The story of the German Shepherd Dog (the official name of the breed), commonly abbreviated as GSD, begins with wolves and the howling pack animals that, either out of curiosity or hunger, ventured into the light of early man’s campfires. Over the ensuing centuries a bond of trust and mutual benefit formed between man and beast, eventually leading to the wolves’ domestication. In the beginning the relationship was a simple one: in exchange for food, shelter and protection, these early dogs assisted man on the hunt, defended him and warned him of attack by predatory animals or competing tribes.
As early man began to dominate the landscape through technological advances, coupled with the advent of agriculture, he would cease his nomadic hunter gatherer wanderings. This change in the culture of mankind would forever alter the role of mans earliest hunting companion and camp guardian, the dog. Man would begin to refine the dog away from a simple hunting companion into a myriad of different types all uniquely suited for specific roles. There were those bred much like their ancestors for hunting, those bred for protecting the family while man was away, those bred for freighting supplies, and those bred to tend to mans flocks and protect them from predators such as bears and wolves. It is from this need, to protect prey from predator, that the dawn of the pastoral shepherd dog arrived.
The German Shepherd is believed to have derived from these long extinct breeds of early herding dogs. During the 18th and 19th century across Europe, and especially Germany, shepherding was a fairly common way of life. The typical role of a dog in earning his keep was to assist the local shepherd in herding the sheep from one point to the next and to protect the flock from predators. The breeding of sheepdogs or livestock protection dogs during this time was largely a non standardized affair handled within the local community. It was here, in these relatively isolated communities, that shepherds would select and breed their dogs based on performance and attributes such as intelligence, stamina, speed, strength and size. Although this method was successful in creating a number of very capable herding and livestock protection dogs, there was no uniformity from one locale to the next. As such, dogs from one region tended to be significantly different from those of another, both in appearance and ability; a situation wherein desirable attributes such as the ability to defend sheep from predators found in the larger mediocre herding dogs of one community may have been totally lacking in the smaller excellent herding dogs from another.
The first attempt to remedy this lack of standardization was the formation of the Phylax Society (Phylax being Greek for "guardsman"). Formed in 1891 by a group of enthusiasts, the goal of the Phylax Society was to handpick the best dogs from local shepherds for breeding with the intention of creating a standardized German dog breed. In-fighting and bickering amongst the societies members regarding the desired traits for what would become the German Shepherd Dog, however, led to the club’s dissolution just four years after its creation. Much of the conflict was centered on the topic of beauty versus utility. With little to no compromise, members on both sides of the argument became increasingly frustrated, prompting many to leave. The club was officially disbanded in 1894. Although the Phylax Society was short lived, it had sown the seeds from which the German Shepherd was to emerge, as many former members continued their attempts to breed a dog with superior working qualities.
One such member was a young German cavalry officer, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz (1864 – 1936). His belief was that utility, not beauty, should be the focus of any standardization program. As a young cavalry officer prior to his joining the Phylax Society, von Stephanitz traveled all over Germany. It was during his travels that he came to observe a shepherd tending to his flock of rather large sheep. The shepherd dogs and their working abilities fascinated the young officer, but he soon noticed that the shepherds’ bantamweight dogs, though dutiful and diligent, were outmatched by the larger, querulous welterweight sheep. Observing the dogs difficulty in different tasks in accordance with their size, von Stephanitz came to the opinion that he could solve this problem by breeding a medium-sized working dog that could handle not only the larger sheep common to this area but also the smaller faster variety found in the other regions of Germany.
It was from this idea to create a uniform working breed suitable for all situations that he was initially drawn to, and eventually left, the Phylax Society. As a cavalry officer, von Stephanitz had the fortune of serving at the Imperial Veterinary College in Berlin, where he gained valuable knowledge about biology, anatomy, and the science of movement; all of which he applied in his quest to create the perfect working dog. Determined to learn all that he could, he became a regular attendee at German dog shows, studying the many different types of shepherding dogs in use. Slowly he began to formulate in his mind the perfect picture of what he thought a total working shepherd dog should be. Over the next few years he would continue his search for the perfect specimen to embody his vision.
In her book, “The German Shepherd Today”, Winifred Strickland states that the perfect shepherd dog envisioned by Von Stephanitz's was to be "extremely intelligent, quick on his feet, protective if necessary, noble in appearance, trustworthy in character, physically sound so that he could work tirelessly all day long, and be born with an innate desire to please, a dog who could reason and be a companion to man."
