German Shepherds are widely sought after for their versatility. They’ve received Medals of Honor for noble service in the military, they’re award-winning show dogs, excellent herding dogs, and make great family pets. There are few breeds that can compete with this level of diversity. That said, there’s an important distinction to be make between two GSD genetic breeding-lines– the show line, and the working line.
Depending on which line you choose, you will see differences in the dogs temperament, physicality, and the demands that fall on you, as an owner. Understanding this distinction will help prevent frustrations should your GSD fail to meet your expectations.
German Shepherds were initially developed to be an all-around working dog. The traits bred in this genetic line gave them the ability to perform physically demanding, even dangerous jobs. The show line was bred in response to owners who couldn’t keep up with their needs. As a result, a physically appealing, less demanding, and family-friendly dog was created.
This article will outline the differences between show line and working line German Shepherds, so you can make an informed decision about which one is right for you.
What’s a Breed Line?
If you’re new to having a dog or to the German Shepherd breed, it can be confusing when people mention these different “lines”.
A breed line refers to genetic breeding for the purpose of cementing a specific look, utility, and temperament in future dog litters. This line-breed becomes a breed standard for future breeders who want to maintain the integrity of these characteristics.
The working line German Shepherd has a breed standard for work, while the show line has breed standards meant for show— specifically, winning dog shows. Don’t worry, there’s more to the show line than just looks!
There are 3 main breeding lines most breeders work with today:
- German working line
- American show line
- German show line
Differences Between the Show Line and Working Line
The working line was the original breeding standard for GSDs. Its origins date back to 1899 when ex cavalary officer, Max von Stephanitz, was on a mission to create the all-around perfect working dog. He wanted to breed a dog with the genetic make-up that would perform well in both physically demanding and dangerous work, while also being extremely intelligent, obedient, and loyal to its master. Placing an emphasis on these qualities, von Stephanitz was successful in breeding the versatile German Shepherd as we know it today. This dog could switch from herding duties on a farm, to being an efficient police and military dog.
In this time, von Stephanitz founded the German Shepherd Society and developed a strict guideline for future breeders so they maintain integrity of the breed and avoid defects.
Working Line German Shepherds were bred to work for you. They have a drive to serve you, which means they need lots and lots of mental and physical stimulation. In the 21st century, this could be as a service dog, herding dog, for search and rescue, police, or military work.
This doesn’t mean the average person can’t handle a working line. You can still “work” your GSD through obedience training, by giving it regular commands, sports like agility training and Frisbee, or games such as hide and seek.
Show Line German Shepherds were initially bred to reduce the intensity and demands of the working line GSD. The average owner simply couldn’t keep up. as a result, breeders started a breeding program that developed over time. As such, they created a more family-friendly and calm dog that also had a perfect “look” to be dog show winners.
German Shepherd Personality Traits
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Working line German Shepherds have a greater prey drive. They tend to be more aggressive and reactive to fast-moving people or animals, and attack with their mouth rather than paws. They should be closely watched if there are running children, cyclists or joggers around. Early socialization and obedience training tempers this. Additionally, the working line has a very high pain tolerance. This makes them efficient police dogs, especially if a resisting person is fighting back.
Working line GSDs have more energy and require at least 2-3 hours of hard exercise a day (this can be split up throughout the day). If they are under-stimulated or bored, they will become antsy, restless or, “on high alert”. This could play out in a number of ways. For instance, if your dog hasn’t been given any work or stimulation, it may watch you intently then react almost instantly every time you get up from your seat. Other times you may experience destructive behavior or constantly barking.
Show line German Shepherds have less intensity than the working line. They have less energy, and their drive to work is generally lower. This breed-line is very balanced– it is easier to live with, friendly, calm and loyal, thus making it a great family pet with children of all ages. If you are raising your GSD with children, early socialization and obedience training is especially important.
Basically, the show line is just a less intense and less work-driven version of the working line. Otherwise, the personality traits are generally the same.
Physical Differences and Health Issues
The working line German Shepherd is physically smaller and leaner than the show line, with a thinner snout, and a fur coat that is short, more coarse, and varies in color. Their back is straight and leads into their hindquarters (hips and back legs) that are balanced with their front quarters. Although they lack the attractive physical attributes of the show line, they are more functional and efficiently moving dogs, with lots of stamina and agility.
The show line German Shepherd, shown below, is physically larger, with a broad head, and a long thick coat. Unlike the working line, their back is sloped, and leads into their powerful hindquarters that are noticeably angled. Due to their slopes back, their hips and hindquarters sit closer to the ground.
The biggest difference between the two breeds is the shape of their back and hindquarters. The working line German Shepherd was “fine-tuned” to take on characteristics that could handle demanding work. This required a level back. Many show line enthusiasts and breeders will argue that the sloped back looks perfect– and is an important attribute to their award-winning physique in dog shows. Others will tell you the sloped back and angled hind legs give them more a more powerful gait. The problem however, is excessive breeding. Years of non-conforming to the show line standard has resulted in sloped backs becoming extremely sloped.
This has a direct impact on health issues that German Shepherds and other large dogs are already prone to, such as hip dysplasia, joint and cartilage distress, and osteoarthritis. These diseases are more pronounced in the show line and tend to have early onset (as early as 2 years old), with conditions ranging from mild to crippling– hence the short lifespans.
While the diseases themselves are not fatal, they cause major mobility issues that heavily affect their quality of their life. As a result, owners are led to euthanize their dogs to spare them from their pain and suffering. – Breed Information Blog, Opendoghouse
*the working line German Shepherd is on the left, and the show line, on the right.
Before getting your own German Shepherd, it is recommended that you do lots of research to find a reputable breeder. A reputable breeder is one who maintains quality breed standards and cares about preserving the long term health of their litters.
Quick Note: American show line dogs tend to have very slopes backs with extremely angled back legs. We recommend looking for German show line breeders who’s breeding practices include German dogs, and have a more functional structure with a less sloped back.
Ultimately, choosing between the show line and working line German Shepherd depends entirely on how you intend to live with your dog. Consider your lifestyle, level of commitment, family environment, your work schedule, and your level of activity. Whether you choose one or the other is up to you, we just remind you again to always research your breeder and consider your pups quality of life!