German Shepherds are stunningly beautiful, wickedly smart, and terrific family dogs. German Shepherds have saved the lives of countless military and police service people through a long and decorated career as the most used and effective working dogs we know. From herding to protection to scent work, to being a great family pet, the German Shepherd can do it all. So, why are there so many German Shepherds in shelters?
Why Are There So Many German Shepherds in Shelters?
So many German Shepherds are in shelters because their popularity results in overbreeding and irresponsible ownership. They are intelligent, high-energy dogs who need more exercise and stimulation than many owners anticipate. Without proper care, they become unmanageable and are abandoned or escape, eventually ending up in shelters.
The strong instincts and large size of the German Shepherd can make them difficult for some households. Also, they live a long time but are prone to developing chronic issues late in life that worsen with age. This means owners abandon them rather than treat their issues or euthanize them.
In many shelters in the US, German Shepherds are among the most common breeds represented. The Sacramento County SPCA has more Huskies and German Shepherds than other breeds. It’s not just an issue in California, either.
“In some areas [of Kentucky], German Shepherds are the most euthanized breed second to pit bulls.“ – Daviess County Animal Care & Control
I get why so many pit bulls are in shelters, but why are so many German Shepherds in shelters, too?
Why People Like German Shepherds
Setting aside the movie star good looks that are frequently showcased in popular films and TV shows, these are legitimately exceptional dogs.
German Shepherds are awesome family dogs with a special fondness for children, provided they are properly socialized and early interactions are managed. Despite a generally high energy level, German Shepherds tend to be calm indoors. They can thrive in a number of households provided they get appropriate mental stimulation and exercise.
This dog is smart, and furthermore, they are one of the breeds most likely to put that intelligence towards pleasing their owners. They are very trainable. Teaching a German Shepherd simple things like not to go potty indoors and how to do tricks is easy.
Because German Shepherds have a reputation as military and police dogs, many people assume they will be good home protection dogs. When properly channeled, it’s true that they can be great defenders of home, property, and family.
German Shepherds aren’t hard to find. Litters are available from both reputable and disreputable sources around the nation. Even their availability in shelters and rescues can be problematic. It can be easy to impulsively adopt a magnificent German Shepherd affordably, or even for free.
Impulsive buys haunt this breed. Their iconic status combined with their availability means they are frequently bought as gifts or on a whim.
But that only gets us halfway to answering the question “Why are so many German Shepherds in shelters?” To answer that, we have to look further at why people are losing or getting rid of these dogs.
Why German Shepherds End Up in Shelters
If German Shepherds are so great, why are they filling our shelters instead of protecting and loving the families who bought or adopted them? There are a couple of key reasons that German Shepherds end up in shelters:
German Shepherds are a Lot of Dog
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Animal Science found that German Shepherds are much more likely to inherit traits like courage, nerve stability, hardness, and affability than Labradors.
The traits that make German Shepherds great farm, protection, police, military, and service dogs are the same traits that often make them difficult house pets. This powerful breed is happy to please when properly guided, but just as happy to take the reins if they lack leadership.
Did I mention they are big? German Shepherds weigh on average of 60 to 80 lbs and stand from 22 to 26 inches at the shoulder. Some are much bigger.
German Shepherds are heavy shedders, too. All German Shepherd coat types shed, but some of the particularly fluffy varieties can shed as much as traditional Northern breeds like Huskies.
And some German Shepherds can be nearly impossible to handle without giving them advanced training.
I’ve seen so many well-intentioned owners take their Shepherds on regular walks, take them to the groomer, go on play dates with other dogs, and give them plenty of socialization with people, but they still end up surrendering them. These dogs were bred to work, not just hang out with you.
If you fail to provide your German Shepherd adequate stimulation, they’ll find ways to entertain themselves. Unfortunately, what the dog chooses is often intolerable to the owner, making it likely the dog will be given up.
Irresponsible Owners and Breeders
There are bad owners and breeders of all dog breeds, but German Shepherds really get the short stick.
Backyard breeders are able to breed lots of dogs even in terrible settings because German Shepherds can survive and care for their young in rougher conditions than other breeds.
Because there is a high demand for German Shepherds (they’re consistently rated as one of the top 5 most popular dog breeds), breeders see a return on their investment easily.