In 1898, a year that would prove to be bittersweet for the dog lover, von Stephanitz was promoted to the rank of Rittmeister (cavalry Captain) and married an actress. Upon hearing of the union between Captain Max von Stephantiz and an actress, a profession that at the time was considered to be less than honorable and beneath the social standing of a German Officer of noble birth, his superiors forced him to resign his commission. Out of a job, Von Stephanitz who had always wanted to be a gentleman farmer, an idea that had been rebuked by his family in his youth, bought an estate near Grafrath (in Southwest Bavaria) in 1899 and devoted himself to his dream of producing the ultimate working shepherd dog.
That same year, while attending a dog show at Karlsruhe in western Germany, "The Karlsruhe Exhibition", he came upon a four-year-old male dog named Hektor Linksrhein. A medium-sized yellow-and-gray wolf-like dog of the primal canine type, Hektor was an intelligent working sheepherder that possessed all of the traits von Stephanitz prized: size, power, endurance, steadiness, and intelligence. Standing roughly 25 inches at the withers, this dog was the embodiment von Stephanitz’s ideal working dog. He purchased the dog on the spot and renamed him Horand von Grafrath (Grafath being the name of his kennel) and named his breed the Deutscher Schäferhund (German Shepherd Dog). He also founded his own club, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog), commonly abbreviated SV, on April 22, 1899, and appointed himself the first president. Horand von Grafrath would become the first SV registered German Shepherd Dog (GSD), entered in the original “Studbook for the German Shepherd Dog” (Zuchtbuch fur Deutsche Schaferhunde); abbreviated as SZ, as SZ 1 (breed number 1). After this time all other herding dogs in Germany would be referred to as Altdeutsche Schäferhunde (Old German Shepherd Dogs).
The SV also held the first annual Sieger Hundeausstellung (Sieger dog show or Sieger show) in 1899, with a male dog named Jorg von der Krone taking the win and claiming the honor of being the first Sieger (winner), and a female dog named Lisie von Schwenningen claiming the title of Siegerin (female winner). The 1900 and 1901 Sieger would be won by Horand von Grafrath's son, Hektor von Schwaben. Today the German Sieger Dog Show is the largest German Shepherd Dog conformation specialty show in the world with the titles of Sieger and Siegerin still awarded to recognize the male and female Grand Champion.
With the founding of the SV, von Stephanitz began in earnest to shape every aspect of the German Shepherd Dog breed, relying on his motto of “Utility and intelligence” as the guide. Having always envisioned the German Shepherd Dog as a working breed, beauty was not the priority to von Stephanitz, and any dog that did not possess the temperament, intelligence, drive and physical attributes necessary to make it a good servant of man was useless. The beauty, he felt, was in the working abilities of the dog. This framework in hand he developed a breed standard that clearly outlined the exact function and relationship of every aspect of the German Shepherd Dogs structure, gait, and inherent attitude.
The initial breeding program instituted by von Stephanitz relied heavily upon inbreeding both on Horand von Grafrath and on his brother Luchs von Grafath to unify the bloodline. In the coming years Horand von Grafrath would be bred to 35 different bitches, producing 53 litters; of which 140 offspring were registered with the SV. He was also mated three times to his own daughters. Pedigrees also show that Hektor von Schwaben, the second German Sieger and Horand's best son, was not only mated to his half-sister to produce dogs such as Beowulf, but also to the daughters of his own sons, Heinz von Starkenberg, Pilot III and Beowulf. The inbreeding would continue through Beowulf, who would end up fathering a total of eighty-four pups; the majority of which were produced by breeding with Hektor's other offspring. Although this did create uniformity it also concentrated the gene pool, thereby resulting in the increased expression of harmful recessive genes.
Needing to reintroduce genetic diversity to keep harmful recessive genes from manifesting, von Stephanitz bred two unrelated herding shepherd dogs into his line, Audifax von Grafrath and Adalo von Grafrath. Additionally, the Studbook for the German Shepherd Dog (SZ) shows that four Wolf Crosses were introduced into the line between dogs SZ#41 to SZ#76. Although wolf crosses may have been used and influenced the early German Shepherd Dogs, recent genetic testing has proven that the modern German Shepherd shares almost no genetic ties to the wolf: in fact less it is less closely related than a Shih Tzu.
