Hepper is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

Are German Shepherds Herding Dogs? Breed Interesting Facts

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

west german shepherd dog running outdoor

German Shepherds are intelligent, loyal, and alert and are arguably the definitive working dogs. As you might guess, their original purpose, dating to the latter half of the 19th century, involved herding and tending to livestock. But as needs shifted over the years, their stunning versatility came to light, inspiring diverse uses ranging from military and police work to service dog roles.

While German Shepherds share a superior intelligence common to herding dogs, their background in the field differs considerably from that of breeds like the Border Collie. Let’s explore the German Shepherd and its surprising history of herding.

Divider 5

German Shepherd Origins

German Shepherds first appeared in the late 1800s. The German breeding organization, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), began the initial pedigree book in 1899.

Founding SV member Max von Stephanitz discovered a dog at a herding competition named Hektor Linksrhein that would inspire the SV’s creation. Though not a breeder, von Stephanitz found sheep herding dogs particularly intriguing, and following a stint as a German cavalry captain, he focused his energies on promoting working dog breeds.

As he possessed all the desirable traits of an ideal Shepherd, von Stephanitz immediately bought Hektor, renamed him Horand von Grafrath, and began a breeding program. Conformation wasn’t crucial to the SV. Instead, the German Shepherd needed specific character traits, including intelligence, loyalty, and obedience.

Image Credit: Hungry Snail, Shutterstock

divider 9

Are German Shepherds Herding Dogs?

Horand’s lineage consisted primarily of herding dogs, and following several generations of inbreeding, those traits became standard to the German Shepherd breed. A herding instinct was crucial for von Stephanitz’s vision of the ideal working dog. The SV’s goal was a confident and athletic dog that had a place as a herder, protector, and companion.

German Shepherd Herding Habits

German Shepherds are herding dogs but not in the same sense as Border Collies. Border Collies have the “eye” and the ability to control from a distance. They can follow their handler’s orders to direct the flock and efficiently isolate individual sheep.

German Shepherds have a much more general tending job. They stick close to their flock as the shepherd controls the sheep while they graze.

Rather than direct the sheep themselves, German Shepherds act as a fence, maintaining a barrier to protect the sheep from predators and neighboring fields from the flock. If a sheep falls out of line, the dog forces them back in. If a predator tries to pursue the sheep, the Shepherd uses its strength and powerful jaws to subdue the attacker.

german shepherd running outside with tongue out
Image Credit: Vilve Roosioks, Pixabay

divider 10

German Shepherds as Police and Military Dogs

The German Shepherd comes from a strong background in herding, a point that von Stephanitz valued highly. But the breed’s purpose wasn’t strict, and von Stephanitz even promoted their expanded use only a few years after founding the SV. While the Shepherd’s lineage was in sheep herding, the pedigreed breed never had much of an identity in the discipline.

In the early 1900s, German Shepherd breeders focused on police work. With a supposed rising need for more foot soldiers in the police force, dogs became more commonplace working with officers.

At the time, Doberman Pinschers and Airedale Terriers were more popular for service in law enforcement. But with the SV successfully displaying their equitable agility, intelligence, and superior trainability, German Shepherds soon took the top spot as the preferred police dog.

Years later, a similar promotion would allow the German Shepherd to supplant the Airedale Terrier and other popular army dogs as the dominant military breed just in time for WWI. The breed’s background in aggressive protection and tending, paired with the early moves by the SV, positioned them as the premier guard dogs.

german shepherd police dog
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Are German Shepherds Still Herding Dogs?

German Shepherds spread across the globe around 1905, appearing in the U.S. as shepherding and show dogs. The AKC recognized the breed in 1908. After WWI, German Shepherds surged in popularity, especially following the success of TV stars Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart. They found new purposes in numerous unique disciplines, including:

The diverse application for German Shepherds continues today. The Intelligence of Dogs ranked them as the third smartest breed, and they are the fourth most popular breed in the AKC’s registry. Though they’ve found their place as faithful, courageous companions, German Shepherds maintain their popularity among global police forces, military units, and show breeders.

Divider 2

Final Thoughts

Despite rarely having a job around the flock these days, German Shepherds keep the herding tendency and incredible trainability of their ancestors. The work ethic and capable build that originated with those early dogs set the stage for one of the most versatile breeds you can find. A true jack of all trades, the German Shepherd has no trouble gaining the appreciation of others anywhere it goes.

Featured Image Credit: BIGANDT.COM, Shutterstock

Related Articles

Further Reading

Vet Articles

Latest Vet Answers

The latest veterinarians' answers to questions from our database