reflections on the standard
for the german shepherd dog
John Ayotte 02/2003
While it may be legitimately argued that the most important things about our German Shepherds are the pleasure that they bring to our lives as companions and the services that they provide to mankind when they perform the many jobs that we ask them to do, I would like to consider the importance of something else for a moment.
To me, the Standard for the breed, how we choose to interpret it, and how successful we are at producing animals that approach the perfection that it describes, are the most important things about our chosen breed. Without careful, thoughtful effort on the part of those who breed German Shepherd Dogs to follow the blueprint that the Standard provides, we (companion, working, or competitive owners alike) will not have the dogs who's character and physical traits we find so attractive.
So, just what is this Standard that is so important to our breed? It is the written document that attempts to describe the essence of the German Shepherd Dog. It is the official description of the ideal German Shepherd against which dogs competing in conformation shows are to be judged. It is, however, much more than that. In language carefully chosen to define the appearance, structure, and character of the German Shepherd it conjures up a clear image in the readers mind of the ideal dog. It is not, however, so detailed that no individual dog could possibly conform to its ideals. In other words, many parts of the Standard are open to interpretation and the ideal often represents a range of acceptable values rather than a single, exact, value. This is a good thing. It provides room for both aesthetic preferences (often referred to as style) and suitability for the wide range of activities and jobs for which the breed has become renowned.
After studying many Standards for other breeds, I feel that our Standard for the German Shepherd Dog is one of the best at striking the proper balance between precision and latitude. This is due, in part, to the origins of our Standard in the works of the breed founder, Captain Max von Stephanitz. I feel that it is also due, in great measure, to a constant awareness on the part of the writers of the standard of the tremendous versatility of the breed combined with its distinctive type. (It should be noted here, that there are several Standards for the German Shepherd Dog. In my discussions I am referring to the AKC approved Standard as written and edited by The German Shepherd Dog Club of America. I have also studied the SV Standard maintained by the Vereins fur Deutsche Schaferhunde, and the FCI Standard as approved by the The Federation Cynologique Internationale in France for international use. While there are some (mostly minor) differences in these three Standards (and I have written another article comparing them), they are more alike than different, and closer to describing the same ideal than many people seem to think.)
Unfortunately, many people who own and love German Shepherds have never read the Standard for the breed. Even fewer have tried to study it in detail. Even those who consider themselves students of the breed and the Standard often disagree on its interpretation. In the following article I will present my own thoughts by reviewing the Standard section by section. I will attempt to provide detail where I think it might be helpful, and I will discuss the areas where there are different, or even conflicting, interpretations. I hope that you find these reflections on the Standard useful. If you do not agree with my interpretations, please let me know. I'm always learning new things about this wonderful breed.
part one: the content and structure of the standard
The Standard is made up of sixteen primary sections plus a short list of disqualifications and an even shorter list of AKC disqualifications that apply to all breeds. If the number of words spent on each topic is taken as a fair indication of its relative importance (a reasonable, but not fool proof approach since it is entirely possible that a very important issue can be simply stated and a less important one can be very complex to explain) then Gait is the number one consideration, with character second. Character is described in 223 words, gait with 440. However, the importance of Character cannot be overstated. Even though it is expressed in fewer words, a clear indication of its importance is provided by its location at the beginning of the Standard. Even though other AKC standards include character near the end, The German Shepherd Dog Club of America has insisted that it follow General Appearance section rather than follow the normal AKC formatting. The other primary structural areas of Forequarter (70), Proportion (65), Body (140), Topline (197) and Hindquarter (62) total another whopping 534 words for what is generally considered structure. Head (84), Ears (56), Eyes (25), Teeth (73) and Neck (64) add another 302 words. Feet are a mere 39 words. Color is 47 and Coat is 98. Interestingly, over half of the Topline section is devoted to the tail. Body is broken down into Chest, Ribs and Abdomen. Topline includes Withers, Back, Loin, Croup, and as mentioned above, Tail. Gait is broken down into General Impression and Transmission. While such an analysis may give us some insight into the relative importance that the authors of the Standard placed on various aspects of the German Shepherd Dog, in the end it is the overall picture the Standard presents that is more important than any of the individual elements. Just as judges must consider the overall quality of the dogs that are presented to them more than they consider any specific detail, all of us, as students of the breed, must try to grasp the big picture presented by the Standard as well as understanding the details.
part two: the text and comments
All of that said, I guess it is time to begin my discussion of the Standard. For clarity, the actual words of the Standard are in bold type, and my comments in italic type.
