According to the AKC breed standard, all German Shepherds are the same. However, the breed has verged into two separate “lines” over the last few years. The working line is the “original” that was continued by breeders seeking to create working dogs for police departments, military agencies, and private citizens.
On the other hand, show-line German Shepherds were bred to adhere to the AKC breed standard. Therefore, the focus of these breeds was for their dogs to meet certain physical standards – temperament and work ethics were less important.
After decades of different breeding goals, working and show-line German Shepherds have become very different. Let’s take a look at some of those differences below.
The most obvious way these lines differ in appearance. While you can tell both lines are German Shepherds, it isn’t difficult to determine which line a dog came from.
Working German Shepherds are more muscular and practically built. Their body structure is straight, and their coat is medium-length. It’s a bit denser than show-line German Shepherds. Working German Shepherds also don’t have any color requirements, so you’ll commonly find them in less traditional German Shepherd colors. They’re often black or sable, as these are the colors preferred by police and military agencies.
Show German Shepherds have a sloped back, which also brings some health issues. The sloped back has become part of the breed standard, despite being nearly non-existent in working dogs. Some dogs do have more sloped backs than others, though. Show line dogs have required colorations, too. They come in more traditional colors that most people associate with German Shepherds.
Working line and show line German Shepherds are bred for different purposes. Therefore, their temperament and instincts vary.
Working-line German Shepherds have stronger guarding instincts. They’re often more energetic and bred to work long hours. They’re easier to train and more devoted to their masters. Their high energy level translates to a high exercise need. They need consistent and constant training. Otherwise, they quickly become bored and destructive.
Therefore, working-line German Shepherds are only recommended for active families. Their energetic nature makes them perfect for long working hours but can make them difficult to keep up with as a pet. They’re considered one of the most trainable dogs in the world, though.
On the other hand, show-line German Shepherds haven’t been bred for work for generations. Instead, most of them spend their hours inside a home, so they’ve been bred for more “house-friendly” characteristics. They tend to be calmer and have lower exercise needs.
Show line German Shepherds tend to be less intelligent and more difficult to train. However, this also translates into a lower need for mental stimulation. They tend to get bored less, which can help curb some of their destructive tendencies.
Both lines have strong guarding instincts (though the working line has the strongest). They’re considered one of the foremost home-defense dogs. Therefore, early socialization is required to prevent aggression for both lines.
Historically, German Shepherds were quite healthy. However, this isn’t the case today.
Working-line German Shepherds are typically bred with health in mind. After all, they’re designed to do a job, and they can’t do that job if they have any health issues. Therefore, health is at the forefront of any breeder’s mind when creating working-line German Shepherds.
However, this isn’t the case with show-line German Shepherds. Most dogs are kept as pets and shown in the show ring. They aren’t out working, so health is less important. A dog can win first in show with health problems like hip dysplasia. The growing trend to breed these dogs with sloped backs has only worsened this problem, putting them at higher risk of back and hip problems.
That said, working-line German Shepherds are doing much rougher work than show-line German Shepherds. Therefore, they are more prone to spinal issues to some extent. However, this is due to the work that they’re doing – not necessarily their genetics.
DNA and hip testing can help prevent health problems to some extent. No matter what line of German Shepherd you choose, select a quality breeder that provides health testing for all their dogs. Ask to see these tests before adopting a puppy. While hip dysplasia is caused somewhat by the environment, it’s also related to the dog’s genetics.
Overall, working-line German Shepherds require more work than show-line German Shepherds. German Shepherds designed for work tend to be more energetic and more intelligent. However, this translates into a higher exercise and mental stimulation need. These dogs can easily become too much for the average dog owner, so police departments and military agencies primarily adopt them.
On the other hand, show-line German Shepherds were bred and raised to be pets. Even dogs that are shown by professional breeders spend much of their time in the home as a pet. Therefore, they tend to be more laid back and require less work.
Both lines require the same amount of grooming, though. While German Shepherds don’t need professional grooming, they shed a lot. Therefore, daily brushing is often needed to keep all the excess hair under control. Otherwise, your home can quickly become coated in a fine layer of hair.
What Dog is Right for You?
Which German Shepherd you should adopt depends on what you’re looking for. On the one hand, working-line German Shepherds are more equipped for protection work. They have higher endurance and more intelligence. Therefore, they’re great for those that want to take an active role as a dog owner. If you’re looking for a dog to do competitions with (even just for fun), then a working line German Shepherd is a solid option.
On the other hand, show-line German Shepherds are easier to care for, though they may have more health problems. If you decide to adopt a show-line German Shepherd, be sure to double-check the breeder. Some breeders do still breed show line dogs, but many put the aesthetics of the breed before their health.
Ultimately, the dog you pick depends on whether you want an active working dog or a calmer pet. Both lines of German Shepherds have strong protective instincts and require a lot of socialization. Ensure you have the time to care for them before adopting one.