Should I Adopt a German Shepherd From a Shelter or Buy One From a Breeder?


Congratulations, it’s likely that you’re reading this article because you are considering a German Shepherd as your first (or next) dog. But, you still have one question that many people ask.

Should you adopt from a shelter or buy from a breeder? There are pros and cons to adopting a German Shepherd from a shelter as well as purchasing one from a breeder. Adopting is the best choice if you are looking for just a pet, while buying from a breeder is a better option if you are wanting to train your dog for a specific function, such as a dog sport or for protection.

Where to begin?

So you’ve already taken the first step, you have decided that you want to get a German Shepherd. But before you move forward with getting a GSD, make sure that you clearly understand some tendencies and needs particular to GSDs.

Here is a great article that describes the points below in greater detail. But for now, just make sure that you generally understand all of these things about GSDs:

  1. They require a lot of exercise: Much more than your typical dog. Not stepping out here and there, long walks are required.
  2. They require a lot of mental stimulation: Smart dogs get bored easily. GSDs are one of the smartest.
  3. They shed…a lot: More than you may think. Everything you own will have dog hair on it.
  4. Caring for a GSD is not cheap: Large amount of food, vet bills, and general accessories add up. Not a budget-friendly dog.
  5. They need to be well socialized: This means that it cannot be just you and your dog. They must mingle with people and animals, no exceptions.
  6. They are susceptible to health problems: GSDs are at a higher than average risk for some serious health issues:
  7. Puppies love to bite: This means that they love to bite everything. Some of your favorite things will have puppy teeth marks in them – brand new or antique, your puppy can’t tell the difference and won’t care.
  8. They need space: GSDs cannot be cooped up. Ideally, a large yard is recommended.
  9. They need your time: From obedience training to socialization to general play, your spare time will no longer be yours 
  10. They need their aggression kept in check: Consistent training of puppies is needed to teach them to properly control their instinctive emotions.
  11. They don’t play nice: GSDs’ idea of play is different than some other dogs. They don’t mind roughhousing, and in fact, they love it. 

Alright, so now you have taken the time to educate yourself about what it really means to own a German Shepherd. You are familiar with the time it takes, the money it will cost, the sacrifices you will have to make, and you’ve learned as much as you can about the breed as possible.

I stress this point because the goal in getting a GSD is to keep the dog for the entirety of its life and to provide for it a happy and healthy home.

So please do not base your decision to get a GSD on what you think a GSD is like.

GSDs are portrayed on television as heroic and charming dogs. And that they most certainly are. But they are not just born that way, they have to be raised properly and shaped into your ideal dog.

They all have the potential, and they want to be your ideal dog. GSDs live for protecting and satisfying their owners. But it’s your responsibility to help them realize that potential.

Now let’s examine the pros and cons of adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue.

Pros of adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue

They are driven to look at you and interact with you.

This has actually been studied and the findings published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The study found that because shelter dogs have been deprived of human contact, they “seem to be more socially driven to gaze and interact with humans“.

The study also states that shelter dogs “may have learned not to respond to human cues that are not useful to them or have lost some previously acquired skills due to a lack of exposure to humans” 

So what the Journal is essentially saying is that shelter dogs are “street smart.” They know what works and what doesn’t because of their prior experiences in life.

This may require more work on your part to understand the dog’s mentality, as opposed to shaping it yourself. But you will be getting a dog that is already wise to many things that you may otherwise need to teach one that came from a breeder.

You will be saving a life.

There is no disputing this point. According to the ASPCA, approximately 670,000 dogs that are prime for adoption are euthanized each year. While there are shelters with no-kill policies in place, this does not mean that they take every dog that comes their way.

What this does actually mean is that if someone wants a no-kill shelter to take their dog, the shelter may turn it away and the dog is likely to end up in a traditional shelter that euthanizes, or it may be shuffled from one foster home to the next.

And no-kill shelters do in fact turn many dogs away, most often because they simply do not have adequate means or the space to house and care for them.

Some no-kill shelters do not turn animals away, but this practice is not as ethical as it sounds. Turning no dogs away often leads to overcrowded and deplorable living conditions for them. 

When you choose to get a dog from a shelter or rescue, you are removing it from a population with an almost certain grim future. If it’s not ultimately euthanized, it may spend its life being moved from one unfamiliar place to another, providing it with little emotional stability.

Shelters are less expensive than breeders.

Generally speaking, the cost of a puppy from a breeder will be between $800-$2,000. Initial vaccinations will be included in this cost.

However, shelters and rescue groups also cover these costs, as well as spaying or neutering, and they often also cover a wellness exam from the veterinarian. 

While the cost of adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue varies, most will charge well under $300. Some may even be completely free. So the money you’ll save by adopting a dog can be substantial.