General Appearance: The first impression of a good German Shepherd Dog is that of a strong, agile, well-muscled animal, alert, and full of life. It is well balanced, with harmonious development of the forequarter and hindquarter. The dog is longer than tall, deep-bodied, and presents an outline of smooth curves rather than angles. It looks substantial and not spindly, giving the impression, both at rest and in motion, of muscular fitness and nimbleness without any look of clumsiness or soft living. The ideal dog is stamped with a look of quality and nobility-difficult to define, but unmistakable when present. Secondary sex characteristics are strongly marked, and every animal gives a definite impression of masculinity or femininity, according to its sex.
Much of what we need to know about the German Shepherd Dog is included in this brief first paragraph. Although the rest of the Standard defines the characteristics of the breed in significantly more detail, we should never lose sight of this beautiful snapshot of the ideal German Shepherd Dog.
Balance is a key theme of this paragraph, and balance should be of paramount importance to us all. Balance in structure and balance in temperament are both implied. Strength and agility are paired so that one does not dominate the other. Harmonious development of forequarter and hindquarter is called for. Neither part of the dog should dominate, be exaggerated, or be out of proportion. The dog is to be alert and full of life, with nobility. This implies a curious, confident dog that should be lively yet tractable.
The description of a dog that is longer than tall, and deep bodied seems clear enough on the surface, but for some reason both of these characteristics are points of disagreement within the breed. How much longer than tall is often debated (even though the proportions are called out later in the Standard). Where to take the measurements is left quite open, and the question of how deep bodied? is often argued over (although, once again, it is better defined later in the Standard). Adding to the debate over these issues is the fact that the slight differences between the language in the AKC Standard and the SV Standard tend to lead to preferences on opposite sides of the overlapping middle ground. It is not my intent, however, to discuss those issues here. I have done that in several other articles comparing the various GSD Standards.
(All of those pieces are available on my web site at http://www.jmadesign.com/Frankenhaus, and one of them was published in the April 2000 issue of the GSDCA Review magazine.)
The opening paragraph goes on to discuss an outline of curves rather than angles. Again, more is said on this topic later in the Standard, but in essence, the line from the neck, through the withers, back, croup, and tail set should be continuous, gentle curves, without, breaks, corners or angles. This description could also be interpreted to imply a curvature of stifle rather than straight hindquarters.
Substance and muscular fitness are emphasized, with substance limited by the balancing concept of great nimbleness and a lack of clumsiness.
Lastly, males and females should be distinct from one another, the undefined secondary sex characteristics being such things a relative coarseness and refinement of heads, size, substance, and muscle mass.
Character: The breed has a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile expression, self-confidence, and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them. It is poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert; both fit and willing to serve in its capacity as companion, watchdog, blind leader, herding dog, or guardian, whichever the circumstances may demand. The dog must not be timid, shrinking behind its master or handler; it should not be nervous, looking about or upward with anxious expression or showing nervous reactions, such as tucking of tail, to strange sounds or sights. Lack of confidence under any surroundings is not typical of good character. Any of the above deficiencies in character which indicate shyness must be penalized as very serious faults, and any dog exhibiting pronounced indications of these must be excused from the ring. It must be possible for the judge to observe the teeth and to determine that both testicles are descended. Any dog that attempts to bite the judge must be disqualified. The ideal dog is a working animal with incorruptible character combined with body and gait suitable for the arduous work that constitutes its primary purpose.
