Care and Feeding
You can find all kinds of good written and visual information and tips on the Internet about caring for your German Shepherd. The members of the Diablo Valley German Shepherd Dog Club offer their thoughts on the subject based on their collective decades of experience with German Shepherds. We know how smart, sly, cunning and strong they are, even resorting to becoming drama divas to make their unhappiness known, so we hope these tips will make your GSD's care and feeding pleasurable for both of you.
German Shepherd dogs are clean by design and temperament. While they shed, all the time and sometimes heavily, you’ll soon notice that mud and dirt seem to disappear from their coats. Few of them delight in rolling in mud holes as other breeds may and, in fact, many will go out of their way to avoid puddles. You will, however, learn that regular grooming improves their appearance and staves off minor injuries to or diseases of the skin, ears, and feet.
One of the most recognizable and popular dogs, the German Shepherd has the double coat typical of many herding dogs. The outer coat, or guard hair, is dense, coarse, and straight or slightly wavy. The hair is shorter on the face, legs and paws than it is on the neck, body and tail. For some German Shepherds, commonly called “coats,” the outer hair is longer all over the face, legs and body. This outer hair repels moisture as you will notice every time you bathe your dog. The undercoat, by contrast, is denser, and soft and wooly. When your dog goes into heavy shedding, or “blowing coat,” in spring and fall, you will see tufts of the undercoat poking out of its coat.
Brushing your German Shepherd weekly will keep its coat healthy, and reduce the furballs and clumps of hair decorating your floors and carpets. Because your German Shepherd naturally repels dirt, bathe it infrequently, no more than once every couple of months. If your dog competes in conformation, you will bathe it before each show. In that case, check with the breeder or handler about the best shampoos and conditioners to use to keep the coat and skin from drying out.
What You’ll Need – Brushing
Natural bristle brush
As big and strong as German Shepherds are, many have sensitive skin and can be touchy about grooming. For maintenance grooming, use a natural thistle brush for the head, legs and feet. Use a pin brush for the body and tail. Because the neck and scruff hair is so thick, use a metal rake designed for double-coated dogs; however, be careful not to rake so aggressively that you irritate the skin.
When you see tufts or clumps of undercoat coming out, you will know that heavy shedding has begun. For the most part, your metal rake will loosen and remove clumps and mats. For large or tough mats, use a metal comb. Work your way from the outside of the matted hair toward the body rather than pulling it all out at once from near the skin. A shedding rake, just like those used on horses, works well on the body to loosen and remove the outer coat.
What You’ll Need – Bathing
A bathing area
Lots of running water
Comb or shedding rake
German Shepherd skin is dry, not oily, so bathe yours infrequently, not more than once every few months. Your dog will feel more comfortable if you can walk it into a bath, giving it a chance to ease in to the experience. Most will fidget and attempt to escape during the bath, helped out by being soapy and slippery. Securing your dog with a collar and leash tied to a sturdy tie-down restricts its movement, and leaves both of your hands free for shampooing and rinsing. Also, if you bathe your dog in a bathtub or shower, put a rubber mat or industrial type rug down to give your dog more solid footing, and to protect the surface from scratches or gouges.
Ask your breeder, vet or pet store to recommend a shampoo that is right for your dog. If you use a dishwashing detergent (club members often use Dawn®), dilute it by as much as half with water; it will clean just as well and be much easier to rinse out. As you do for yourself, keep soap and water out of your dog’s eyes and ears. After shampooing, rinse and rinse some more. The double coat, especially around the neck, chest and rear, hangs on to the shampoo. You want water from every part of your dog to run clear and without suds.
Your dog will shake and you, and the whole bathing area, will get wet. That shaking alone (whether or not you got a towel on or near the dog beforehand) will help but you need to towel your dog as dry as you can using two or three towels. After that, use a slicker brush and your hands to fluff the coat to allow air to circulate and dry the hair. If you use a human blow dryer, only use the low heat setting. Dog dryers are much more powerful, blowing moisture out of the coat (and, again all over you and the drying area).
What You’ll Need – Nail Trimming
Dog nail trimmer
Rotary grinding tool with sander band (i.e., Dremel®)
Keeping your German Shepherd’s nails short preserves its powerful movement and protects its structure. Nails that are too long risk breaking or worse – getting caught on something and damaging your dog’s toes. If you’ve never trimmed a dog’s nails, ask your breeder, vet or a groomer to demonstrate and teach you how it is done. Many dogs object strenuously to having their nails trimmed which makes their people anxious and, therefore, it can be an unhappy experience all around. Handling the dog’s feet and nails from the beginning (whether puppyhood or once adopted) helps. You need to approach the trimming calmly and with patience, taking it slowly and rewarding even small successes with treats. No matter how tempting it is to give up, don’t. Never, ever lose this argument with a German Shepherd. They will remember it and repeat the behavior, expecting the same outcome and, if that doesn’t happen, act out even more.
When you hear your dog’s nails clicking on a hard floor, that’s the time to trim. The nail tips will grind themselves down to some degree if your dog spends a lot of time on abrasive surfaces like asphalt or cement. Also, the nails on your dog’s back feet are usually shorter so will need less trimming.
