German Shepherds are famous for working with police. We’ve seen German Shepherds on TV and in movies, chasing bad guys and tracking criminals. And it’s not uncommon to see K-9 units in airports or at events, sniffing for drugs or explosives, or keeping an eye on things.

But what, exactly, makes the German Shepherd ideal for police work? Why are they used more often in K-9 units than other dog breeds?

From the German Shepherd’s temperament to its strength and stamina, the GSD (German Shepherd Dog) makes an excellent working dog. German Shepherds are calm-under-pressure, they’re highly intelligent and trainable, and they love to work. This makes the breed well-suited for working in high-stress situations, and it’s no surprise they’ve been used in police work for more than 100 years.  

History of German Shepherds in Police Work

German Shepherds have a long history in K-9 work. In fact, Shepherds were initially bred in the early 1900s to be a working dog, including for police and military service. Breeder Max von Stephanitz, a German Army veteran, began selectively breeding GSDs for key traits, including intelligence, loyalty, and persistence.

As such, German Shepherds were ideal candidates for police and military work.

In the 1910s, Stephanitz approached German police departments to see if they’d be interested in using the dogs for work, and many began testing the breed for tactic work, protection, and tracking. These initial tests were a huge success, and into the 1920s and 1930s, German Shepherds became widely used in military and police work in Europe and around the world.

During World War I, German Shepherds were commonly used in the field. Thanks to their intelligence and obedience, GSDs could quickly be trained to perform some battlefield tasks. As such, GSDs became messengers, Red Cross dogs, and ammunition carriers during the war. In fact, Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd brought home from the war, who was later trained to appear in silent films (and became one of the most famous police dogs on TV).

German Shepherds and Police Work

German Shepherds were naturally bred to work. German Shepherds are typically intelligent (one of the world’s most smart breeds), they quick to train, obedient and loyal, athletic and healthy, and even-tempered.

All of these traits make German Shepherd’s ideal candidates for police work. Here are a few key characteristics:

  • GSDs are extremely loyal to their handlers and always want to please them. That’s why they look to their owners for cues about what to do in stressful situations.
  • German Shepherds love to work and have a job to complete. They’re also driven to finish a job – and won’t stop until their handlers tell them the job is done.
  • Shepherds are one of the most intelligent dog breeds in the world. Therefore, they can be trained to perform highly complex tasks, like drug or explosive sniffing, tracking and detection.
  • GSDs are bred to “keep their head,” even in high-stress, chaotic situations. Even in the bustle of an active crime scene or in pursuit of a criminal, German Shepherds follow their handler’s commands.
  • Shepherds are natural protectors and are committed to protecting their “pack,” e.g., their handlers. K-9 dogs commonly are the first to act, when a criminal becomes aggressive.
  • German Shepherds are strong, athletic, and have an abundance of energy. They’re fast, able to take down criminals, and they’re happy to work for long periods of time.

In short, German Shepherds are prized for their intelligence, obedience, and temperaments. And that makes these great as working dogs. They’re widely used in police work, but also as service animals, for farm work, or in competition.