Character is arguably the most distinctive trait of the German Shepherd. It probably attracts more people to the breed than any other factor. It is also, however, one of the most misunderstood aspects of the German Shepherd Dog.
Proper German Shepherd character calls for an aloofness that can be misinterpreted as shyness. The standard calls for dogs that walk a very fine line of character. No other breed attempts this balance of natural protective instinct, gentleness and discrimination to the degree that we do in German Shepherds. A GSD of good temperament tolerates friendly overtures, but does not seek out friendship with strangers. At the same time we expect them to exhibit amazing powers of judgment that enables them to differentiate between bizarre but non-threatening behavior on the part of children, the elderly and infirm, and outwardly friendly gestures by innocent looking individuals who actually pose a threat to their masters, themselves or the property they have been asked to defend. Few dogs, even among German Shepherds, are capable of such discrimination without proper training and socialization.
In the past (and in the days when the standard was being developed) there may well have been greater tolerance for the dogs that erred on the side of protectiveness rather than friendliness. That tolerance is what formed the picture in the mind of the general public of the GSD as a police or protection dog. Today, in a world filled with litigation and protection of the public welfare, there is more tolerance for dogs that err on the side of over friendliness. Neither is correct according to the standard. Fear, timidity, and outright shyness should not be tolerated any more than uncontrolled aggression toward people or other animals.
I find it interesting that even in this section on character, there is a closing remark about structure and gait also being necessary for the dogs to perform the work for which they were intended. Since gait is more important in herding than in most of the other jobs of the German Shepherd, this implies that herding comes first. Earlier in this character section, some of thee jobs of the German Shepherd were listed (companion, watchdog, blind leader, herding dog, or guardian). I do not read too much into the order in which those items are listed, remembering that at the time the standard was written, and even when the last major revisions were made, there was no AKC Herding Group, and the GSD was part of the Working Group. It is only with the creation of the Herding Group, and the growth of herding as a sport that it has become possible for us to once again consider the German Shepherd in the context of the work for which it was originally developed.
Head: The head is noble, cleanly chiseled, strong without coarseness but above all, not fine, and in proportion to the body. The head of the male is distinctly masculine, and that of the bitch, distinctly feminine. The muzzle is long and strong with the lips firmly fitted, and its topline is parallel to the topline of the skull. Seen from the front, the forehead is only moderately arched, and the skull slopes into the long, wedge-shaped muzzle without abrupt stop. Jaws are strongly developed.
Since I feel that this paragraph of the standard is quite clear, it is surprising that we have such a variety of heads in the German Shepherd. I think that too many people judge heads based on their personal preferences, and forget to refer back to the standard and its description. When it says cleanly chiseled, strong without coarseness, we should eliminate many of the big, blocky heads that some fanciers seem to prize as strong and masculine. I feel that this is also supported by the use of the word long in reference to the muzzle. On the other hand, the references to not being fine should eliminate the overly refined (sometime called bitchy) heads on males. By the same token, although the head of the bitch should appear feminine, it is still supposed to have a strong, chiseled look, not fine or overly refined. The fact that the topline of the muzzle should be parallel to the topline of the skull eliminates the roman noses that we sometimes see, and the moderate arch to the forehead as seen from the front takes care of the domed skulls that are appropriate in some breeds, but incorrect in ours.
Ears: Ears are moderately pointed, in proportion to the skull, open toward the front, and carried erect when at attention, the ideal carriage being one in which the center lines of the ears, viewed from the front, are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. A dog with cropped or hanging ears must be disqualified.
Almost everyone has an idea of what constitutes good ears for a German Shepherd. Sometimes we lose sight of the phrase in proportion to the skull and end up with too small, or too large ears. Unfortunately, we tend to extend the erect when at attention phrase too far, and expect erect ears at all times. While we tend to criticize close and wide set ears, such faults are not mentioned under ears, and should only come into play in so far as they detract from the overall appearance of the dog. While ears that flap in the breeze when a dog is gaiting may also detract from the overall appearance of the dog, they are not, per se, listed as a fault in the standard. On the other hand, correctly proportioned ears, that are firm, open to the front, vertical when at attention, and parallel to each other are one of the most distinctive traits of the German Shepherd Dog, universally identified with the breed.
