What do German Shepherd Dog judges look for when judging the breed?

By Dennis Fisher.

As someone who has a been a specialist German shepherd Dog for many years, this is a question I have been asked many times – especially  by  people who have only recently become interested in the breed.

What I have always found quite amusing is that they often hope to receive a very short answer of no more than ten sentences!   The hope to become instant experts.

It is possible to give a brief answer that covers the main features of the breed.   But in order to provide useful information for people, seriously interested in the breed, who would like to buy a show quality German Shepherd and compete in Shows, it will be necessary to go into much greater detail.

Although there is some variation in the methods used by different German Shepherd Judges, especially in different parts of the world, generally speaking most Judges adopt a very similar approach.

Because the German Shepherd Dog is a working dog, as soon as the dogs enter the ring the Judges look for dogs that are well-balanced, with good proportions in front and rear, and athletic looking animals that give the impression they can run tirelessly with effort the entire day.

Ever since the  first German Shepherd Dog was  bred  by  von Stephanitz in Germany and registered in 1899, the emphasis has always been on it’s working abilities.  Because of this, the structure of the dog has been designed to provide the maximum efficiency of movement.  The breed  standard makes it clear that the front angulation and the rear angulation must conform to certain laid down principles.

Novices  are sometimes confused with the detailed description in the written standard of what constitutes correct angulation.  Angulation simply means the relationship different bones have to one another.  There is a sound, logical reason why this definite relationship has been established.  It is because – from a purely mechanical point of view – this will provide the maximum efficiency in movement.

Even before the dogs are required to move at any speed and gait, the experienced German Shepherd Dog Judges can look at the dog while walking and immediately see whether the front and rear angulation conform as near as possible to the written standard.

This is something that comes with experience, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend years studying the structure of a German Shepherd to be able to form a reasonably accurate picture of what a good show specimen should look like.

All you have to do is make a point of studying the numerous videos that are available on the internet and on you tube to see  what a beautiful picture the top winning dog present when gaiting.

The dogs move with an easy, balanced, seemingly effortless gait.  They seem to float along without effort.   Also examine the videos of the dogs that were not as highly placed and it will soon become evident to you why they were not as well placed as the top winning dogs.    You will see that there is not as much co- ordination between the front stride and the rear thrust.

The dogs that are not  as well placed as the top dogs are not as well balanced.  They may have excellent rear thrust – which in effect means they often  maximum use of their hind quarters, their stifles  and their hocks – but fail to reach forward proportionately with their front legs.

The reason for this is usually because they lack the correct front angulation to accomplish this. Very often the upper arm is short and not angled as correctly as it should be.

This emphasizes the reason why certain definite angles have been written into the standard. It is simply a matter of mechanics.  The German Shepherd Dog standard is quite unique in this respect.

Other breeds - almost without exception – have been bred to conform to the personal aesthetic requirements laid down by individuals who started the breed. The Standard reflects their  personal interpretation of what constitute “beauty”. 

 The standard of the German Shepherd Dog however, is based, to a very large extent on the concept of “utility” and usefulness for the purpose for which the breed was designed.

Because of this, when Judges are presented with a large number of dogs as they enter the Show ring, the most important feature they look for is for balanced proportions.

Even before the dogs are required to start moving and gaiting in the ring, the judges will take a quick glance over all the dogs and immediately form an opinion of their proportions.

Can a dog show be compared in any way to Miss Universe or a Mr. Universe contest? 
This  may appear to be a ridiculous comparison.  But there are certain similarities. 
Even though there are going to be huge variations in the opinions of the Judges in  a human contest, because of individual preferences and because there is no such things as written  standards, the question of balance, proportions and symmetry are also  bound to play an important role.

To take an  exaggeratedly simple example, in  a Mr. Universe contest, if the contestant’s legs are  clearly not as well-developed as the rest of his body, the balance and the symmetry are  not going to be as visually attractive and appealing as those of a well-proportioned, well-balanced, symmetrical contestant.

This applies equally to a Miss Universe Contest.

In any athletic contest it is relatively easy to see the contestant  whose body construction is the most balanced and symmetrical.  Quite often – but not necessarily on every occasion – the winner appears to be better balanced than the rest of the field.

 With humans the question of will-power, determination, competitive instinct and mental factors such as these play an enormous role.  One often sees a person who appears to be poorly developed physically  compared with other contests, win an event because of sheer determination and “guts”.   Obviously  this is not a factor in the German Shepherd Dog show!

Because the judges is  look at the appearance of the dog, rather than it’s ability to win  race or athletic events, they make an assessment of dog’s balanced proportions.

What are balanced proportions in a German Shepherd Dog? 

 As mentioned above, there must be a harmony and balance between the front angulation and the hind angulation – as laid down by the standard.

There is a sound practical, mechanical reasons for this – not merely based on individual interpretations of aesthetic, but on mechanical considerations.

If the front angulation and the rear angulation of the dog approximates the written standard as nearly as possible., the animals is SHOULD be able to move with the maximum efficiency – with the greatest economy of movement.

The word SHOULD has been highlighted for a reason.  Theoretically the well-balanced dog that presents a beautiful well-balanced picture when standing, should be able to move  easily and effortless.  But this is not always the case.

  Very often once the dog starts to move and gait - as is required by the Judge – a softness in back becomes obvious; or the hocks are very loose, and as a result of loose ligaments, or there is insufficient front reach and lack of rear thrust  because of  weakness of ligaments; or simply lack of condition.