Combine that with the fact that irresponsible breeders typically sell to irresponsible owners who do not spay, neuter, or care for their dogs, and you end up with exponentially more German Shepherd puppies and strays in shelters and rescues.
Popularity Spikes in Shepherds Because of Movies and TV
Every breed sees increases in popularity when they’re featured in Hollywood movies and popular TV shows. However, because German Shepherds are so often portrayed in the media, both positively and negatively, these trends affect this breed more intensely.
Movies like Game of Thrones caused a spike in purchases of dogs that look even vaguely like the dire wolves in the show. Shelters noticed clear spikes in Huskies and German Shepherds and their mixes after the show gained popularity.
These are just some of the German Shepherds available at Daviess County Animal Control when I wrote this article:
While some of these dogs do live out their lives in the homes of GoT fans, many of them, bought impulsively for their looks, end up in shelters because their owners didn’t consider the long-term repercussions of German Shepherd ownership.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
It’s been proven that the pandemic drove pet ownership in America to record high numbers. And, as the ASPCA points out, 10% of dogs acquired during the pandemic are no longer with the families who acquired them.
The German Shepherd is one of the breeds worst hit by these trends.
Scared people, worried about the state of the world, bought German Shepherds as protection animals. Now they are finding that they can’t handle the breed or they’re going back to work and encountering new issues.
People going back to work after the pandemic found special issues as their dogs who had spent all of their time with them were suddenly being left alone. Puppies they got during the pandemic suddenly showed signs of separation anxiety, and even dogs who had been free of separation anxiety throughout their lives began to develop it.
Families struggled to pay for housing during the pandemic, which means that lots of people who previously had homes without breed restrictions moved into apartments, which are much more likely not to allow German Shepherds. They likely lost their backyards as well, making exercising their shepherds more challenging.
Moving in with family members often meant trying to combine pets, a situation that often placed German Shepherds as the aggressor, and, therefore the ones found at fault and surrendered to shelters.
Separation anxiety causes issues like repeated escape attempts, destructiveness, inappropriate soiling, and noise complaints while the owner is gone, all of which can result in German Shepherds being surrendered.
German Shepherds are typically extremely loyal dogs. However, met with an environment that isn’t meeting their needs and an opportunity to escape, German Shepherds are likely to break out of even well-constructed enclosures (these dogs are used for military and police work – they’ll make quick work of a backyard fence if they want).
Even if owners are doing their best to keep them contained, German Shepherds are still likely to escape when being transported, boarded, or even walked on a leash (another reason crate training your dog is so important.
They are strong, fast, and I’ll say it again, very smart, so if they decide to break out, it’s unlikely the owner will capture them, and very likely they’ll eventually end up in a shelter.
Owners Quit on Their Shepherds
Every breed of dog sees some owner surrenders, but German Shepherds just end up getting given up on more than some other breeds. It’s really sad when you consider just how loyal these dogs are, one of the few breeds proven willing to die for their owners, and arguably for their country.
Nevertheless, owners relocating to a location with breed limitations, having a child and being concerned for the German Shepherd’s reaction, or generally failing to provide for the mental and physical needs of this breed and being unable to handle the consequences mean that many German Shepherds end up surrendered.
Many people, without thinking about the long-term commitment necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with a German Shepherd, impulsively purchase these dogs for protection, their looks, or as status symbols, which often leads to their abandonment.
Shepherd Health Concerns
German Shepherds usually live ten years or more, but they are prone to serious health conditions that worsen later in life. Rather than treat or euthanize, many senior or sick German Shepherds are surrendered to shelters or abandoned.
Hip and elbow dysplasia are common. Spinal disorders like degenerative myelopathy are very difficult for owners to handle, and it’s eventually fatal. Thyroid, skin, ear issues are also common.
Canine epilepsy is fairly common in the breed, too. Even allergies can cause enough problems to frustrate owners into surrendering the dog.
Behavior Issues in German Shepherds
Remember how I keep talking about how much mental and physical stimulation German Shepherds need? How they have to have a job to do… or else? Well, the “or else” is why lots of German Shepherds find themselves in shelters.
