Everyone who loves dogs is a fan of the spectacular German Shepherd! But have you ever wondered the story behind these amazing dogs and how they came to be? I did and the following is what I found out! So read on for a fascinating story!
In the late 1800’s a German military officer named, Captain Max von Stephanitz decided to breed the perfect working dog. He bought a sheepherding dog that was smart and possessed all the traits he was looking for; strong, smart, and athletic. He renamed the dog Horand and that dog would later become the first registered German Shepherd.
Where are German Shepherds Most Popular?
How a German sheep dog became one of America’s favorite breeds
According to the American Kennel Club, the German Shepherd (GSD) is number two (#2) on their Most Popular Dog Breed list.
This is an honor the mightly Shepherd has coveted for many years. In fact, it’s been gracing the top 10 for decades. A well-deserved recognition in return for their loyalty, courage, intelligence, and beauty.
Most people know German Shepherds descended from herding dogs. This is a trait that has stayed with them. Anyone who has ever owned a GSD can tell you stories of being herded by their dog.
They will also tell you that sometimes their Shepherd will outsmart them. That’s because these dogs were bred for their intelligence.
Are German Shepherds Good Service Dogs?
Out of the Fields (and into our hearts)
Before WWI few Americans had even heard of the German Shepherd. Now you can find them everywhere:
- Seeing eye dogs
- Service dogs
- Police & Military dogs
- Ranch dogs
- In the movies
- And, of course, as family pets
So how did a lowly sheepdog from the German countryside become one of America’s most beloved pets?
How Old is the German Shepherd Breed?
It All Began at a Dog Show
A German Cavalry officer by the name of Captain Max von Stephanitz had an idea. He wanted to breed the perfect working dog.
While attending a dog show in Karlsruhe, Germany 1889, the Captain found his sire. A working sheepherding dog named Hektor Linsrhein made quite the impression.
The yellow and gray mid-sized dog was smart and athletic. He could complete tasks with very little training or directions.
Captain von Stephanitz bought the dog and renamed him Horand von Grafrath.
Note: He also eventually bought Horand’s brother, Luchs. Whom the Captain also used in his breeding program. But Horand is the one who usually gets all the credit.
German Shepherd Club
On April 22, 1899 von Stephanitz became the first president of the German Shepherd Club. Technically it was called the Verein fur Deutsch Schaferhunde (SV), but that’s a bit of a mouthful.
The SV club was not a bunch of professional breeders by today’s standards. Other than von Staphanitz, there were three sheep masters, two factory owners, an architect, an inn keeper, a magistrate, and a mayor.
Their goal was to create the ideal German herding dog. They crossed various dogs from central and northern Germany to create what is considered the ancestors of today’s German Shepherd.
German Shepherd Breeding Standards
Brains Over Beauty
The SV club established the breed standards. These standards were based on performance and utility, not looks.
The dogs were chosen based on intelligence, stamina, temperament, and build. Unlike other breeding programs, beauty had nothing to do with it.
Von Staphanitz believed that if the dogs couldn’t be good servants, they held no value. His motto was “Utility and Intelligence”.
Looks didn’t become a factor until a few decades later.
These were working dogs
In fact, it was a point of pride that the dogs in the breeding program kept their day jobs. They worked in the fields and as guard dogs.
Their owners made sure they were well-taken care of with plenty of food and shelter. However, the dogs still had to prove their worth.
Military German Shepherd
A New Purpose
Luckily for the German Shepherd, Von Stephanitz saw beyond the fields. Otherwise, the breed would have lost popularity as farming changed.
He promoted use of the dogs to the police and the military. Von Stephanitz, being a Calvary man, saw the military potential for the dog. At a time when Germany was on the rise, the German government embraced the idea.
By the time World War I started these dogs were being widely used by the German military.
This is where the tradition of using German Shepherds as police K9s started. Today the GSD is the preferred dog for military and police K9 units all over the world.
However, it took the Americans a little longer to embrace the idea.
When did German Shepherds Come to America?
When the German Shepherd came to America, it was a show dog. American breeders fell in love with the GSD. The first recorded showing of the GSD in America was in 1907.
In 1908 it became the 60th breed recognized by the AKC. Then in 1913, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was born.
American breeders tried promoting the GSD as police dogs. Like their German counterparts, they could see how useful the dogs were in catching criminals.
German Shepherds have a strong sense of smell. Few other breeds are better at scenting.
The GSD was a little slower to catch on in the United States than in Germany. Partially due to cultural differences. Mostly due to the lack of available dogs and affordability.
Why buy a German herding dog? Farmers already had herding dogs. No sense spending good money on a pedigree many thought.
American German Shepherd
When America got involved in World War I the German Shepherd was still mostly for breeders and dog lovers. Then all things German became bad news.
Luckily for the GSD, everyone agreed to drop “German” off of the name. The Shepherd Dog breed was safe.
The German Shepherd Dog Club of America even changed its name to Shepherd Dog Club of America.
The English went a step farther by renaming the breed altogether. In fact, some Brits still refer to the GSD as the “Alsatian Wolf Dog.“
After the War
The German Shepherd became wildly popular in America after the war. Returning soldiers brought German Army dogs home with them.
Tales of heroic acts were told. Wounded soldiers being rescued. Dogs giving their lives to save a human companion. Almost overnight they had risen to folk hero status.
- People fell in love with them for their beauty and intelligence.
- Training programs and demonstrations were set up.
- The Shepherd Dog Club of America held a field trail for police and Army dogs in New Jersey.
- Chief of the Mohawks, owned by Anne Roosevelt, daughter of Franklin D Roosevelt, takes 1st place at the Washington DC Kennel Club.
