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» History of the German Shepherd Dog

If any breed of dog is most deserving of the title Noble with Natural Beauty then that dog is the German Shepherd.

He is a dog with elegant yet flowing lines, glamorous to behold, with a shining coat, erect ears, and an intelligent expression that will command attention wherever he is seen. His eyes indicate the love and affection he has for those who care for him and his sweeping tail will show his mood whether it be gay or sad.


By nature a German Shepherd is wary of strangers, though once one is accepted by him he is a friend for life. He is an efficient obedience worker, quick to learn and what is learned will never be forgotten. It is an active breed and thrives on work—little is beyond its capabilities. Fleet of foot, powerful yet graceful and nimble, he is the epitome of those qualities considered to be ideal within a dog.

He loves human companionship and will respond to his owner’s mood whether this be lying quietly by his side or romping across the fields; indeed, at all times, his one desire is to be with you and to please you.

He has a keen sense of  humor and enjoys playful games yet, in defense of those he loves, can become a frightening adversary that one would be well advised to keep clear of. He can fit into a flat or a mansion as the need may be, for he is happy wherever you are happy.

In bringing a German Shepherd into your home, you are making an addition to your family and he will quickly feel a part of it. Your house, your garden, your possessions and in fact all that you own will from then on be in his special care. He needs your love, but he needs also correct attention to his grooming, exercise, food, and general welfare. Given these, your German Shepherd will devote his very life to you and you will be the richer for this and for the companionship and love you both will share.

In a short work such as this, one cannot look too deeply into the history of the breed for this would take up a volume in itself. However, it is important that all Shepherd owners have an insight, brief though it may be, into the development of the breed for it is this development that has given us the German Shepherd we see today. Only a few early dogs and only one person is named in this history, though it will readily be appreciated that there were many dogs and many people whose efforts and sacrifices have furthered the growth of the German Shepherd.

Almost from the very dawn of mankind the dog has figured prominently. Early man quickly recognized the dog’s ability to complement those faculties in which he was weak. The dog could run better, see better, hear better and had a far more acute sense of smell than man.

Wild dogs were captured and reared within man’s encampment, and in return for food, shelter, and protection, would help man hunt and give him advance warning of predatory animals. This was the beginning, and as man settled from his nomadic wanderings his requirements of the dog changed. He now needed more diversity in his dogs. There were those for hunting, those for protecting his home and family when he was away, those for carrying small burdens, and those for helping tend his flocks and cattle. The dawn of the pastoral shepherd dog had arrived. Throughout the world slow development was taking place, but the pace quickened in Europe where man himself was raising his standards more rapidly.

The size, coat, and color of sheepdogs at this time varied greatly, dependent upon many factors. The weather clearly dictated that dogs working in cold areas would have profuse coats while those of temperate climates would have shorter coats. Areas where predatory animals were found in large numbers would need more powerful dogs than those lands dominated by man. The wolf, the bear, the large birds of prey—all would influence man’s choice of sheepdog.

In Germany, as in France, the United Kingdom, Holland, and others, the growth of large industrialized cities meant that predators were declining quickly and also that there was a greater awareness of the excellence of the shepherding dogs of different areas. The establishment of dogs of fixed type was now at hand although there were still great variations to be found from one area to another. Breeders would meet and discuss the relative merits and shortcomings of certain dogs, and it followed that dogs of high merit were much in demand as breeders tried to fix into their stock the sterling qualities seen in dogs from other areas. It came to pass that in Germany, in 1891, a group of enthusiasts formed the Phylax Society with the aim of fostering and standardizing native German breeds. The society was short-lived and in 1894 it was disbanded, but it had sown the seeds from which the German Shepherd was to emerge.

At this time Capt. Max von Stephanitz appears in the breed’s history and indeed it is this man who is acclaimed as the father of the breed. Von Stephanitz had long admired the qualities of intelligence, strength, and ability found in many   native sheepdog breeds but had yet to see one which embodied all of his ideals. Chance was to play its part, and  while visiting a show with a friend in 1899, he saw a dog that impressed him greatly to all accounts so much that then and there he purchased the dog and promptly formed a society, the Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde or SV as it is called. This was a milestone in the breed’s history and marked the beginning of a new era for it. From this date the German Shepherd as a specific breed had arrived.

The dog was called Hektor Linksrhein but was later named Horand v Grafeth by Von Stephanitz, who used the animal as the basis on which much future development would be made. Horand was greatly admired by many breeders who were quick to use him in their breeding programs. Not surprisingly, he became the dog that best exemplified the goals of early breeders.

Horand’s most celebrated son was Hektor v Shwaben, who in turn sired Heinz v Starkenburg and the litter brothers Beowolf and Pilot.

Each of these dogs in turn sired many progeny and became pillars in the development of the German Shepherd. Von Stephanitz was a cavalry captain and was ideally suited to impose his strong will over the SV of which he was president. In this capacity and with uncompromising dedication he directed the breeding programs. The dogs of Thuringia, Frankonia, and Wurttemburg were all used, each area providing dogs which had special merits of tail and ear carriage, size, color, and temperament.

