If you’ve been in the market for a German Shepherd, you may have noticed that there are two somewhat distinct variants of this breed: those with straight backs and those with sloped backs. While this difference may seem mostly aesthetic, it does affect the health of the dog.Most sloped-back dogs are bred for the show ring. There was some controversy over a sloped-back German Shepherd winning a dog show some years ago. Many people are somewhat worried about this “frog-leg” problem in German Shepherds, as it may be linked to some health problems. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to have many benefits over a straight-back. Instead, it is mostly done to help dogs win competitions.
Straight-backed dogs are mostly used for practical purposes. They are the original German Shepherd and are still found in working lines today.
In the end, these differences in concentration have led to different breeding lines. Besides their back problems, these dogs are pretty much the same.
At a Glance
Straight-Backed German Shepherd Overview
Straight-backed German Shepherds were the “original” German Shepherd. Their history is long and winding. However, for our purposes, we’ll start when the breed first started becoming standardized in 1923. Max von Stephanitz is often called the father of the German Shepherd breed. He sought to improve the breed’s wolf-like characteristics and worth ethic.
He created the German Shepherd to herd and protect sheep in Germany. He literally wrote a book on the breed in 1923 that describes the breed’s back as being “straight and powerful.” At this point in history, the dogs had completely straight backs. Von Stephanitz even stated that curving the spine diminished the breed’s speed and endurance, handicapping the dogs affected.
The breed was first recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1908, a few years before this book was published. As you might imagine, the breed’s standard originally supported the straight back.
There were various other books at the time that discussed the breed’s back, and all those we found described it as “straight.”
Today, the straight-backed German Shepherd descends from these original dogs without the over-breeding that has led to the curved back. Most straight-backed lines are still used as working dogs today. Some of them are companion animals, as they are bred for practical purposes. Unlike show dogs that are mostly bred for aesthetics and confirmation, these dogs are bred for their personality and health.
These working-line dogs have to have a gait that is effortless for the maximum amount of endurance possible. If they don’t, then they wouldn’t be very good working dogs! A level back is simply necessary for these dogs to work in practical situations without incurring injury.
German Shepherds are prone to a few health problems. Despite their status as a working breed, these dogs have always been a bit unhealthy due to the inbreeding that took place during the breed’s early development. Not all health problems are related specifically to inbreeding, but many of them are.
Hip and elbow dysplasia are both relatively common. These conditions occur when the hip or elbow joint doesn’t line up correctly. This problem first occurs during puppyhood when the dog is growing. For one reason or another, the joints don’t grow proportionally, which causes damage. Even after the dog is fully grown, the damage affects how the hip functions and usually leads to arthritis-like symptoms before the dog is 4 years old.
This condition is partially genetic. Some lines are going to be more prone to it than others. It is not recommended that dogs with hip dysplasia are bred, and most breeders will test a dog’s hips before breeding to ensure that they are not affected.
However, overexercise can also cause problems, especially when a puppy is growing. Overfeeding puppies can cause hip dysplasia. The overconsumption of calories can cause the hip to grow faster in some places than others, causing an improper fit.
German Shepherds may also be prone to bloat. No one knows exactly why this condition occurs, but it comes on suddenly and requires emergency surgery. It involves the dog’s stomach filling with gas and sometimes twisting as well.
The bloated stomach will put pressure on surrounding tissue, cutting off blood flow and causing it to die. After only a few hours, the dog can go into shock and die without vet treatment.
This dog is most suitable for those who are looking for a companion animal or working dog. Dogs with straight backs are far more practical than those with sloped backs. They typically have fewer health problems and higher endurance. Most people should be purchasing these dogs, not those with sloped-backs.
We recommend finding a breeder that creates working dogs instead of one that produces puppies that conform heavily to breed guidelines. Confirmation is not always a good thing, especially when it leads to canines that have more health problems.
Sloped-Backed German Shepherd Overview
We’ve already discussed that the straight-backed German Shepherds were the original German Shepherds. Where did the sloped-back come from, then?
Most sloped-backed German Shepherds aren’t used as working dogs. Many of them weren’t bred to be companions, either. Instead, they were bred to win competitions. Therefore, the breeders did not need to worry about practical considerations quite as much. Their dogs weren’t actually working in the field, after all.
