The Head

Written & Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA

Many might suggest that the head is of little importance, yet it is here where the entire expression and character of the breed resides, and where temperament and personality are most completely revealed. Masculinity or femininity can be determined at a glance. Health and strength can be observed in the definition and muscling of the skull, condition of the teeth and gums, luster of the fur and clearness of the eyes and nose. Correct proportions give the dog strength of grip, olfactory capacity, a roomy brain case and a beauty and strength of expression that commands attention for a working dog that often serves in the public eye. Without a good head, one would be hard pressed to claim real quality in an animal.

A beautiful head will exude both strength and elegance. Viewed from the side, the skull behind the eyes is approximately square, being as deep as it is long. It will have a defined forehead, neither domed nor flat, but slightly arched to give room to the brain case and added attachment area for the jaw muscles. The back-skull lies on a plane definitely above that of, but parallel to, the topline of the muzzle, which is as straight as possible, neither dished nor Roman in profile. Parallel planes give a deep, powerful upper jaw. Interestingly, the dog which appears in life to possess a head with parallel planes actually shows a slightly downfaced skull, as do all wild canines, while the dog whose skull shows parallel planes will appear, because of added muscle and fur, to be slightly up-faced. Both can be very beautiful and are perfectly functional.

While there should be definite depth to the stop which separates back-skull from muzzle, the transition is smooth, flowing and without noticeable furrow. The distance between the point of the occipital bone at the rear of the skull and the inside corner of the eye is nearly equal to the distance between the same point at the eye, and the tip of the nose. In strong headed dogs, the length of the muzzle may even be somewhat shorter than the skull, giving the jaw muscles even greater leverage and producing an especially powerful grip. The muzzle has the profile of a well blunted wedge, showing a definite chin and a convex curvature of the lower line of the jawbone, to ensure ample depth of bone to anchor deeply rooted teeth. A square skull, moderate stop and muzzle and jaw of correct length automatically give a deep, strong and correctly proportioned muzzle and jaw.

From above, the same proportions hold. The back-skull is about as wide as it is long, and in length is equal to or slightly greater than the muzzle. The transition from back-skull to muzzle is smooth, although some dogs of DDR heritage show especially broad zygomatic arches, or cheekbones, and massive muscling over the cheeks and skull. Again, this produces a very powerful bite as well as an extremely strong expression. In any event, the skull should be broad enough to give the eyes an almost completely forward orientation, and only enough slant to produce a beautiful, almond eyed expression that should radiate confidence and intelligence. Totally forward facing eyes are invariably too round, while those situated too much to the side give a furtive, foreign expression. Correctly set eyes are well protected by bone without preventing a clear view of the world all round.

From the front, the head shows its square proportions yet again, being as wide as it is deep. The muzzle too, at any point along its length, is almost square in cross section. Breadth of muzzle prevents crowding of the incisors, as well as giving a wide and roomy nose with broad, open nostrils. The top of the skull between the ears is nearly flat and the occipital bone should be invisible from any view. A very slight furrow at the crown is the result very strong jaw muscles, sometimes apparent in working or DDR bred dogs. The same strong muscling may give a large male a slightly cheeky look. Conversely, a protruding bony ridge a the crown indicates a lack of muscling and probably a weak grip.

It is from the front that the ear set is most apparent. A beautiful set of ears is undeniably critical to a German shepherd dog’s expression. They should be fully erect, parallel or nearly so, medium sized, symmetrical and open to the front. They should not lean inwards across the skull, or flap when the dog is in motion. While it is sometimes natural for ears to be folded back when relaxed, this should not be the typical carriage, as this may indicate submissiveness or weakness of character. In my experience, dogs with strong temperament are more inclined to let them just droop a bit when resting. When out in public, a strong dog’s ears are always up.

Sex characteristics are most immediately apparent in the head. A male will have a noticeably stronger skull, with proportionately smaller eyes, a masculine expression and a more heavily muscled and furred neck. Loose flews and dewlap at the throat are undesirable, but are a bit more forgivable in large, older males. On the other hand, this does not mean the bitch has a weaker head, merely smaller, more finely chiseled, more feminine. There seems to be a greater acceptance of over refinement in the bitch than in the male, which is unfortunate as a refined female will probably have refined brothers and sons. In a working dog, it is preferable to err on the side of strength.

The painting opposite illustrates three perfectly correct types of male head, plus a good female head. The black male at the top shows an elegant head and expression, with somewhat less slope to the stop. The black and tan male shows a slightly deeper stop and the bottom male exhibits the most abrupt stop. The bottom male also shows the widest skull, and the top male has the least wide skull. All three show correct eye and ear set, correct dentition, strong grips and good expression (these are actual animals). Some variability in type is an indication of genetic variability and health, and this is a good thing for the breed. There is no good reason why good dogs should look like they've been stamped out of a cookie cutter.