The study, published in the May 2004 edition of the Science Journal titled, “Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog" suggests that any wolf influence was likely watered down over the last century to the point of non existence through possible breedings with other unknown working dog types. From the article:
“At K 3, additional structure was detected that was not readily apparent from the phylogenetic tree. The new third cluster consisted primarily of breeds related in heritage and appearance to the Mastiff and is anchored by the Mastiff, Bulldog, and Boxer, along with their close relatives, the Bullmastiff, French Bulldog, Miniature Bull Terrier, and Perro de Presa Canario. Also included in the cluster are the Rottweiler, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog, large breeds that are reported to have gained their size from ancient Mastiff-type ancestors. Less expected is the inclusion of the German Shepherd Dog. The exact origins of this breed are unknown, but our results suggest that the years spent as a military and police dog in the presence of working dog types, such as the Boxer, are responsible for shaping the genetic background of this popular breed.”
Under von Stephanitz’s uncompromising leadership the SV was able to accomplish a level of standardization in under 10 years that had taken other breeds 50 years or more. For this reason he is credited with being the creator of the modern German Shepherd Dog. Working diligently into the early 1900’s, as the popularity of the breed increased, he began writing and distributing newsletters throughout the SV detailing the qualities of each dog and which dogs should be bred together. Despite his efforts, though, it soon became apparent that the decline of the pastoral era and increasingly industrialized society was prompting the creation of German Shepherd Dogs with greater aesthetic appeal, often at the expense of decreased working ability. To combat the trend, von Stephanitz’s created a series of tests that each dog must pass before being allowed to breed and thus have their offspring registered as German Shepherd Dogs. The test, the forbearer of modern Schutzhund trials, was designed to test the individual dogs’ desire to work, courage, intelligence, trainability, bond to the handler, perseverance, and protective instinct.
In 1906, the breed made its official debut in America, when a female German Shepherd Dog, “Mira von Offingen” (Beowulf x Hella v. Schwaben), imported by Otto Gross was shown in the open class at Philadelphia. She was never registered with AKC and eventually returned to Germany. The next GSD to reach U.S. shores would be another female, “Queen von Switserland” (AKC # 115006) in 1908; she became the first GSD to be recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC). The first championships awarded to German Shepherd Dogs took place in 1913, when Luchs – a dog owned by Anne Tracy – made his championship along with another dog named Hera von Ehrangrund. This same year also saw the creation of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America (GSDCA) by Benjamin Throop and Anne Tracy, with 26 charter members. In 1915, the GSDCA published “Schooling and Training the German Shepherd Dog”, written by Max von Stephanitz, and held its first specialty show in Greenwich, Connecticut with club founder Anne Tracy judging the entries.
The onset of World War One and the entry of America into the fray created an air of distaste around all things German, and along with the Dachshund the German Shepherd soon found itself to be a much hated symbol of Germany. In order to abate some of the hostility, the AKC changed the name of the breed to the Shepherd Dog and the GSDCA became the Shepherd Dog Club of America (SDCA). In anti-German Britain, the German Shepherd Dog was likewise renamed the "Alsatian Wolf Dog" by UK Kennel Club (UKC) when it began to recognize the breed in 1919 fearing that the word “German” would harm the breed’s popularity. Although the “wolf dog” appendage would eventually be dropped, the name Alsatian would remain for the next 50 years. It wasn’t until 1977 that breed enthusiasts and purists launched successful campaigns that pressured the UKC into allowing the breed to be registered again as German Shepherd Dogs. The word "Alsatian", though, would still appear in parentheses as part of the formal breed name until it was finally removed in 2010.
Although anti-German sentiment did hurt the breeds popularity in both America and Europe during the war, the end of fighting saw the breed quickly regain its lost status thanks to the tales told by returning U.S. fighting men, some bringing shepherds with them, and dogs like Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart.