Rin Tin Tin
Then Hollywood got involved. Stongheart and Rin Tin Tin were on the silver screen. The American people fell in love with the dogs and supply could not keep up with the demand for German Shepherds. Puppy factories started turning up everywhere.
Unfortunately, over breeding and lack of standards created a drop in the quality. Shepherds started having problems and this became known by the public resulting in a reduced popularity.
Meanwhile in Switzerland
The Swiss took a scientific approach to breeding. One breeder, Mrs. Harrison Eustis, literally changed the world.
Her research helped the GSD become the service dogs we know them as today. She is credited with coming up with the idea to use the German Shepherd as guide dogs for the blind.
The Seeing Eye
The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey became famous for this use.
Germany also continued to take their breeding seriously. They started a GSD graded system. This helped breeders decide if a dog should be bred.
They conducted regular censuses to track the breed. All this made German dogs a better quality than their American counterparts.
Luckily for American breeders, the dollar went a long way in Germany.
German Shepherds in WW2
The German Shepherd was really put to the test during this war. They were widely used by both sides for everything from guard dogs to messengers.
Many of the dogs died in service to their country. A War Dog Memorial at the US Naval Station in Guam stands tribute to some of those dogs.
America created “Dogs for Defense” to help deploy thousands of dogs for the Army.
War Takes it Toll
After the war, things were pretty bleak for the German lines. The war had taken its toll on the breed. Many were killed or had to be put down for lack of food and medical care.
Breeders had to start from scratch by choosing the best from what was left.
The American lines were in much better shape. The breed had stabilized. Though, there were still issues from over breeding and a lack of standards. Especially with their joints.
German Shepherd vs American German Shepherd
For years after the war the German breeders were on their own to rebuild. They went back to the basics of the breed. Much of the pre-war bloodlines were gone. So, they began breeding on desired traits.
This time the results were different. Instead of having a perfect breed with all of the desired traits, they had individual dogs with dominant traits.
An intelligent dog might lack stamina. A fast dog with a good nose might be slower to train. Breeders had to pick what they valued most in a dog.
There were plenty of German Shepherds to be had in the states. The problem was quality. There was no national standard and breeders weren’t regulated.
In true American style, breeding varied by clubs. Puppy mills still existed. Only a handful of breeders kept to the original GSD standards.
Americans became more concerned with looks. They were more important than the other traits. This led to health issues.
On both sides Issues with joints and weak ears became dominant. Hip and elbow dysplasia became common. The breed had lost its original perfection.
What Happened Next
In the 1950s American breeders realized they needed an infusion of new blood. So once again the blood lines from Germany and America came together.
Though this time it was all about the looks. At least for the Americans.
- Tailset, body length, coat and bone structure became important.
- The solid black gene was introduced to the American lines.
- Temperament and intelligence became secondary to color and posture.
By the 1960s strong stud lines had been created in North America. Nationalism had taken over. No one trusted anything imported. This pretty much put an end to the German-American breeding program.
What did the Germans get out of this?
They got some of the old bloodline back. Some of the American breeders had managed to preserve the authenticity of the GSD.
The Cold War eventually led to Germany isolating itself. But just like the Americans, they already had strong stud lines to continue their breeding programs.
After the 50s and 60s, there is no mention of cross-continent breeding of the German Shepherd. Not to say it doesn’t happen though.
The Rest is History
The German Shepherd may have started as the ultimate herding dog but it’s come a long way since then.
With advances in farming and livestock management, you will rarely see a German Shepherd actually herding sheep. You will find them doing all sorts of other jobs.
- Service dogs – These are highly intelligent dogs. From leading the blind to opening doors, there are few tasks they can’t be trained to do.
- Super sniffers – Compared to other breeds, the GSD has one of the top noses when it comes to scenting. This makes them great police and military dogs. They can sniff out anything from bombs to people.
- Guard dogs – GSDs are not an aggressive breed but they are very protective and loyal.
- Companions -Because of their loyalty and social nature, these dogs will try to be by your side constantly. You will never be alone. Even if you try.
German Shepherd Characteristics
German Shepherds Do Have Their Challenges
Anyone who has ever spent time with these dogs can tell you that they do come with challenges.
- Mouthy – They like to use their mouths. Puppies will quite literally grab you by the arm (or pant leg) to get your attention. A cute trait in a puppy. Not so much in a full-grown dog. It’s one of the reasons early training is important.
- Nosey– They use their extra sharp sniffer constantly. Not only will your house and car be full of nose prints, you will have to literally stop and smell the roses (every rose, tree, leaf, bush….) on your daily walks. Also, the occasional cold wet nose in your personal space.
- Shedding – No matter how much you brush or go to the groomer there will be hair. Lots of hair.
- Active – These are working dogs. They need to be kept busy. In fact, if they don’t get enough exercise or mental stimulation, they can get into trouble. Believe it or not, they get bored just like you.
Now You Know
The next time you see a German Shepherd hard at work, remember they are literally doing what they were born to do.
Over the years the breed itself has gone through some changes. However, at the heart of the breed are the things that make them great:
Loyalty, courage, intelligence, strength, and beauty.
German Shepherd Questions
German Shepherd Double Coat
What the heck is a “double coat”? And why do German Shepherds have a double coat?
The double coat is pretty much just what it sounds like. A double coat of fur. Or two layers. The outer layer kind of repeals dirt and water.
While the shorter inner coat is like a layer of insulation to help keep warm or stay cool as needed.
German Shepherd Colors
What colors are German Shepherds?
- Black & Tan
- Black & Silver
- Red & Black
German Shepherd Pictures