Eyes: Of medium size, almond shaped, set a little obliquely and not protruding. The color is as dark as possible. The expression keen, intelligent, and composed.
This short description of eyes contains a good example of the vagueness of some portions of the standard. While the size and shape are pretty clear (even though medium if far from a precise word) and the undesirability of protruding eyes is spelled out, the reference to color as dark as possible is somewhat vague. Most generally, this is taken as justification for severely penalizing light colored eyes. Those who are more tolerant will find eyes that harmonize with the face acceptable, regardless of color. How dark is possible is certainly a very subjective judgment, and many people feel that light colored eyes detract from the keen, intelligent, and composed expression that is called for. I feel that those factors have more to do with character than eye color, and many people say that you can best judge the temperament of the dog by looking into its eyes.
Teeth: 42 in number-20 upper and 22 lower-are strongly developed and meet in a scissors bite in which part of the inner surface of the upper incisors meet and engage part of the outer surface of the lower incisors. An overshot jaw or a level bite is undesirable. An undershot jaw is a disqualifying fault. Complete dentition is to be preferred. Any missing teeth other than first premolars is a serious fault.
The description of the teeth and mouth in the standard is very clear. What is sometimes lost in the application of this part of the standard is the relative importance of the various faults mentioned. While complete dentition is to be preferred, the wording of the standard allows all four first premolars to be missing without it being a serious fault. In practice, in the conformation ring, a single missing premolar is treated as a serious fault by most judges. Wry bites are not mentioned at all, and it is left to the reader to infer their degree of undesirability based on the statement that the GSD has a scissors bite (or perhaps because a wry (or twisted) mouth could be partially undershot). A wry mouth would obviously not provide a proper scissors bite. Overshot jaws and level bites are merely listed as undesirable, the lowest level of fault, while an undershot jaw gets the most severe treatment of all, as one of the few disqualifications for the breed.
Neck: The neck is strong and muscular, clean-cut and relatively long, proportionate in size to the head, and without loose folds of skin. When the dog is at attention or excited, the head is raised and the neck carried high; otherwise, typical carriage of the head is forward rather than up, but a little higher than the top of the shoulders, particularly in motion.
In dealing with the neck, we are presented with one of those sublimely subjective phrases that the standard uses from time to time. Just what is relatively long supposed to mean. The best that I can do is to assume that the neck should not be so short that the head appears to be jammed into the shoulders. At the same time, it should not be so long that the head seems to be stuck out and bobbing in thin air. The comments regarding head carriage should be taken to heart by owners and judges alike. All too often people seem to reward the dog that is moving with head held high, rather than with it lower and more forward providing for better balance and extension. The ones with their heads held high may be pretty and seem alert (asking for the win?), but they are most often not the correct dogs.
Forequarters: The shoulder blades are long and obliquely angled, laid on flat and not placed forward. The upper arm joins the shoulder blade at about a right angle. Both the upper arm and the shoulder blade are well muscled. The forelegs, viewed from all sides, are straight and the bone oval rather than round. The pasterns are strong and springy and angulated at approximately a 25-degree angle from the vertical.
The most interesting thing to me about the paragraph on the forequarter is that it manages to be both vague and precise at the same time (if that is actually possible). While it does create a clear image in my mind of the ideal forequarter, it is certainly open to quite a bit of interpretation. When it says that the shoulder blade is long, and obliquely angled, that is probably meaningful only in relation to the reader's knowledge of other breeds of dogs, and their ability to make comparisons. How long is long, and how oblique is oblique? Generally, right or wrong, oblique is interpreted as a 45 degree angle. Since in many breeds the shoulder blade is noticeably shorter than the upper arm, it seems that the writers are calling for a shoulder that is close to or equal in length to the upper arm. The phrase laid on flat seems to describe shoulders that conform to the rib cage, and generally results in a space of only two or three finger widths between the points of the shoulder blades (sometimes incorrectly identified as the high point of the withers). Not placed forward indicates that the shoulder blades should not extend too far into the neck and prosternum area. Such a placement reduces efficiency and does not provide for good attachment of the muscles that control front action. Calling for the upper arm and shoulder blade to be well muscled is self-explanatory, and is one of the things that contribute to the substance of the dog. Oval bone means that the forelegs (or lower arm) appear to be wider from the side than from the front. The description of pasterns is clear, and uses one of the few measurements in the standard. While it may be difficult for many observers to accurately estimate the 25 degree angle, strong and springy are clear enough to make me wonder how people tolerate some of the weak pasterns that we see.