Without proper socialization and exercise, German Shepherds, like all herding breeds, can get nippy. And if owners do not quickly and appropriately address this nippiness, it could escalate to aggression, potentially even dangerous aggression.
Furthermore, German Shepherds are typically known for their strong prey drive, which aids in their tracking and scent work. However, in the home, prey drive may result in aggression towards small animals, cats, and other dogs. This may even spill over to children or strangers.
German Shepherds, like many other breeds that are highly attached to their humans, can be prone to separation anxiety, which can often lead to destructiveness or accidents. In addition, bored German Shepherds are also prone to destruction, as the methodical dismembering of your home can be a great way to let out their intellectual curiosity.
All of these issues (which, by the way, are often easily treatable if the owner commits to turning things around), often end up resulting in frustrated or scared owner-surrenders to shelters.
German Shepherds Often are Heavily Represented in Stray Populations
German Shepherds are rugged, intelligent dogs, which enables them to survive in harsh conditions where other breeds would not.
These dogs are often the type that ends up breeding wild on reservations and in small towns throughout America, resulting in German Shepherd and German Shepherd mixes being born without any ownership at all (so-called “rez dogs”). As one redditor points out:
[German Shepherds] are often found living wild in some communities. In northern Canada they’re the most common breeds of Rez dogs, who live outside and don’t receive any vet care so none of them are fixed. Tons of puppies are brought down by rescue organizations to be adopted out. Almost 100% of them are “husky mix” or “shepherd mix”. – source
Huskies are also disproportionately represented in shelters. Some reasons overlap with German Shepherds, but some reasons are entirely unique. Check out my article on why there are so many huskies in shelters for more info.
Responsible Adoption of German Shepherds
Are you ready to bring a German Shepherd into your life? Think hard before making the decision. This loyal breed is too often repeatedly abandoned. Every time it doesn’t work out, their chances of finding a happy forever home go down.
Look carefully at your lifestyle and think about where the intensive exercise and mental stimulation will fit in.
Consider the years ahead, and whether there is any chance you will need to move into a home with breed legislation, a small apartment where you can’t properly exercise your dog, or into a household with other pets your dog may not get along with.
There are lots of great resources available online and through rescues, but for me, nothing compares to having a book I can grab and thumb through. Here are some that are particularly useful for German Shepherds:
For over three decades, the New Skete Monks community has been breeding, nurturing, and training German Shepherds. Their intimate, meditative approach is particularly effective with this intelligent, sensitive breed. While some of their training techniques may be outdated, the state of mind they teach is very helpful in training a Shepherd.
With contributions from 12 experts, it covers essential topics like housetraining, obedience, health, and even choosing the right puppy. Beyond just a training manual, it’s a comprehensive resource that delves everything that makes German Shepherds special.
In “The Other End of the Leash,” renowned Animal Behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell deciphers the communication gap between humans and dogs. This book doesn’t just teach you to speak with your dog; it reshapes the way you understand them. This might be my favorite dog training book.
Adopt an Adult Shepherd
The best way to learn whether you’ll get along well with a German Shepherd is to spend time with one. Luckily for you, there are plenty at local shelters.
Many of these dogs have been family pets. While they may have a few issues, they are often already well-trained and socialized. Puppies require a significant upfront investment. Adopting an adult German Shepherd allows you to pick up the training where the last owner left off.
There are breed rescues nationwide. However, chances are there are a couple of German Shepherds at your local shelter right now. Volunteer with them at the shelter, take them for a dog day out of the shelter, or think about fostering. There’s no better way to decide whether this is the right breed for you.
Purchase a Puppy Responsibly
If you decide to purchase a puppy, be sure to purchase from an extremely responsible breeder. Such a breeder will demand the puppy is returned to them if you ever can’t care for it. Spay and neuter your dog unless you are entirely confident that you will be able to keep it contained. Preventing accidental breeding is essential.
Regardless of whether you purchase or adopt your German Shepherd, consider yourself a breed ambassador. You’ll have this role for the course of your dog’s life. Properly trained, supervised, and physically and mentally stimulated, the German Shepherd is objectively one of the best dogs out there. Commit to giving this dog what they need, and you’ll be amazed by what they’ll do for you.