As the show dogs were no longer bred with these practical considerations in mind, the breed standard slowly shifted from a normal rectangular shape to one that looked more like a triangle. The sloped back wasn’t very serious at first. However, that is the way the breed standard has been moving for decades. Many breeders are now producing dogs with very sloped backs. After all, the more sloped a dog’s back is, the more likely they are to win a competition.
The sloped-back German Shepherd is largely the result of a very small number of influential breeders. Once these few breeders started breeding dogs with more sloped-backs, dogs with bigger slopes began appearing in competitions. It became weird for German Shepherds to have straight backs in the show ring.
There is little reason for this trait to exist except that someone simply decided that it should. There is no practical purpose for this trait; it doesn’t do anything to improve the dog’s health or workability. It is simply a trait that has come to be expected in show German Shepherds.
Strangely, the German Shepherd standard states that they should have a straight back without any sag. Still, these dogs have been winning competitions recently, which should give you an idea of where this breed standard is going.
Luckily, not all breeders follow the breed standard, especially if their goal is to produce working dogs. The straight back will likely continue in working-breed lines, as it is necessary for the German Shepherd to perform its best.
Their sloped back does cause these dogs to have some extra health problems over the usual German Shepherd. They are still prone to all the health conditions we previously discussed for the straight-backed dogs. The health problems we discuss in this section are simply extra that they are also prone to.
The sloped back is particularly troublesome on the dog’s joints since they don’t form correctly at the extreme angle. One study found that there is a significant health problem with the way these dogs are currently being bred and advised that the breed be watched in the future to prevent further complications from arising.
Because these dog’s hips are closer to the ground, they must pivot and stretch more during normal walking and running. This is quite easy to visualize. When a dog’s hips are up high, they only have to move a little to achieve the same gait. When they are lower to the ground, they have to move more to achieve the same stride.
This can cause excess wear and tear since the hips are moving more than they would normally. Over time, this can cause arthritis-like symptoms. The hips simply aren’t made to extend that far.
Many dogs with extremely sloped backs also use their hocks for walking. This behavior makes their gait irregular, which can cause more wear and tear. It can also make the dog expend too much energy when they are walking, causing fatigue. The weird angle can also cause lower back pain. Imagine if you had to walk around with your back hunched over; you’d end up with back pain too.
As mentioned, hip dysplasia can occur in straight-backed German Shepherds as well. In fact, it is quite common in dogs with straight backs. However, those with angled backs are even more prone to having hip dysplasia. This disease can be very costly, so we recommend keeping this in mind when adopting a dog. Surgery on one hip can cost as much as $2,000 to $4,000. If your dog needs surgery on both hips, then you could be spending thousands.
Because of their sloped back, these dogs are prone to osteoarthritis. Many older dogs experience this problem, but it is likely that dogs with sloped-backs will experience more arthritis symptoms and get it at a younger age.
Overall, because these dogs are bred for show purposes, they tend to be less healthy than the straight-backed German Shepherd. When you’re purchasing a working dog, their health is going to be very important. You want them to work for as many years as possible. However, dogs that have health problems can still be shown and win competitions.
There is little reason why anyone looking for a companion animal should purchase dogs with a sloped-back. They tend to have more health problems, are more expensive, and have lower endurance. They are sub-par in practically every stance, except when it comes to showing them.
Over the past few years, these dogs have been winning many dog shows. Therefore, those who show their dogs have been eager to purchase them. However, many kennel clubs are cracking down on German Shepherds with sloped backs, so this trend will likely change shortly.
Which Breed is Right For You?
We highly recommend choosing a German Shepherd with a straight-back, especially if you’re looking for a companion animal. Those with straight backs are less prone to health problems and have higher endurance. They fit closer to what the German Shepherd originally was intended to be. They make much better working dogs as well since they have higher endurance and are bred for more practical purposes.
Those with sloped-backs have few benefits over the straight-backed GSD. For the most part, these dogs are only around in the show-ring, where they have been known to win some competitions. However, this has led to lots of controversies, as their backs likely led to excess health problems and are not in line with the original breed.
In fact, the breed standard specifically speaks against sloped-back dogs, so it is odd that they are winning competitions at all.
Many kennel clubs are starting to stand against these sloped-back dogs, especially after the extensive media coverage that some of them have gotten. For this reason, we highly recommend sticking with straight-backed dogs on all occasions. In fact, we particularly recommend finding a breeder that produces working dogs, as these will have more practical traits and temperaments.
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