), if your GSD does not see you as the accepted Alpha leader to follow your directions without much need for instructions (3) - and all the more if you can't understand what your GSD communicates (4) - then the GSD's high intelligence and high energy (5) will make your dog autonomously react to tons of stimuli in the environment if (s)he wasn't comprehensively socialized to all these stimuli (6)!

This is why - if you wanted wink - you can hear dog experts say things like "the GSD's high reactivity will work against you" - unless you have comprehensively socialized your dog! It is outright idiotic when some (typically first-time) GSD owners keep their dog to themselves all the time, arguing "this will make him more protective of us".

No, this will be your and your dog's downfall: A German Shepherd that hasn't been properly socialized with other people, other animals, and other environments and situations, will be permanently (throughout its life!) extremely stressed from all the "disturbing" stimuli that this very sensitive dog receives from the environment (notices!).

Just imagine for a moment: You are some human mutant, you can hear, smell and sense environmental stimuli that your peers don't even know about. But you only have the knowledge of the world that a dog has, you cannot relate those stimuli, and thus you consider each tiny "fart" that you hear, smell or sense as an attack on your family Pack. Do you realize now how hyper-mega stressed you would feel after just one day? Well, a not comprehensively socialized GSD has to suffer from the stress of 'fake' attacks not just a moment, but every day and night of its life!

Now stop imagining, and ask yourself: How cruel do you want to be to your GSD?

Even if you don't care if you have an extremely stressed dog(?), you (and your local law enforcement!) will mind the consequences of having a permanently stressed German Shepherd dog: The key consequence is aggression. To house an aggressive GSD will strain your nerves and finances more than your worst "dog dreams" can relate.

You have no idea how many such reports we have received at Of GSD owners who (whether out of ignorance or arrogance) did not properly socialize their dog - and then at some point felt the need to send desperate "HELP!" requests (yes, like that!) to a website(!) they (the day before) didn't even know exists. If that's not desperate search for HELP, I don't know what is!

In summary

If you learn more about your German Shepherd's Psychology, your relationship will become unique and more bonded than ever before! Consider this: The better you understand your dog, the more (s)he will feel this, and the more (s)he will accept you as the Alpha leader.

With our modern busy lifestyles, it may often happen that we are so busy all day long that we 'forget' about the family members that just won't moan as loud and persistent as our "other children" do when they don't get it their way: Our dogs!

You know what I mean, right? You go to work, you go to get some groceries, you collect the children, you settle an issue with the neighbor, you do the laundry, the dishwasher, read the papers, you do everything. And yes, you feed your dog and walk your dog, but ... on some days that may be all you can do with your dog - and for your dog - isn't it?

The typical day is just not long enough to really realize how much our German Shepherds demand and need our attention, love, and care.

But wait! Whenever your German Shepherd barks, rolls around, jumps in excitement, or simply moves its ears, eyes, head or torso, (s)he is sending you a message, and (s)he is watching for your response! Now, it's our job to 'read' that message and 'respond' in a way that helps to improve the relationship with our dog. - No different than with our kids or spouse. Only the language is different.

Personally, I feel this communication is a two-way road (at least if we make use of it): Being able to 'read' the messages our GSD is sending us (mostly quietly, only sometimes with a noise like barking or whining) will help us to better understand our dog and its psychology. And likewise, learning about the German Shepherd psychology will help us to send out clear quiet messages to our GSD that (s)he understands (ie without the need for any commands)!

Ultimately of course, nothing can replace the careful observation and diligent trial-and-error interpretation of our dog's messages. So, get out and about with your GSD!

Together EXPLORE your close (and distant) surroundings, ACCOMPLISH standard (and extraordinary) tasks, and EXPERIENCE wonderful (and sometimes disturbing) adventures! Because nothing can beat the experience - to experience how much more colorful, insightful, and splendid a life with a GSD can be when you integrate your dog as a full member of the family. Besides, we must not forget: Only by giving our GSD the RIGHT place in the family, we can win its complete loyalty, love, and support when we need it!

Over the following months and years (yes, we do have that much insightful content for you!) we will often discuss different aspects of the German Shepherd psychology. Because for you and me alike, important is to learn ever more about the German Shepherd dog breed and how we can best bond with our individual dog.



  • German Shepherd Psychology = All of the dog's genetic and environmental traits that manifest in behavior
  • Here we discussed:
      1. Pack animal
      2. Guarding the herd
      3. Need of Alpha leader
      4. Communication
      5. Intelligence and Energy
      6. Socialization
  • The key message to take away: A German Shepherd is a lot unlike most other dog breeds. While most people can be good dog owners, far less can be a good GSD owner
  • The reason: the (original) GSD's high intelligence combined with its high energy require a dog owner who can match that, both physically and mentally
  • It is the GSD owners who can't, that give up on their dog!
  • So, only get a German Shepherd if you are up to the challenge to share life with a high performer - because that's what this dog has been bred for
  • And if you already have a GSD? Adapt. Learn to enjoy to perform, both physically and mentally. Be cadult (child adult), share adventures, have more FUN with your dog!
  • And if your GSD has still more energy than you? Exercise your dog a LOT more. Diverse and varied exercise.
  • A German Shepherd is like the CEO of a company: A GSD needs lots of PRAISE and APPROVAL, but little instructions: Few commands!
  • The GSD is probably the most autonomous and self-organized dog breed of all
  • A GSD needs freedom! By all means, once completely house trained, let your dog have free run of the house and premises
  • A German Shepherd wants to EXPLORE, ACCOMPLISH, and EXPERIENCE adventures with you
  • Constantly give your German Shepherd new challenges. A good book to jog your mind what you can do with your dog and how to have more FUN together is Kyra Sundance' 101 Dog Tricks
  • And most crucial: Comprehensively SOCIALIZE your GSD, so that this mega-alert dog doesn't get hyper-mega stressed out from all the disturbing stimuli in the environment, many of which we don't even notice!
  • You will need to learn canine body language anyway, so you may just as well start now: Brenda Aloff's Photographic(!) Guide on Canine Body Language

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