The story of Rin Tin Tin begins in Lorraine, France, in September of 1918, when US military forces came across the bombed out ruins of a German Dog Kennel, of which the only survivors were a female German Shepherd Dog and her litter of five puppies. All were rescued, including two that were taken in by Corporal Lee Duncan. He named one Rin Tin Tin, in reference to a puppet called Rin Tin Tin that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck. With the end of the war two months later, Rin Tin Tin returned with Duncan to his home in Los Angeles, California; where Duncan began teaching him how to perform various tricks. This lead to Rin-Tin-Tin performing at local dog shows where he was eventually spotted and filmed by a motion picture photographer who sold the footage to a studio for $350. This in turn led to the dog being included in a Warner Brothers film called “Man from Hell’s River”. The movie was a success and Rin Tin Tin became a star. He would go on to perform in a total of 26 films before passing away at 13 years of age in 1932. During the height of his stardom he received over 10,000 fan letters a year.
To appreciate the effect that Rin-Tin-Tin had on the overall popularity of the German Shepherd Dog, one only need look at the AKC registration statistics. In 1920, before Rin-Tin-Tin’s appearance in the movies, the AKC registered 2,135 "Shepherd Dogs." Six years and six movie appearances later, that number swelled to an amazing 21,596 AKC Shepherd Dogs registered. Such was the popularity of the breed that for several years during the 1920's the German Shepherd Dog was the most popular breed in the United States. There was however, an unfortunate bi-product of Rin-Tin-Tin’s success - a plethora of puppy mills sprung up to capitalize on his success by flooding the market with low quality “German police dogs”. Further hurting the breed was that the fact that the offspring of the first AKC registered GSD, Queen of Switzerland suffered from defects as well. The cumulative effect was a down-turn in popularity entering World War II.
In post-WWI Germany, though, there were serious breeders that continued to enforce strict breeding protocols and apply recommendations for (or against) breeding in order to produce high quality dogs. There were also plenty of breeders producing and exporting lower quality dogs to America in search of American dollars in inflation riddled Germany. Noticing the change in his breed towards oversized square dogs, dog of less than reliable temperament and dogs with faults of dentition, von Stephanitz and other high ranking members of the SV decided drastic measures need to be taken. The solution presented itself at the 1925 Sieger show when von Stephanitz selected Klodo von Boxberg as world Sieger; a dog that was worlds apart in appearance from its predecessors. A long dog of lower station with a short loin and far-reaching gate, Klodo would mark the birth of a “new” type of German Shepherd Dog. Demonstrating the power of the American Dollar during this time, Klodo was purchased and imported by A. Gilbert of Maraldene Kennels in Hamden, Connecticut. A potent sire, Klodo, would go on to produce a number of important sons and daughters- making him largely responsible for both the faults and virtues of the modern North American lines.
Entering the 1930's von Stephanitz was faced with a new problem; Nazis. Adolf Hitler’s rapid rise to power spread Nazism. Their increasing dominance in every facet of German life led to their eventual proliferation throughout the upper membership of the SV. Concerned more with the beauty of the breed than its function, the Nazis began moves to take over the club and the breed. In 1933, the Nazis began seizing all Jewish assets, including entire Jewish run working dog Kennels. Although non-Jewish breeders were allowed to keep their dogs and given ration cards to feed them, it was understood that such a valuable asset could be seized anytime for service use. Additionally dogs that failed to meet the Nazis appearance standards were shot on sight, in so doing Nazis destroyed some of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines of the breed.
Although von Stephanitz fought hard to prevent the Nazi agenda from destroying the breed he had spent the last 40 years perfecting, the times were against him. The Nazis with their controlling interest in society and the SV were able to do as they pleased. After interviewing Herta von Stephanitz (daughter of Max von Stephanitz), to learn the details of his departure from the SV for her book "The German Shepherd Today", noted German Shepherd Dog authority Winifred Gibson Strickland wrote:
“there were many SV members who were Nazis and they tried to meddle in the affairs of the SV. They persistently used vile means to cut von Stephanitz off from his life’s work and when he resisted they threatened him with a concentration camp. He gave up, after having managed his SV for thirty-six years.”
One year later on April 22, 1936; the 37th anniversary of the SV, Max von Stephanitz died at his home in Dresden, Germany.
In America, 1936 was the year that John Gans imported the German Sieger Pfeffer von Bern; a dog that would go on to become the 1937 and 1938 Grand Victor in American Kennel club dog shows. In 1938 Sidney Heckert imported another German Sieger Odin vom Busecker Schloss. Like their forefathers, these dogs would be heavily inbred and line-bred upon and their progeny would form the basis for the majority of modern day American German Shepherd Dog lines.