In this post, you’ll find a more detailed summary of the costs associated with getting a GSD from a breeder.

You will be saying “no” to puppy mills.

Puppy mills are largely responsible for the overpopulation and euthanization of dogs. They are unequivocally bad. And I do not use that word lightly, they are very bad.

Puppy mills run on only one principle, and that principle is profit. The well-being of the dogs they produce does not even rank a close second place.

The conditions in puppy mills are cruel and unspeakable. They do not provide proper medical care, and it’s very common for the dogs that come out of them to be very ill and have significant behavioral problems.

The dogs have little to no human interaction. The mothers are kept in cages and their one job is to produce puppies. Once a female can no longer produce puppies, it is worthless to the puppy mill. She will then most likely be euthanized, abandoned, or sold off.

When you walk into a mainstream pet store that sells puppies, while they may look happy and cute, you are not exposed to what is actually happening behind the scenes.

Make no mistake, more often than not the puppies in these large stores come from puppy mills. A large corporate interest is highly unlikely to take the time and effort to forge working relationships with local breeders.

And even if a large pet store did make an attempt to do so, it’s unlikely that any reputable breeder would allow their puppies to be displayed in cages as items for sale.

By adopting a dog,  you are avoiding putting cash in the pockets of puppy mills and allowing them to continue.

You are helping save another animal’s life other than your dog’s.

One of the biggest problems occurring throughout many shelters is overpopulation. This forces shelters to either turn dogs away or to euthanize them.

When you adopt a dog from a shelter, you create space for it to take in another dog. So, practically speaking, when you adopt, you are saving one dog and giving another dog a second chance at life. Good karma.

You are changing a dog’s life.

Yes, adopting a dog saves money, fights puppy mills, makes room for other dogs in the shelter, amongst a host of many other very positive things. But let’s not forget one of the most important things.

The dog you rescue will have most likely come to a shelter because it has been abandoned or neglected. One way or the other, it was no longer wanted.

Then while at the shelter it lived in a cage, confused and uncertain of its future. And now you come along, and you turn its world upside down in the best way.

The happiness that you give to the dog you rescue goes both ways. So this is one unquantifiable benefit to adopting a dog from a shelter. You cannot put a price tag on it.

Shelter dogs are already house-trained.

Another benefit of adopting a dog from a shelter is that often times it will already be house-trained by its previous owner. This can be a huge time saver, and will also save you money on cleaning products, not to mention avoiding the unexpected “surprises” and the unpleasant smells.

You can “return” a dog to a shelter.

In the unfortunate circumstance that the dog you adopt from a shelter does not work out, any reputable shelter will allow you to return it and won’t ban you from adopting from there again.

The shelter will understand that you had limited information about the particular dog that you adopted, and that unanticipated problems sometimes arise.

You should certainly make several visits to a shelter to visit the dog you’re hoping to adopt before commit to see if it is right for you, but there is no substitute for actually living with your dog.

So when you get home and spend some time with your dog, you may find that because of some unforeseen tendency or conflict with another pet, that the dog will not work out in your life.

Do not panic if this happens, just be communicative with your shelter and they should understand.

Does getting a puppy from a breeder make more sense than adopting an adult?

You may thank that getting a puppy from a breeder makes more sense than adopting an adult dog. After all, you can shape a puppy’s habits and watch over it as it learns. You are able to train it how you choose and therefore you may think that this will make for a better tempered and well-behaved dog in the long run.

And these things can very likely come true. If you do take the time and effort to raise your puppy right, the odds are that it will be a well-behaved dog.

However, it’s important to remember that dogs, just like people, are all individuals. They all have their quirks and triggers. Some dogs may be more prone to aggression, while others may be more prone to anxiety.

And as stated by the Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue, “purebred is not the same as well-bred.” So understand that there is an inherent risk no matter where you get your puppy from.

On the other hand, if you choose to adopt an adult dog, you already know in large part what you’re getting. The dog will have a track record and any negative tendencies will likely have already surfaced by this time in its life.

A responsible shelter will be able to tell you if the dog is good around children, whether it tends to run away, whether it there’s a hazard of a biting, and so forth.

What is the downside of adopting a dog?

If you choose to adopt a German Shepherd, then there are some realities that you will need to look at and weigh the pros and cons of them.

We’ve just taken a look at some positive reasons to consider adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue. But to keep things objective, it’s important that we also examine some potential drawbacks that come along with adopting.

Your dog will have less of its life to spend with you.

The reality is, the older of a dog that you adopt, the less time it will have in its life to spend with you. While it may be sad to think about it, it’s a truth that is worth considering.

You will be missing out on raising a puppy.

Raising a puppy is a lot of work, but it’s loving, caring and rewarding work. While getting a dog from a shelter may allow you to avoid housebreaking it and teaching it basic obedience, there is much to be said about the joy of successfully teaching a puppy these things.