Feet: The feet are short, compact, with toes well arched, pads thick and firm, and nails short and dark. The dewclaws if any, should be removed from the hind legs. Dewclaws on the forelegs may be removed, but are normally left on.
The paragraph on feet is simple, direct and easy to understand. Unfortunately it is also one of the most neglected when we are evaluating our dogs against the Standard. Since the Standard simply describes good feet, and doesn't identify any faults or severity of those faults, I guess such an attitude on the part of breeders and exhibitors is understandable. It is also one of the shorter paragraphs, suggesting to some that it is of lesser importance. In the real world of working dogs, however, correct feet are very important. Pads that are not thick, flat feet, splayed toes (or hare feet) should all be penalized appropriately when judging the dog.
Proportion: The German shepherd Dog is longer than tall, with the most desirable proportion as 10 to 8 1/2. The desired height for males at the top of the highest point of the shoulder blade is 24 to 26 inches; and for bitches, 22 to 24 inches. The length is measured from the point of the prosternum or breastbone to the rear edge of the pelvis, the ischial tuberosity.
The correct proportions and heights are simply defined in this paragraph. Once again, there is no indication of the severity of deviations from the ideals that are set forth. This means that personal preferences can come into play. Since we seldom measure our dogs, we are also left relying on visual estimations that vary greatly between observers. Because of this apparent latitude in the standard we have many dogs that are much taller than the desired height, and many dogs with a longer body than the 10 to 8 1/2 ratio calls for. In fact, these deviations have become so common that dogs well within the standard are often perceived as being small rather than correct, and properly proportioned dogs are seen as too tall for their length. Not everyone sees them this way, but it seems that the vast majority do.
Body: The whole structure of the body gives an impression of depth and solidity without bulkiness.
Chest: Commencing at the prosternum, it is well filled and carried well down between the legs. It is deep and capacious, never shallow, with ample room for the lungs and heart, carried well forward, with the prosternum showing ahead of the shoulder in profile.
Ribs: Well sprung and long, neither barrel-shaped nor too flat, and carried down to a sternum which reaches to the elbows. Correct ribbing allows the elbows to move back freely when the dog is at a trot. Too round causes interference and throws the elbows out; too flat or short causes pinched elbows. Ribbing is carried well back so that the loin is relatively short.
Abdomen: Firmly held and not paunchy. The bottom line is only moderately tucked up in the loin.
The description of the body is focused on the functional attributes that provide a strong dog, capable of endurance, intense effort, and agility all in one package. Bulkiness is faulted by implication just as much as weakness or over refinement. Some key points to recognize in this paragraph are the reference to a prosternum that extends in front of the shoulder when standing at rest, the sternum that reaches at least down to the elbow, and by implication may be somewhat lower, the depth and capacity of the chest, the correct springing of the ribs so that they neither interfere with elbow movement, nor give you a slab sided dog with reduced room for the internal organs, and the length of the ribbing that is one of the primary reasons that the ideal GSD is said to have a short loin (or short coupling in some descriptions) see Loin under Topline, below). The firm abdomen and moderate tuck up described is one of the things that separates the German Shepherd form breeds like sighthounds with lighter builds and more emphasis on a gallop than a trot.
Withers: The withers are higher than and sloping into the level back.