From the onset of World War II in 1939 through its conclusion in 1945, German Shepherd Dogs found widespread use by Allied and Axis forces alike as scouts, sentinels, messenger dogs, protection dogs, and recovery dogs. Following the war, though, there was a divergence of type between the American German Shepherd Dogs and their German counterparts. While the Americans were able to continue breeding along the Pfeffer and Odin lines, in Germany the breed was in disarray. War time hardships such as starvation and Nazi interference had all but destroyed the breed. The few dogs that had managed to survive the war were a tough, lean, and resilient type that would give the breed a new start in Germany.
German fanciers seeking to restore the German Shepherd Dog searched the country for the best of the few remaining dogs and began outcross breeding them. Of the dogs to survive, the three most influential on rebuilding the breed were “Rolf vom Osnabrücker-Land”, “Axel von der Deininghauserheide” and “Hein vom Richterbach”. Together these three dogs and their progeny would be responsible for rebuilding the German Shepherd in Germany after the war. By outcrossing and linebreeding through these dogs over the course of a few generations, the German breeders successfully created a small contingent of high quality dogs that possessed all of the desired attributes. At this point these 'new' German Shepherd dogs were again inbred, linebred and culled to firmly imprint their best qualities back into the line. The success of this process was signified by the reappearance of quality German Shepherd Dogs in German dog show circles by 1949.
American kennels such as Long-Worth Kennels, founded by Lloyd Brackett, Liebestraum Kennels, owned by Grant Mann, and Hessian Kennels, owned by Art and Helen Hess continued to inbreed through Pfeffer and descendants of his half-brother Odin Vom Busecker-Schloss to establish a beautiful German Shepherd Dog. Just as had happened in the time of Horand von Grafrath, however, the process of inbreeding and linebreeding firmly imprinted both the good and the bad into the American German Shepherd Dog by super concentrating the gene pool resulting in recessive gene prominent health issues.
In response American breeders in the 1950’s, seeing the need for outside bloodlines, brought in outcross blood from the progeny of Siegers Klodo von Boxberg and Odin von Stolzenfels for introduction into their lines. Also introduced into the American lines at this time were a German import and the product of the earlier “Rolf vom Osnabrücker-Land”, “Axel von der Deininghauserheide” and “Hein vom Richterbach” combinations; “Troll von Richterback”, the 1957 Grand Victor and a dog with enormous appeal. Troll brought power, thickness of bone, rear drive, and hindquarter strength into the American lines; things that up until his introduction were sorely lacking in many of the American German Shepherd Dogs. Unfortunately he also brought weak ears, blues, fading pigmentation and straight upper arms.
The next two major players in the American line of German Shepherd Dogs would be imported dogs “Bernd v Kallengarten” and “Falk v Eningsfeld” that were used to improve the shoulder, bone, feet, substance, suspension, head, croup, tailset and body length of the American line but also brought some more negatives such as weak ears, an overly steep croup, week ligamentation, long coats and offspring with a high percentage of hip and elbow dysplasia. Bernd also introduced the solid-black gene into the American line of German Shepherd Dogs.
Entering the 1960’s, American policy changed as they tended to shy away from further imported German dogs opting to work with what they had instead; in part due to the cost of importing them and also a perceived lack of quality. Working with existing lines, American breeders began consolidating the bloodlines by breeding the best of the best. This strategy proved to be a successful one that produced litters such as the famed “Arbywood F Litter” (Frigga of Silver Lane x Troll v Richterbach ), as all the dogs had first names starting with the letter “F” and which more notably produced six champion German Shepherds; Ch. Fels, Ch. Field Marshal, Ch. Fortune, Ch. Fashion, Ch. Ferd, and Ch. Falko of Arbywood. The epitome of consolidation, this pedigree merged the Klodo Boxberg/Odin Stolzenfels/ Pfeffer/Utz and Axel/Rolf/Hein combinations into one solid line that would change the future of American German Shepherd Dogs.
Lance of Fran-Jo (Ch. Fortune of Arbywood x Frohlich's Elsa v Grunestal) would be one such dog. Ushering in a new era; he brought angulation, topline and sidegait to the American German Shepherd Dog. As a popular and widely used sire, his offspring would form the foundation of the breed in America through dogs like Eko-Lan's Morgan, Cobert's Reno of Lakeside, Mannix of Fran-Jo, Lakeside's Harrigan, and Cobert's Golly Gee of Lakeside. Other notable dogs of this line include Doppelt-Tay's Hammer and Doppelt-Tay's Hawkeye who were popular sires during the late 1970’s.