All  specialist German Shepherd Dog Judges – no matter in which part of the world they  are judging -  regard movement as the most important aspect in their judging.  The dog that is correctly constructed from the point of view of angulation, that also moves with the greatest fluidity and balance, is going to be placed over others that do not able to move as well.

This is the general principles and this is the easiest feature for the novice to recognize. It is comparatively simple for even the novice to recognize a really top quality show specimen.

The dog will stand out and will quite clearly better balanced that most of the others in the class.

Anyone who has ever attended an important German Shepherd Dog will be aware of this.

As an example, at the annual German National Show for Shepherds, the annual Sieger Show in 2008 and 2009, one dog Vegas du Haut Mansard,  was co clearly superior in movement to the others in the Open classes he was the obvious choice as Grand Champion – the Sieger.

It’s relatively easy, even for the novice, to recognize an almost faultless dog.  Where the difficulty arises is in the judging of dogs that have faults – which all dogs have – even “Vegas”!

This is where there is a variation in the opinions of even the most experienced judges.  This is where there are fairly wide differences in opinions, based on individual emphasis on different features.

Even though the standard lists faults very clearly; and some faults are so serious they are regarded as disqualifying faults, there are such a wide range of minor faults, there is no established ways  of weighting the importance  these faults.

These faults can range of faults such as slightly loose elbows, when  the dog is viewed coming towards you; to slight looseness of hocks when the dogs moves away;  slight softness of pasterns, ear carriage  that is good but not 100% perfect, a croup that is slightly steep; a shoulder that is fairly well-angulated with an upper-arm that could be a little longer and not as perfect as one wish; an eye that is not quite as  dark as it should be.

The Judge is called upon, not only to notice these faults, but also to make an individual assessment of how important these minor faults are in comparison with the minor faults of other dogs in the class.

I can recall quite clearly an incident that happened to me many years ago, where  my judging was somewhat  different to that  of three experienced German judges.  The reason for this was because my assessment of the fault shown by dog that I judged was different to theirs.

The incident happened, some years ago, when I was the only non-German invited to a judge a series of four Shows that took place over a long week-end.  Three of the others Judges were well-known, highly regarded experienced German judges who judged the first three Shows.

In the open bitch class that I judged there was a very beautiful, well-balanced top quality bitch that immediately took my eye. Although she was somewhat over-angulated with a very long stifle, she was quite clearly an excellent animal.

In side gait she was outstanding, with very good forward reach and excellent hind thrust.  But when I moved the animals away from me I noticed the hocks were so loose, they actually crossed over.  They bumped into one another.

My  marshalling steward, who happened to be an all-breed judge, was in the ring with me while I judged.  I was very amused at the comment he made as the animal was asked to move way from me. “Goodness”, he remarked, “If her hocks were flints  she would catch alight!

I was aware that the three German judges, who had judged the bitch on previous days, had placed her first.  In fact the owner of the bitch made a point of telling me this before judging began.  But in all honesty I couldn’t bring myself to overlook what I considered was  a serious fault, and I placed her fourth.

In my opinion, if utility and working ability was to be an important fact in judging, a bitch who moved in this way would tire easily and could not  be expected to continue  working with the maximum degree of efficiency

The German Judges obviously, did not regard the fault as seriously as I had and paid more attention to her excellent qualities.

The breeder and owner  was obviously very unhappy with my decisions: But years later I felt I was vindicated. Almost every one of this bitch’s progeny exhibited this same serious fault.

Although there are general principles  which all specialist German Shepherd Dogs will adhere to, there are bound to be instances where personal preferences are going to play  a part. Especially when it comes to the assessment of faults.

Obviously, the assessment of faults should not be a top priority in the judging process, and one should not place undue importance to this aspect,  but they are factors that should not be ignored.

The questions of a dog’s condition is also an important aspect of judging.  In many instances an animal that is clearly of absolute top quality does not do as well as expected because towards the end of the extended gaiting the animal flagged and did not display the enthusiasm and drive one would like to see.

This is an aspect of Judging that a number of judged frequently make use of  when they are unsure how to place animals.   They insist on continuous gaiting until one anima displays  less enthusiasm than the others and this justifies their decision.

One final point with regard to Judging the German Shepherd.

 Although it is of the greatest importance to  know every feature of the standard, there is nothing that can replace the  experienced Judge’s ability to use his or her “eye” to assess the quality of the animal  This is something that can only come with experience.

The Standard is open to  a wide range of different interpretations.  If one has to read the written standard that was accepted as the official standard of the German Shepherd Dog many years ago, and compare the written standard as it appears to day, one will notice very little changes.  

But if one has to make a point of looking at the top quality winning dogs today and compare them with the top winning dogs of say twenty or thirty  years ago, the difference is striking.


As an exercise make a point of looking at photographs of the German Siegers of recent years, and compare them with photographs of the German Siegers of twenty and thirty years ago,.  The difference is striking.   This is made even more remarkable  when one consider that the written standard was virtually the same as it is today.  There have been very few significant changes.

Obviously it is not the Standard itself that is important, it is the INTERPRETATION OF THE STANDARD.

If you visit my website – http://www.allaboutgermanshepherddogs.com - you’ll find photographs of all the Siegers in recent years and  also photographs of past Siegers, going back to the early years when the breed began.

Make a point of having a look at these photographs. You’ll be amazed at the differences. You’ll find it an interesting and  illuminating experience.