You and your dog will find the most comfortable situation and equipment for you. Some club members have their dogs stand on benches or tables, others have them lay down and sit on the floor with the dog. Some trim with the paw extended, some fold the foot to trim with the paw facing up. The two choices of equipment are clippers and grinding tools, with clippers coming in several varieties, the guillotine type being the easiest to use.
Whichever situation or equipment is best for you and your dog, the objective is the same: get as close as possible to the quick of the nail, its blood supply source (like the bed of your own fingernail) without cutting into it. If you do nick the quick, expect a vocal and physical reaction from your dog and blood, an alarming amount of blood. Apply the blood-clotting styptic powder and reassure your dog that it will survive. Most advise that you finish trimming the nails, giving lots of treats for each nail, so your dog’s last memory of nail trimming is not what it considers to be a life-threatening experience.
What You’ll Need – Ear Cleaning
Ear cleaning solution
Cotton balls or pads, or a soft cotton cloth
Who can mistake those delta-shaped erect ears of the German Shepherd dog? Owners are fortunate to not have to contend with the many problems associated with the droopy-eared breeds but ear care is a good part of your grooming routine. Use commercially available ear cleaning solutions applied to cotton balls, pads, or a cloth to gently remove any visible dirt or waxy substance from the visible surfaces inside the dog’s ear. As you do with yourself, do not push any foreign objects down into the ear canal. Check to see if the solution you’re using is safe to be squirted into the ear canal (which your dog will protest) or kept only on the upper parts of the ear.
Your dog may make any ear discomfort known to you by excessive head shaking or scratching. That, and any touch sensitivity, discharges or strong odors, swelling or redness, blood blisters or lumps are signs that you need to take your dog to the vet. Using a cleaning solution when any of these signs are present will be painful for your dog.
What You’ll Need – Dental Care
Dog tooth “paste”
Your dog’s dental health is as important to its well-being as your teeth and gums are to yours. Some dogs naturally produce more plaque than others but all need attention to keep their teeth shiny and white.
No matter what you feed your dog, plaque will form. It is the same stuff your dentist removes during your periodic cleanings. Unlike us, however, most dental cleanings on dogs require that your German Shepherd be anesthetized. Incorporating teeth cleaning into your routine care of your dog helps prevent a costly trip to the vet.
Pet stores sell various types of canine toothbrushes and pastes. The brushes can be like human brushes with a handle or have ridges or brushes incorporated on a sleeve that fits over your finger. The toothpastes can be pasty or gels, frequently flavored with tastes that dogs enjoy, like liver. As is the case with nail trimming, you and your German Shepherd will find the products and techniques that work best for you.
Also not unlike nail care, a tooth brushing takes a slow, patient approach. Start with letting your dog taste a bit of the paste on your finger. Gradually work your way to putting some paste, still on your finger, on the dog’s front teeth; move to the canines and so on.
Club members have success positioning their German Shepherds so they are sitting with their backs in a corner between their legs as the human stands in the corner facing out. You don’t want your dog to feel trapped but, at the same time, you need to restrict its motion. This position also allows you to use both hands; one to brush the teeth and the other to lift your dog’s lips to get at the back teeth. As with other dog care activities, reward successes with treats.
Dogs like to chew and German Shepherds are certainly no exception. For dental care, augment the piles of cute squeak toys and balls littering your living room with good chew toys. Our members strongly recommend AGAINST rawhide and similar chews having found that they present a choking hazard and can result in intestinal distress.
By contrast, bully sticks or pizzles are fully digestible. Braided ropes you see at pet stores are not only excellent chew toys, they present the opportunity to play a good game of tug with your dog. Your German Shepherd also will find its own chew toys, like sticks.
What You’ll Need – Feeding
High-quality dog food
High-value training treats
Wrapping up the Diablo Valley German Shepherd Dog Club’s advice on caring for your German Shepherd, we approach the issue of feeding with special consideration. Our members swear by everything along the canine feeding spectrum from raw to highly processed wet food with strong opinions about the nutritional value of each diet. In this section, therefore, we present only general guidelines.
First, start by feeding your puppy or dog what it ate before it came to you. The breeder or rescue organization are excellent resources for what to feed your German Shepherd. If you decide to change your dog’s diet, do so gradually. Replace parts of its meal with the new food and, over days or a week, increase the amount of new food until it makes up the whole meal. Follow this approach whenever you change your dog’s food to prevent intestinal distress.
Second, know what you are feeding your dog. When you read the ingredients list on a dog food bag or can, the first three to five ingredients represent most of what the food contains. You want to see those first ingredients being protein sources instead of fillers such as plant meal. Don’t be fooled by marketing directed at your sensibilities over your dog’s health. You and your dog have different nutritional needs. If, because of allergies diagnosed by your vet, your dog needs to be gluten-free, then, by all means, follow that prescription. Don’t pay more for dog food to satisfy the latest human diet craze.
Third, most of our members feed two measured portions a day, morning and evening. Carrying excessive weight, even as much as no longer being able to see your dog’s “waist” stresses its whole system and, in particular, its joints.
Lastly, we tend not to allow our German Shepherds to engage in heavy, active play before or after their meals. The breed’s deep and long body makes it particularly susceptible to bloat and torsion – twisting of their guts – that, if not treated by a vet within a few hours, are life-threatening.
Scary stuff aside, you’ll know that your German Shepherd is thriving on its diet when you pick up solid stools and admire its glossy coat.