Other notable dogs of Lance’s era include 1966 Grand Victor and Best of Breed Ch Yoncalla's Mike; a 3 year old black and tan of beautiful type and outline that further consolidated Pfeffer/Odin blood and brought balanced structure, rich color, strong bone and good feet to the American German Shepherd Dog. Mike, a potent and widely used sire would go on to produce offspring such as Grand Victor Hollamor's Judd; another dog, who through his daughters, figures heavily in the American German Shepherd of today.
The 1960’s also began the era of true divergence between the American German Shepherd Dog and their German Counterparts. As winning shows became a top priority, American German Shepherd Dogs, began to move further and further away from the “all purpose working dog” von Stephanitz originally envisioned. Professional handlers began to control the sport and wield much influence within breeding circles by encouraging events such as the Futurity/Maturity system (a puppy match and breeders show) that encouraged premature breeding of dogs before their actual genetic worth could be observed.
While at this same time on the other side of the ocean, in 1960’s Germany, the (non-Nazi) SV was back in control and taking steps to eliminate the non working German Shepherd Dogs through stricter regulations, a tattoo identification system and by placing greater emphasis on producing working quality bloodlines. The SV also began forcing potential show candidates to complete at a minimum, a Schutzhund 1 degree and the Ausdauerpruefung (Endurance test), commonly abbreviated AD, before a dog could even hope to have a chance at being competitive in their events. The SV didn’t stop there and through the 1970’s they continued to put pressure on the breeders to correct problems such as missing teeth, poor croups and lack of working ability (Schutzhund 3 became mandatory for those hoping to achieve top Seiger show ratings).
Since the SV controlled the studbook, who got registered and the officiating at the shows, they were able to reshape the German Shepherd Dog back into a working breed by severely penalizing dogs that failed to meet their high standard of quality of proving themselves as a sound working dog. Their new found quality control procedures not only strengthened the breed overall but made their working German Shepherd Dogs a highly marketable and sought after commodity for export to countries such as Japan, Italy, South America, and others.
Which brings us to the German Shepherd of today and with it some conflict. Although both strains of German Shepherd Dog (German and American) were initially created from the same few dogs, over the course of the last 50 years they have taken a somewhat divergent course. In the United States the emphasis was for the most part placed upon creating a high quality show dog. While the Germans, with the SV in control, reverted back to the original ideals of von Stephanitz in placing the emphasis upon working ability first. This has resulted in many of the differences we see today such as in color and size, with German bred Shepherd Dogs tending to be larger and darker than their American counterparts.
However, the most obvious difference between the two types and the one that has drawn the most criticism concerns the overall stance of the dog. While German Shepherd Dogs of German lines have a strong, straight back; the American German Shepherd Dog has an extremely sloping back with sharply angled hip joints that cause the dogs to walk on their hocks. Traits that are often praised in the American show ring for making the dog look longer and that allow the “flowing gait” that American judges look for. SV judges on the other hand would severely penalize dogs such as these as they feel it diminishes the most important part of the German Shepherd Dogs structure; the rear drive of the dog. This has led to American German Shepherds commonly being referred to as Slopped Back Shepherds, or mocked as "half dog, half frog".
Critics feel that American show breeders have strayed to far from von Stephanitz's original ideology that German Shepherds should be bred primarily as working dogs. It is their opinion that dogs, such as these would have been eliminated as defective under the original guidelines for the breed. Which called for a working breed suitable for all situations as they feel it causes poor gait and disease in the hind legs. Show judges have also come under fire for providing constant reinforcement by rewarding breeders of these overly angulated show dogs with wins; a practice that only serves to encourage more of the same.
This was demonstrated by its apparent spread to the show dogs other European nations. A problem that was catalyzed in the BBC documentary "Pedigree Dogs Exposed', in which an orthopedic vet remarked on footage of dogs in a show ring, “that they were not normal". The ensuing public backlash has forced The Kennel Club (UK) into a heated dispute with German Shepherd breed clubs about the issue of soundness in the show-strain breed. The Kennel Club's position is that "this issue of soundness is not a simple difference of opinion; it is the fundamental issue of the breed’s essential conformation and movement." Breed clubs have responded by saying that they feel they are being vilified for issues they were already aware of and/or attempting to address before the media storm erupted. In response The Kennel Club (UK) has begun retraining its judges to severely penalize dogs that suffer from the problems. It has also started to insist upon more testing for hip dysplasia and other common problems with the breed.