The degree of inbreeding was necessarily high at this time, for although it carried risks of incorporating faults, it likewise enabled the breeders to fix permanently those qualities which today are such features of the breed. Von Stephanitz believed above all else that the German Shepherd should be bred for utility and intelligence and this was to become his motto. It was this adaptability that was later to make the dog the world’s greatest all-rounder.

With the oncoming of the twentieth century, and having seen the SV develop into the largest single breed club in the world, Von Stephanitz was turning his attention to the long-term future. He was able to foresee that in a growing industrialized nation the role of the pastoral shepherd dog would decline and the breed must be able to adapt to other work if it were to continue as a functional animal.

It seemed that the very qualities that made the German Shepherd such an exceptional sheepdog could well be put to good use by government departments. This was the thinking of Von Stephanitz and this was to be his next campaign. As always, he achieved this and during World War I was seen as messenger dog, rescue dog, sentry dog, and personal guard dog. Servicemen from the USA, UK, and the Commonwealth would see first hand the dog’s bravery, intelligence, and steadfastness, and many stories were taken back home. Not surprisingly, a number of dogs were acquired by servicemen and transported home with them.

In 1919, when the English Kennel Club gave the breed a separate register, some 54 animals were included, but by 1926 the ranks had swelled to 8,058, such was the unprecedented success of the dog. At the end of the War it was thought that the breed would not flourish were the word German to appear in its name and it was therefore decided to call the breed the Alsatian Wolf Dog after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The “Wolf Dog” tag was later to be dropped—again as it was felt that this would prejudice the breed. Thus we had for many years the misnomer of the breed brought about by national hostilities. In 1977, following numerous campaigns by breeders the name of the breed was changed back to the German Shepherd Dog by which it is known in the USA, Australia, and most other countries.

(Left: Teacher and author Helen Keller hugs her German shepherd on a garden lawn.)

With the breed arriving in Britain mainly on the strength of its reputation as a war dog, its sterling qualities as a sheepdog were largely overlooked. At that time Britain already had a string of quality working sheepdogs such as Collies, Corgis, and Old English Sheepdogs. Therefore, the pattern of development of the German Shepherd in the USA, UK, and Australia was to be dictated by its adaptability. The Seeing Eye dogs in the USA and Britain were predominantly German Shepherds and only later did the Labrador challenge this position.

At the outbreak of World War II, the trained dogs of the Allied Forces were seen wherever the troops traveled, spreading the breed’s popularity like a blanket around the world.

 

Since World War II German Shepherd has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the world’s most popular breeds. This is as it should be, for while task for task other breeds may surpass it, no other single breed has been able to master such a wide range of skills as the German Shepherd Dog.

The German Shepherd is large enough to tackle a man and win a contest, yet agile enough to cope with a flock of sheep. He may not be able to outrun a Greyhound but he can show an amazing turn of speed, and having developed from natural working strains, he can maintain a steady canter far longer than most other breeds.

It can be seen from the foregoing that our modern German Shepherd is a king among dogs, noble of head, athletic in body. Here is a dog developed to be functional, the epitome of dedicated and carefully planned breeding.

The problems that have confronted the post-war breeders have in their own way been as great as those confronting the early pioneers.

Most early German Shepherds were predominantly working dogs and it was therefore not difficult to ensure that working qualities were maintained and that the breed’s natural intelligence was put to practical use. Once established it was difficult to retain qualities, let alone improve on the breed, yet this breeders strived to do. For this reason working trials were introduced in addition to obedience trials where qualifications such as C.D. (Companion Dog), T.D. (Tracking Dog), P.D. (Police Dog), and U.D. (Utility Dog) could be earned. Between the two World Wars many clubs came into being which rendered great service to the breed. In addition to the many shows and meetings they hold, they have acted as public relations offices to defend the breed against periodic maligning from the public. The German Shepherd has throughout its history had to contend with condemnations from the press. The great fluctuations in registration figures over the years serve to illustrate this and the very popularity of the breed has itself been the cause of much trouble.  

Rapid popularity has meant that at times many undesirable breeders have appeared on the scene with the sole object of making money. In this situation mediocre dogs are bred from in almost factory style thus perpetuating faults. The sheer numbers of dogs meant that sooner or later disaster would happen. The wrong people obtain the wrong dogs and ultimately someone gets hurt.

The breed’s wolfish appearance makes it a prime target for the press who often fan the flames of public dissent. As a result, sales decline and the hard core breed lovers are left to put their house back into order. This is most difficult for often in the turmoil bloodlines can become a puzzle to sort out.

In spite of these setbacks, serious breeders have maintained the breed though there are, of course, periods when much debate takes place over varying points. Backs may be getting too long, angulation too steep, ear and tail carriage faulty, dentition lacking, movement poor, and other aspects appearing to illustrate that we must be continually on our guard lest our breed degenerate. In Germany, the SV has, since its inception, controlled very tightly the affairs of the breed, has maintained complete records of all dogs, and has made periodic surveys with recommendations to all owners. In the USA, the Register of Merit (R.O.M.) is an attempt to ensure that only the better dogs are used in breeding programs.  

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