The Doberman pinscher has a bit of a reputation as being a stooge for The Man. Originally bred in Germany to protect a tax collector named Louis Dobermann, the pinscher has since been seen working as a guard dog everywhere from junkyards to private homes to municipal police forces. And while the Dobie is still one of the most popular guard dogs in the world, they have also become known as loyal, loving family pets and protectors.
Dobermans are intelligent, fiercely loyal, highly territorial dogs who develop strong protective bonds with their family units. With the right owner and some patient training, Dobermans can be extremely versatile pets, able to adapt to a wide variety of living situations and family sizes.
There’s no mistaking a Doberman for anything else. Slender, athletic, and powerful, the Doberman’s silhouette is one of the most recognizable—and intimidating—in the world.
Dobermans stand more than 2 feet tall, with female dogs usually topping out around 26 inches and male pups closer to 28. They pack a lot of muscle onto those frames, accompanied by very little else, giving them a slender but deceptively heavy build: Males can reach around 100 pounds, though 80–90 pounds is more common.
Befitting their backgrounds in security and law enforcement, Dobies always look like they’re in uniform. Black, red, blue, and fawn are the colors of the day for Doberman coats. Almost always in solid coloration on their bodies, with splashes of brown over their eyes and on their muzzles feet and legs. Their eyes are dark-colored and piercing.
Ears and tails are something of a controversy for the breed. At birth, a Doberman’s ears are relaxed and their tails can naturally grow to about 12 inches in length. However, as has been common in working dogs for centuries, Doberman’s tails and ears are traditionally docked: the ears to theoretically assist in detecting sound direction while patrolling and tails to prevent them getting broken or damaged while defending themselves from intruders. Even as Dobies have fallen out of favor with military and police units, the look has become so common that some owners still do it because the dog doesn’t “look right” to them otherwise.
As the practice has fallen out of favor around the world as unnecessary in family pets and an invasive and potentially painful procedure, several countries have outlawed docking entirely, including Australia, the U.K., and several other parts of Europe. However, not only is the practice still legal in North America, but the American Kennel Club (AKC) includes docking the tail “at the second vertebra” as a necessary part of the breed standard. For non-show dogs in the United States and Canada, docking is an optional, though still common, practice.
Dobermans, much like many of the “bully breed” terriers, often have a disposition that will sometimes be at odds with their more violent reputations.
Bred with an eye towards protection, Dobermans are highly territorial and deeply protective of their families. When Louis Dobermann was creating the breed, he wanted a dog that was large and strong enough to protect him (and themselves) from angry humans and other guard dogs but intelligent and loyal enough to follow commands extremely well. As the breed became more popular as a family pet, breeders have selectively looked to enhance the loyalty and intelligence traits, while taking the edge off the breed’s original aggression. Today’s result is a dog who is remarkably friendly and eager to please, while still being a top-flight protection dog.
One look at a Doberman should absolutely tell you these guys aren’t couch potatoes. While a Dobie can adapt to living in an apartment, they’re still going to need some daily outside time, the AKC says. A good run or a vigorous game of fetch should do the trick, though the breed will also be more than happy to participate in obedience, agility, or flyball competitions as well. Dobermans can do well with other dogs and even cats if they are socialized properly at a young age. While the dogs have high territorial instincts, they don’t have much in the way of prey drive and shouldn’t be too concerned with chasing smaller animals out of the yard.
If properly socialized as pups, Dobermans do very well with children and are disciplined enough to not react to loud noises and rough play. However, it should be noted some Dobermans will only bond to one person, making them an “owner’s dog” who is at best ambivalent to children and other family members.
Another note of caution, some Dobermans can be flighty or “nippy” when it comes to their paws, ears, or tails, especially in animals who have had the latter two docked. As with any pups, getting a look at the parents and seeing what their personalities are like is the best way of getting a glimpse at the temperament of an individual pup.
“This applies to all breeds really, but basic obedience is excellent to start with,” says Michelle Beck, DVM, CCRT, CVA-Veterinarian, with the Backlund Animal Clinic in Omaha, Neb. “Dobermans are more likely to be protective, so making sure that they’re obeying your commands and are socialized to other dogs and other people so they don’t have those reflex reactions is going to be important.”