Back: The back is straight, very strongly developed without any sag or roach, and relatively short. The desirable long proportion is not derived from a long back, but from overall length with relation to height, which is achieved by length of forequarter and length of withers and hindquarter, viewed from the side.
Loin: Viewed from the top, broad and strong. Undue length between the last rib and the thigh, when viewed from the side, is undesirable.
Croup: Long and gradually sloping.
Tail: Bushy, with the last vertebra extended at least to the hock joint. It is set smoothly into the croup and low rather than high. At rest, the tail hangs in a slight curve like a saber. A slight hook-sometimes carried to one side-is faulty only to the extent that it mars general appearance. When the dog is excited or in motion, the curve is accentuated and the tail raised, but it should never be curled forward beyond a vertical line. Tails too short, or with clumpy ends due to ankylosis, are a serious fault. A dog with a docked tail must be disqualified.
Topline may well be the most misunderstood and abused concept in the standard. The quality German Shepherds of today seldom have withers lower than the back (although this fault was common in the early years of the breed, and still somewhat common in the early to mid sixties). Low withers are still occasionally seen in dogs that do not have recent conformation lines in their pedigrees. In fact, we even see dogs today with too much height of withers. This height is often the result of an upright shoulder and the resulting lack of front angulation. It is more apparent in motion than when standing. The back is described as both level and straight. Level is generally taken to mean horizontal when the dog is standing in a relaxed pose, and when in motion. Since the length of the back is described as relatively short, and it connects a sloping withers and a long and gradually sloping croup, the overall appearance is that of a sloping topline, even at rest.
Dogs who appear to have a long, level, topline probably suffer from some combination of the faults of too low a wither, too long a back, or too flat a croup. The undesirability of sagging or roached backs are clearly stated. While truly roached backs, with a distinct curvature of the spine are seen, many roached backs seem to be the result of an extremely long and sloping (not necessarily steep) croup flowing out of an extremely short back. The back in most of these roached dogs is probably short and level level.
Croups are also a difficult concept to understand. The croup is not really a single part of the dog, but is the result of the conformation of approximately the last third of the spine, the transition into and the tail, the angle of the pelvis, and the muscle mass of the hips. It is the net effect of all of these things that makes up what is described as long and gradually sloping. The angle of the pelvis may be critical to proper undereach and follow through of the hindquarter.
This section of the standard also calls for a broad loin when viewed from the top (meaning that there is not a pronounced narrowing of the outline from above), and a relatively short distance between the last rib and the thigh when viewed from the side. The loin should be short as a result of a short back. The overall length of the dog should come from the strength of the forequarter and hindquarter, not the length of the back or loin.
While the standard calls for a tail that extends at least to the hock joint, such a tail would look extremely short on today's dogs. The low tail set described contributes to the smooth outline of the croup. A high tail set gives the appearance of a flat croup, or a tail that looks stuck on. It is my firm belief that by ignoring the statement that the tails curve is accentuated and raised when the dog is excited or in motion, we have created animals with lifeless tails: a condition that is probably more serious than the occasional gay tail that is carried too high. In fact, while the standard penalizes a tail that is curled forward beyond a vertical line, we tend to penalize dogs that carry their tails far short of that vertical line. Too often I have seen dogs criticized when their tails stray above a horizontal line. There is still a lot of territory above the horizontal that is perfectly acceptable according to the standard.
Hindquarters: The whole assembly of the thigh, viewed from the side, is broad, with both upper and lower thigh well muscled, forming as nearly as possible a right angle. The upper thighbone parallels the shoulder blade while the lower thigh bone parallels the upper arm. The metatarsus (the unit between the hock joint and the foot) is short, strong, and tightly articulated.
This section on the hindquarter is short and to the point. The importance of muscle mass and firm ligamentation is clear. A parallel structure of the upper thigh to the shoulder blade and the lower thigh to the upper arm is described. The ideal 90 degree conformation of the rear is alluded to, but since this angle changes drastically depending on where the foot is placed when the dog is standing there is often confusion on this point. Experience has taught me that this right angle should be achieved when the foot is directly beneath the hip joint. Short hocks are called for. Overly long hocks can produce more drive, but often lead to problems of interference that reduce the effectiveness of the gait. In my mind, the words tightly articulated mean that the hock needs to move freely, yet firmly, without wobble, and be able to extend fully on follow through (quite a lot to read into two words, I admit, but very important when considering proper rear action).
