Back in 1985 I lived in Susterseel, Germany. I was but a child. New to the area; I didn’t know anyone and thus had no friends. The owner of the hotel that we stayed in for the first few months had a German Shepherd (GSD). He looked pretty old and seemed to have low energy but he was very friendly. That dog became my only friend for weeks. He was the reason I fell in love with the GSD breed. He walked with me every morning to the bus stop and was waiting to greet me every afternoon when I got back from school. He was an amazingly sweet dog. But at the time even at the young age of six years old, I could tell that something wasn’t quite right with him. Walking looked painful. My parents thought it may have just been because the dog was old. It turned out, this sweet dog was only five-years old. Looking back on it now some thirty-ish years later, I believe the pain was from hip dysplasia. And mankind is to blame for it.
For decades the GSD was among the most popular breeds in the world, but their numbers have started to decline. New research suggests the decreasing demand for GSDs may have something to do with the breed’s propensity for health problems which is likely the result of selective breeding for cosmetic traits.
A relatively recent shift in the way GSDs are bred has been linked to the breed’s current predisposition to an array of health conditions, according to research published in July of 2017 on Canine Genetics and Epidemiology. Compared to other breeds, GSDs are now disproportionately prone to musculoskeletal disorders, osteoarthritis, diarrhea, EPI, obesity, and behavioral problems. These findings should raise some red flags among breeders, but as long as people are still willing to fork out $2,500.00 and more experts are skeptical that anything will be done to remedy the problem.
Contrary to popular belief the GSD didn’t show up until the first part of the 1900’s. Shortly after their first appearance they became one of the worlds’ most popular breeds. Historically, these dogs were bred for work such as herding, military, guard duty, police, guide-dog and service work. Originally a medium sized dog topping out at about 50lbs, their popularity as guard dogs resulted in them being bred for a larger size (85lbs-120lbs) and a more confident temperament. In recent decades, however, breeders have focused on the breed’s aesthetics rather than their overall functional health. This is especially true regarding the “show lines.” The resulting changes to the breed’s physical characteristics due to selective breeding has now impacted the health of GSDs as a whole.
GSDs being predisposed to many health conditions is well documented. In 2013 researchers collected data on approximately 500,000 dogs from veterinary clinics across the UK. This study included data going back to 2005, along with data from dogs who were under veterinary care at the time of the study.
Disturbingly, out of roughly 500,000 dogs (12,146 being GSDs) nearly 300,000 of them (7,652 GSDs) had at least one disorder recorded in 2013. And according to this research, most are most likely to be euthanized due to complications arising from musculoskeletal disorders such as hip and elbow dysplasia. An astonishing 263 different health conditions were documented in the breed, the most common being inflammation of the ear canal, osteoarthritis, diarrhea, obesity, and aggression. The average GSDs typically live to be between 9 and 13 years old, which is actually pretty good, but its quality of life may be diminished because of the breed’s susceptibility to so many health complications.
Bearing all of this in mind, it isn’t difficult to see why the GSDs popularity has declined over the past decade. Who in their right mind would make the conscious decision to purchase, adopt or rescue a breed with such an abundance of serious health issues? Dr. Dan O’Neill of the Royal Veterinary College stated, “Our results highlight the power of primary-care veterinary clinical records to help understand breed health in dogs and to support evidence-based approaches towards improved health and welfare in dogs; interestingly, we found osteoarthritis to be one of the most common conditions reported, which may be caused, in part, by breeding for cosmetic traits such as lower hindquarters or a sloping back.”
With all of the selective breeding aimed toward sloping the back of the GSD I can’t help but wonder, how has that become the breed standard in conformation? “The withers are higher than and sloping into the level back. The back is straight, very strongly developed without sag or roach, and relatively short. The whole structure of the body gives an impression of depth and solidity without bulkiness." This is the “SV” standard originally set up by Max Von Stephanitz (the “architect” of the German shepherd), which near as I can tell is the mandating authority on all things GSD. Yet, looking at the past years prize winners for conformation it seems to me that this standard has been grossly ignored and in doing so the GSD breed as a whole is suffering because of it.
Not long ago I adopted a GSD that had to be euthanized three years later due to complications perpetuated by a genetic disorder caused by bad breeding. I have since had two other GSDs and every time they defecate I breath a sigh of relief when I see that it’s a healthy dump. No dog owner should ever have to worry that their dogs’ health will turn on a dime due to man interfering in genetics through selective breeding.
Jason is a friend of mine and contributor to this blog. He's a certified Canine Training and behavior specialist and is currently training his GSD in PSA (Protection Sports Association)
If you're into martial arts please give his FB page a visit. He's a Karate and Tae Kwon Do instructor as well.