One mental concern for Dobermans is separation anxiety. Because of their nature as protectors, Dobermans are commonly referred to as “Velcro dogs”: They’re going to want to stick by your side. To help counteract this, early training will be necessary to help keep your Dobie happy while you’re gone and prevent destructive behaviors.
“Kennel training is so important, especially with puppies,” Beck explains. “The kennel is not a place for punishment, it’s for security. Working with them to see it as a safe spot. Building up that familiarity to the kennel so they don’t get upset when you walk away.”
Paramount to the Doberman’s role as a protector, is their ability to be trained and follow direction. Dobies are very intelligent dogs, consistently ranking as some of the easiest to train in the world. This, combined with their eager-to-please dispositions, mean your Doberman will be an active listener, soaking up any instruction you care to give. However, any dog with a high degree of intelligence will also run the risk of becoming aloof or headstrong if they don’t feel like they’re being properly guided. So a firm voice and patient direction will be required to make sure your Dobie knows who the boss is. Once that groundwork has been laid, however, expect to have a devoted companion.
Finally, even though it should totally go without saying, we’re going to say it anyway: Dobermans are fantastic watchdogs. They are large, they look intimidating and they’ve got about a century’s worth of bad reputation behind each bark. If you’re a bad guy looking to get into a home, the Doberman is four legs and 100 pounds of “move along.”
Perfect world, your Doberman will have a nice house with a fenced-in backyard to patrol and get some exercise in. However, their ultimate concern is being around their families, so Dobies can live comfortably in apartment settings as well. One obvious concern for urban dwellers will be the dog’s size and energy levels, however. Dobies can be trained not to bark unless alerted, but their heavy builds and rambunctious personalities might make for some very grumpy downstairs neighbors.
No matter where you live, make sure you can get your Doberman outside for some activity. If their physical needs aren’t met, Dobies can gain weight relatively quickly, which can lead to health concerns.
Kids and other pets can be a-OK, provided Dobermans are properly socialized as pups. Some dogs may only bond to one person, which might make directions from other people feel more like polite suggestions than actual commands.
Dobermans were bred specifically to be low-maintenance animals. Thankfully for their owners, this means their short coats will require very little input from you. Give them a brushing once a week or so to make sure everything is in order, and give them a bath as needed depending on how they smell and what they get into. Otherwise, basic teeth, nail, and ear care should be all they need.
Hip dysplasia is going to be one of the most common issues Dobies have to deal with, but it’s good to have their heart and thyroids checked regularly as well. The other most common concern for Dobermans is going to be bloat, a gastrointestinal issue that can occur at any point in a dog’s lifetime and carries about a 50 percent mortality rate. Though not a common occurrence, Doberman owners should educate themselves on the symptoms of bloat and talk to their vets about ways to help prevent it.
“Von Willebrand's disease can also be a problem,” Beck says. “I see a number of Dobermans, especially as they get older, who will have issues with blood clotting.”
Though the official story is a little murky, the most commonly accepted origin of the Doberman pinscher comes in the 1880s at the hands of Louis Dobermann, a tax collector and breeder from Apolda, Germany. With access to a wide variety of dogs, Dobermann set out to create a new breed that would serve especially well as guard dogs, the AKC says.
Upon his death in 1894, Germany named the breed Dobermannpinscher in his honor, but formally dropped the “pinscher” in the 1940s because, as the German word for “terrier,” it was deemed to no longer be representative of the breed, according to the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. Other countries followed suit thereafter and now North America is the only place where the dog is referred to as “Doberman pinscher,” with the rest of the world referring to the breed simply as “Dobermann,” the AKC says.
Dobermans had a long history throughout the first half of the 20th century as military and police dogs. However, the dogs were eventually deemed too inconsistent for protection work: dogs bred for their companion traits were too passive to be effective patrol dogs, while Dobermans bred for their aggressive traits were too difficult to consistently control. Today, almost all of the jobs once held by Dobermans have been usurped by German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, or Dutch shepherds.