Gait: A German Shepherd Dog is a trotting dog, and its structure has been developed to meet the requirements of its work.
General Impression: The gait is outreaching, elastic, seemingly without effort, smooth and rhythmic, covering the maximum amount of ground with the minimum number of steps. At a walk, it covers a great deal of ground, with long stride of both hind legs and forelegs. At a trot, the dog covers still more ground with even longer stride, and moves powerfully but easily, with coordination and balance so that the gait appears to be the steady motion of a well-lubricated machine. The feet travel close to the ground on both forward reach and backward push. In order to achieve ideal movement of this kind, there must be good muscular development and ligamentation. The hindquarters deliver, through the back, a powerful forward thrust which slightly lifts the whole animal and drives the body forward. Reaching far under, and passing the imprint left by the front foot, the hind foot takes hold of the ground; then the hock, stifle and upper thigh come into play and sweep back, the stroke of the hind leg finishing with the foot still close to the ground in a smooth follow-through. The overreach of the hindquarter usually necessitates one hind foot passing inside the track of the forefeet, and such action is not faulty unless the locomotion is crabwise with the dog's body sideways out of the normal straight line.
Transmission: The typical smooth, flowing gait is maintained with great strength and firmness of back. The whole effort of the hindquarter is transmitted to the forequarter through the loin, back and withers. At full trot, the back must remain firm and level without sway, roll, whip, or roach. Unlevel topline with withers lower than the hip is a fault. To compensate for the forward motion imparted by the hindquarters, the shoulder should open to its fullest extent. The forelegs should reach out close to the ground in a long stride in harmony with the hindquarters. The dog does not track on widely separated parallel lines, but brings the feet inward toward the middle line of the body when trotting in order to maintain balance. The feet track closely but do not strike or cross over. Viewed from the front, the front legs function from the shoulder joint to the pad in a straight line. Viewed from the rear, the hind legs function from the hip joint to the pad in a straight line. Faults of gait, whether from front, rear, or side, are to be considered very serious faults.
By far the longest section of the Standard, the paragraph on gait is crucial in understanding the German Shepherd. The emphasis is on trotting, in keeping with the origin of the breed in the tending style of herding. When moving large flocks along roads, and serving as a living fence to keep the sheep confined to the proper fields, efficient movement at a moderate pace for long periods of time is essential. The section of the Standard on gait is either misunderstood as much as the one on topline, or ignored all to often. Faults of gait, whether from front, rear, or side are very serious faults according to the standard, yet many such faults are given little attention and in some cases are even rewarded in competition.
The Standard calls for a long striding dog that seems to move effortlessly and covers the maximum amount of ground with the minimum number of steps. Animals that move in this fashion can sometimes be ignored in favor of quick stepping, flashy dogs that cover ground quickly, but much less efficiently than a correct mover.
Dogs with insufficient angulation in both the front and rear can demonstrate a smooth and easy gait, but will not cover as much ground with the same effort as a correctly angulated dog. Dogs with sufficient rears and insufficient fronts will waste motion while trying to compensate for the differing length of stride in the front and rear. Likewise, dogs with sufficient fronts and insufficient rears will waste motion. Dogs with excessive rear angulation will also be forced to make compensation for the imbalance in some way that will reduce the efficiency of their movement. I have never heard a dog described as having excessive front angulation, but I suppose that it is possible.
The Standard also calls for both the front and rear feet to remain close to the ground throughout the stride. Incorrect front or rear angulation may cause a dog to lift its front foot higher from the ground than is efficient, or to kick up in the rear. Front feet that end up too far off the ground may also be the result of incorrect ligamentation and musculature that result in movement from the elbow rather than a properly rotated shoulder blade. Excessively long hocks, or inadequate ligamentation can result in hocks that do not fully follow through and open up, thus shortening the stride and in some cases leading to a dragging of the rear toes.
