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Are German Shepherds Aggressive Dogs?

Are German Shepherds Aggressive Dogs?

Are German Shepherds aggressive dogs?  This is important to know if you are visiting someone that owns one or if you are thinking of adopting a German Shepherd for yourself. 

German Shepherds can be aggressive, but not all German Shepherds possess this sort of character.  German Shepherds are often bred to fulfill jobs and tasks that require a certain amount of aggression, so it’s best to approach a German Shepherd that you don’t know with caution until you feel more comfortable, or its owner says it’s friendly.

The rest of this article will discuss the aggressiveness of the German Shepherd breed of dogs (or lack thereof).  What you will see is that the temperament of a German Shepherd will usually depend on its owner.

Are German Shepherds Aggressive Dogs?

German Shepherds are a popular breed of dog in large part due to their unique set of traits that are good for use as a utility dog.  Known as one of the premier “working dogs,” Germans are recognized for their high intelligence and willingness to work hard for their owners.  

However, the flip side is that German Shepherds tend to be shy and nervous when they are not engaged in working or learning.  Shy and nervous dogs may come off as aggressive because they tend to bite or attack when they are unsure of something or in a new situation.

Because of this, German Shepherds that are poorly trained or who have owners that do not spend a significant amount of time with their German will be more likely to act aggressively with strangers. 

Another reason that German Shepherds tend to be categorized as aggressive dogs are because of their well-known use by law enforcement departments across the globe.  German Shepherds have been used by police to help catch and subdue criminals as well as to help sniff contraband at airports and other checkpoints.  These dogs are highly trained though—they will almost never attack unless commanded.

Why Can German Shepherds Become Aggressive?

German Shepherds possess special traits that come from the unique way in which they were originally bred.  Bred as protection and scout dogs, the early German Shepherd breeders sought to emphasize strength, intelligence, courage, loyalty, and obedience in these dogs in order to get the best out of them.

What came from this special training objective?  The early German Shepherds were infused with a strong sense of loyalty and willingness to work that is unmatched by most other dog breeds.  This loyalty and a high degree of trainability made them perfect as protection dogs, and since the beginning that was the main task that the majority of trained German Shepherds have been taught to do.

These German Shepherds love the attention and pride they get from being trusted by their owner to perform such an important task like protecting the home and the owner herself.  But this sort of task naturally infuses an aggressive mentality toward strangers.  It doesn’t help that German Shepherds can grow to be big and imposing dogs.

To be sure, German Shepherds are NOT naturally aggressive—no dog is.  German Shepherds merely possess a certain set of character traits that lend to high energy and the potential for nervousness.  Because of this, it’s important to be careful around a German Shepherd that you have never met before, especially if they seem perturbed or are barking at you. 

The worst situation comes from German Shepherds that are not trained well or at all.  Unfortunately, these poor dogs are usually starved for the attention they crave from their owners and end up feeling out of place and annoyed.  An untrained German Shepherd needs an outlet for all that energy with which its ancestors were naturally bred, and sometimes that energy comes out at the wrong times and in the wrong way—an attack. 

According to a study by the American Veterinary Association, German Shepherds are one of the few dog breeds from which the highest prevalence of dog bites occur, alongside the Pitt Bull, the Rottweiler, and the Jack Russell Terrier.  However, with proper socialization and training, a German Shepherd should be able to control its energy so that it does not playoff in a dangerous way. 

The Science Behind It:  Are German Shepherds Aggressive Dogs?

Dogs are born with natural behaviors and traits, including behavioral traits that make them territorial to a certain extent.  For German Shepherds, they may maintain these territorial behaviors almost from birth.  Physically, German Shepherds tend to grow into larger, stronger dogs than most protective breeds.  This could result in a more devastating bite if a German Shepherd becomes too nervous or uncomfortable during a situation with a stranger. 

One 2021 study found that several factors increased the probability of aggressive behavior in certain types of dogs.  The authors of the study collected behavioral data from over 13,000 dogs through an online owner questionnaire.  The results showed that while different breeds exhibited more cases of aggressive behavior other factors like sex, age, fearfulness, body size, and being the owner’s first dog also correlated strongly with aggressive behavior regardless of breed.  

The authors of the 2021 study also discussed the prevalence of the German Shepherd breed among owners as a significant confounder to most aggression studies.  Because Germans Shepherds are such a popular breed, they tend to unfairly weigh the scales in studies that don’t account for this issue, especially where the mere number of attacks or bites is used to measure aggression.  One statistics site has the number of German Shepherds at nearly 10 million, fourth among all dog breeds in 2021. 

What Can You Do to Maintain Safety with A German Shepherd?

There are certain things that you can do to maintain safety when in the presence of a German Shepherd, especially if you haven’t met it before.

  1. Again, while not every German Shepherd is aggressive or dangerous, it is best to assume that the one you have not met before is, and to approach it accordingly with that assumption. 
  2. What if the German Shepherd is a law enforcement dog or other professional service animal?  While these tend to be some of the most highly trained dogs in the world, they can be shy and nervous around strangers that approach them.  These dogs tend to also have signs or patches on them that warn people from petting or approaching them—it is best to stay away from them unless the training officer says otherwise.
  3. Do you know the owner?  If you know that the owner is good to her dogs, and that she is a competent dog handler who takes care of them, then that should make you more at ease when interacting with this German Shepherd.  The first thing German Shepherds need is attention and a task from their owner—this will equate to a more relaxed German which will result in a more friendly encounter.
  4. You can tell if a German Shepherd is nervous by paying attention to a number of different signals that are on display.  For instance, nervous or uncomfortable German Shepherds tend to have their tail between their legs, their mouth is closed, and their ears may be flat or droopy instead of sticking up.  These signs might indicate a German Shepherd that is confused or unsure of a situation, or that desperately needs a new task to concentrate on.  Make sure that task is not protecting its owner from you!
  5. On the flipside, look for German Shepherds that are standing up strong, whose ears are sticking up and whose tail is up—these dogs are in a happy and playful mood.  Just make sure to approach with confidence and with the owner’s permission so that you can avoid any misconstrued advances or problems that might result in a confusing situation for the German Shepherd.  Once the German Shepherd sense everything is alright, they may seek to play with you—if you’re not alright with that, just back away to a safe distance and the dog should leave you alone!
  6. Are you thinking about owning your own German Shepherd?  Above all else it is crucial to show your German Shepherd attention from the very beginning and to make sure that it has special training toys and other tasks to take up its time.  The less time that a German Shepherd spends without a task to do, the more relaxed a German Shepherd will be and the more likely your German will become aggressive toward people it shouldn’t be aggressive toward.
  7. Do not approach a German Shepard (or any other breed for that matter) from behind or when they are eating. This can provoke an attack on you.
  8. Always allow the dog to sniff you first before you physically approach them.

 Final Thoughts

So are German Shepherds aggressive dogs?  They certainly can be.  Make sure that you follow the guidelines in this article to ensure that your next encounter with a German Shepherd is a cuddly one and not a dangerous one.