Placing show dog controversy aside, the modern German Shepherd Dog is the 2nd most popular purebred dog in America; accounting for 4.6% of all dogs registered according to the American Kennel Club (AKC) registration statistics for 2010. Renowned for their working ability and their intelligence, the German Shepherd Dog is one of the most widely used working breeds today. Whether in use by the military, the police or other organizations, this breed can commonly be found assisting their human handlers in the fields of protection work, search and rescue, cadaver recovery, narcotics detection, explosives detection, accelerant detection, mine detection, among others to include guide dogs for the visually impaired.
From the Breed Standard:
“The ideal dog is stamped with a look of quality and nobility--difficult to define, but unmistakable when present.”
The physical appearance of the German Shepherd is a lot like that of a wolf. It is a large, strong, well muscled, athletic dog, with harmonious development of the forequarter and hindquarter. The dog should be well balanced and alert, with a deep body that presents an outline of smooth curves rather than sharp angles. Longer than it is tall, the standard states that the ratio of length to height should be 10 to 8.5. The desired height for males is 24-26 inches, for females 22 to 24 inches. As a working breed no standard is given for weight, only that the dog be medium large sized with sufficient substance to fulfill its purpose as a working dog. This typically mean that an adult male will weigh between 66-88lbs (average around 75), and females 48-70lbs (average around 60). However, there are breeders that have adopted the bigger is better mentality producing dogs in excess of 100lbs that would be well outside of any reasonable standard.
The head of the German Shepherd Dog should be clearly defined, in proportion with the body and either distinctly masculine or feminine to match the sex of the dog. The skull of the German Shepherd dog should slope into the long wedge-shaped muzzle without abrupt stop. The topline of the muzzle should be parallel to the topline of the skull. The only acceptable nose color is black. A vital part of the German Shepherd Dogs toolset is it’s strongly developed, powerful jaws, that should meet in a scissors bite. The medium sized, almond shaped eyes should set slightly oblique but no protrude away from the face. The optimum color is as dark as possible. The moderately pointed ears should be neither too large nor too small, instead being in proportion to the overall size of the skull. Carriage should be so that the center lines of the ears (when viewed from the front) are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground.
The strong, muscular and relatively long neck should be in proportion to the overall size of the head and devoid of loose folds of skin. Proper carriage is such that when the dog is alerted, the head is raised and the neck is carried high. When relaxed the head is carried forward and slightly higher than the top of the shoulders, particularly when the dog is in motion. The deep, well developed and well let down chest should allow ample room from the lungs and heart of the working dog. When viewed in profile the prosternum (bulge at the front of the dog's chest covering the sternum bone) should show lie ahead of the shoulders. The well sprung, long ribs are neither barrel shaped, nor to flat and should carry down to the lowest part of the chest. From the lower chest backwards the ribs lead smoothly into a moderately tucked and firmly held abdomen.
The long, obliquely angled shoulder blades lie well back and flat to the body. The upper arm should join the shoulder blade at very near a right angle. The well muscled shoulders should lead to equally well muscled and well boned upper arms that provide the dog with strength and stability. The forelegs, no matter the angle from which they are viewed should be straight and the bone more oval than round. The strong and spring-like pasterns angulated at approximately a 25-degree angle from vertical.
Slightly higher, the withers should slope into the “Level” back. The relatively short back should be “Straight”, well developed, muscular and without sag or roach. When viewed from the top, the loin is broad and strong. The croup should be long and gradually sloping. The tail should form a natural extension of the spine, set smoothly, but low into the croup, the last vertebra of the tail should extend at least to the hock joint. When at rest the tail hangs low and curved like a saber and when the dog is alerted the tail is raised, but never curled forward beyond a vertical line. When viewed from the side, the entire rear assembly of the dog is broad with well developed upper and lower thighs. The upper thigh bone should parallel the shoulder blade while the lower thigh bone should parallel the upper arm. The rear feet should mirror the attributes of the front. When viewing the dog in its entirety is should give the impression of a capable working dog with depth and solidity without bulkiness.