The Standard says that the hind foot should reach well under the body, beyond the imprint of the front foot on the ground. This can only be achieved with correct front and rear angulation. Insufficient angulation does not permit this long undereach and stride.
Tthe strength of the stride must be transmitted from the rear through the loin and back to move the dog forward. To provide for this, the Standard calls for great strength and firmness of the back. To much vertical flexibility wastes energy and reduces the efficiency of the gait. At the same time, the spine must retain enough flexibility in the horizontal plane to permit the dog to be agile and capable of turning quickly and sharply.
When viewed from the front or rear while in motion, the feet of a properly built German Shepherd should appear to track close together (not on widely parallel lines like some breeds). The Standard does not actually call for single tracking (where the feet all appear to touch the ground in a single line). Given the fact that the rear feet are supposed to pass beyond the front feet, it is clear that true single tracking should not be possible. The simple description of the front legs functioning from the shoulder to the pad in a straight line, and the hind legs from the hip to the pad in a straight line covers many individual faults of gait (everything from pinched or out elbows, to sloppy rears).
Color: The German Shepherd Dog varies in color, and most colors are permissible. Strong rich colors are preferred. Nose black. Pale, washed-out colors and blues and livers are serious faults. A white dog or a dog with a nose that is not predominantly black must be disqualified.
Some of the baggage of changing attitudes and Standard revisions can be found in this short paragraph on color. While blues and livers are labeled as serious faults (not even very serious, and certainly not disqualifying), dogs with noses that are not predominately black are disqualified. Since blues have grey noses (admittedly sometimes hard to distinguish from black) and livers have brown noses, this seems to be a contradiction. White dogs are currently disqualified, but this has not always been the case.
Coat: The ideal dog has a double coat of medium length. The outer coat should be as dense as possible, hair straight, harsh and lying close to the body. A slightly wavy outer coat, often of wiry texture, is permissible. The head, including the inner ear and foreface, and the legs and paws are covered with short hair, and the neck with longer and thicker hair. The rear of the forelegs and hind legs has somewhat longer hair extending to the pastern and hock, respectively. Faults in coat include soft, silky, too long outer coat, woolly, curly, and open coat.
The paragraph on coat is pretty clear to most people. There is some confusion about at what length the outer coat becomes too long. Long coats are probably penalized in the show ring to a greater extent than the Standard calls for. Coat faults are simply faults, not serious, or very serious faults, which makes you wonder why long coats are treated almost as disqualifying faults.
Disqualifications: Cropped or hanging ears; undershot jaw; docked tail; white dogs; dogs with noses not predominantly black; any dog that attempts to bite the judge.
The disqualifications are clear (although there is some ambiguity regarding noses that are not predominately black), but not complete. Additionally, all AKC breeds also carry disqualifications for lacking two normal descended testicles, dogs that are blind, deaf, castrated or spayed. An exception is made for the showing of castrated males and spayed bitches in stud dog/brood bitch classes, and in Veterans classes at shows that do not have competition beyond best of breed. The AKC also disqualifies dogs that have been changed in appearance by any artificial means not expressly spelled in the Standard for their breed. This is further defined as any type of procedure that has the effect of obscuring, disguising or eliminating any congenital or hereditary abnormality or undesirable characteristics, or that does anything to improve a dogs natural appearance, temperament, bite, or gait. Unfortunately, this section on alteration and artificial improvement of a dogs natural appearance does not seem to be enforced in most breeds.
I hope that some of the additional words that I have used in making my observations on the Standard are useful. Unfortunately, the limitations of words and the effects of different meanings and interpretations, make it difficult to write an unambiguous description of the ideal German Shepherd Dog. Photographs and illustrations can certainly help to bring the pictures to life. The GSDCA is currently working on a new Illustrated Standard. I'm pleased to be a part of that effort, and I hope that you will see the results in the not too distant future.