Watching a puppy grow up is in many ways similar to watching a child grow up. Seeing them overcome difficult times and achieving milestones in their development is a rewarding experience. If you adopt an older dog, you will be missing out on this.

You may need to train bad habits out of an adopted dog.

No matter which dog you get it will never be perfect, whether it’s a puppy from a breeder or an adult from a shelter. But an adopted dog is more likely to have bad habits ingrained in it because of its past life experiences.

These habits may have to be trained out. Whether it’s aggression, or timidness, or the propensity to wander off, these are all possibilities that you may need to face with an adopted dog.

Most of the time the proper training can bring these things under control, but understand this just may be something that you have to deal with. 

Advantages of getting your dog from a breeder

You will know your dog’s history.

If you get your GSD from a reputable breeder, you will have the opportunity to learn a great deal about its lineage.

For example, with one of my present GSDs, I was able to meet and interact with his parents. And I also have a detailed history of his bloodline going back 30 years.

The breeder was able to sit with me and tell me about her selective breeding process and exactly how my dog fit within that scheme. I was also able to learn about the health tests that were performed on my dog, as well as those performed on his parents and their parents.

With an adopted dog you will likely receive little or no history for that dog.

Your puppy’s health will be guaranteed.

Any reputable breeder will use a written contract for the sale of a dog. In that contract, it should state that the health of your puppy is guaranteed.

This means that, outside of an accident, if your puppy falls ill due to a disorder or a disease (during the amount of time specified in the contract), you will be able to return that dog for a replacement or receive your money back.

(The terms in the contract may not be stated exactly as above, but it should contain some variation of them)

Alternatively, the breeder may offer to contribute towards any necessary veterinary care arising out of unforeseen health problems.

While this may sound rather impersonal, and it is, these are the facts. And it’s all that a breeder can do to assure you that you are receiving a well-bred and healthy puppy.

The breeder will have knowledge about each individual puppy

More than half of the states in the U.S. have laws or regulations that mandate how old a puppy must be before it is allowed to be sold or adopted.

And out of those states, only 3 permit a puppy to be offered for sale under the age of 8 weeks. (D.C., Virginia, and Wisconsin allow for the sale of a puppy under 8 weeks old).

The reason for these laws is primarily so that puppies are weaned from their mothers and able to eat on their own.

During this waiting period, the breeder will have closely interacted with and observed the behavior of each puppy in a litter.

They will be able to tell which ones are aggressive, which ones are shy, which ones are curious, and which ones are the most friendly. So depending on the purpose for which you want your dog, your breeder will be able to tell you which puppy out of a particular litter is best suited to your needs.

For example, if you wanted in a dog that you would eventually have trained in attack and protection, the breeder would let you know which one has the highest prey drive.

Conversely, if you have a child at home or plan on having one, the breeder will be able to pair you with the particular dog that has a proper temperament that would best fit being around young children.

Breeders can give you advice and support

During the first few months of my first German Shepherd’s life, I had a lot of questions. My breeder was physically located about an hour away, but she was also just a phone call away.

I would call her and ask her questions about grooming, toilet training, and about what to do in a number of other circumstances that were brand new to me.

She was of course very well-versed in all of these things and provided me with the answers that I needed. This allowed me to more effectively care for and train my dog than if I just had to go through a process of trial and error on my own.

It’s unlikely that you will receive individualized support like this from a shelter. While they may be happy to give you general advice, most shelters just do not have the means or the ability to coach you about your dog on an individual basis.

Another assurance that my breeder provided me with was that if for any reason I did not find my dog to be a good fit, or if anything else about him was troubling, that he would always have a home with her and that he would never have to go to a shelter.

Thankfully, that scenario never presented itself, and I spent 12 wonderful years with my dog. But it was reassuring to know that he came from a place of care and support.

A reputable breeder should be able to provide you with the same type of assurance.

Final verdict

The final verdict comes down to you, the soon to be GSD owner. As discussed in this article, getting an adult dog from a shelter or rescue versus getting one from a reputable breeder both have their advantages and drawbacks.

It’s important that you evaluate your lifestyle when making the decision about where to get your dog from. Think about what you are able to provide in terms of obedience training and the overall time that you have available to devote to raising a dog.

Whichever option you choose, if you actively involve yourself in the process and make responsible decisions, the odds of getting the dog that fits you best are in your favor. And if something does not work out, whether it’s from a breeder or a shelter, you have options.

Hunter Reed

I've owned and trained German Shepherds for over 18 years now. I'm originally from Indiana, though I've lived in many different states and traveled extensively. The places change, my dogs don't. German Shepherds have been my constant companions. I love every aspect of training them and simply just having them around. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge about German Shepherds with the world, and I encourage all future dog owners to consider one as a companion as well. Read my story here.

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