The desired coat is a double coat of medium length, with a dense outer coat of straight, harsh hairs that lie close to the body. A slightly wavy outer coat, often of wiry texture is acceptable. The head, including the inner ear and foreface, and the legs and paws are covered with short hair, while the hair of the neck, back and tail is longer and thicker.. The rear of the forelegs and hind legs has somewhat longer hair extending to the pastern and hock, respectively. The coat comes in many colors and nearly any color is acceptable, the darker and richer the better, with white, blues or liver colored dogs being the exception.
The Breed Standard for the German Shepherd states that it’s temperament,
"has a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence, and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them. It is poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert; both fit and willing to serve in its capacity as companion, watchdog, blind leader, herding dog, or guardian, whichever the circumstances may demand. "
In a perfect world this would be every German Shepherd. The popularity of the breed and accordingly the large numbers of breeders creating them, though, makes it rare to find a dog that possesses all of the above attributes. In reality, the personality or temperament of the modern German Shepherd varies from dog to dog and from line to line: running the gamut from outright aggressive to being hand shy or skittish. As a broad generalization, German working lines tend to be the most serious, hard-tempered and businesslike, while American show dog lines show a wider dispersion of personalities that can range from passive, to hyperactive and apprehensive, to untrusting and shy, to dimwitted. As with their personalities, energy levels also vary from dog to dog and line to line. Some can be quite excitable, others rather sedentary; but all German Shepherds, regardless of disposition, should be exercised regularly through activities like walking, jogging or fetch, to stay both physically and mentally healthy.
German Shepherds, bred specifically to be intelligent are for the most part a smart, thinking breed. In Stanley Coren’s book "The Intelligence of Dogs", German Shepherds rank as the third most intelligent breed of dog, behind Border Collies and Poodles (the good ones anyway). The book notes that, on average, they have to ability to learn simple tasks after only five repetitions and obeyed the first command given 95% of the time. This innate intelligence explains the need to stimulate the mind of a German Shepherd more than the body to stave off boredom and prevent negative or destructive behaviors that could result from a bored dog.
Their natural intelligence and ability to think beyond the norms of the average dog mean that a quality German Shepherd is one of the most capable and trainable breeds in existence. The downside to this for inexperienced dog owners is that a German Shepherd Dog can and will use its intelligence to observe the situation and take advantage of passive or inexperienced dog owners. Inexperienced owners, often beguiled by this dogs intelligence, make the mistake of treating it as if it were human and in so doing inadvertently reinforce bad behaviors that can create future problems.
It is important that all German Shepherd dog are enrolled in an obedience class from a young age; not only help train the dog and channel its mental and physical energy, but also to help establish the human/dog alpha/beta relationship. The breed will do best in a home with a confident, assertive owner that carries a natural authority in their demeanor. German Shepherds are happiest when they have a human leader to look up to, to work for and to please. Training should be kept fun, exciting and mentally stimulating; as an intelligent breed, German Shepherds will tire quickly of being asked to perform monotonous tasks over and over again. Training should also be kept positive as the breed does not respond well to overly harsh discipline and may react aggressively in response or lose its trust in the owner and refuse to follow future commands. It is important to remember that the German Shepherd is an extremely loyal, loving and brave breed that, when properly bonded with a caring and responsible owner, will not think twice about giving their life to protect them.
Socialization from a young age is another critical factor for German Shepherds. As a breed known for being a natural guardians and protectors, it is important to expose them as puppies to the people, animals or situations you want them to accept as adults. Imprinting, tolerance and understanding while young is the key to avoiding problems in the future, where the dog may act protectively towards an unfamiliar animal or situation. German Shepherds are commonly cited for having problems with other adult dogs of the same sex, although, well socialized dogs or dogs that have been raised together with other breeds tend lack this trait. Thus it is not advisable to bring an adult German Shepherd Dog into a home that already has other adult dogs of the same sex, as problems can and most likely will result. The breed has also been noted for chasing and/or killing smaller animals such as cats, rabbits etc.
German Shepherds are notoriously territorial and may act aggressively in response to a perceived threat to their territory either from a strange animal or unfamiliar human. It is important that owners of this breed are responsible and properly secure their dog when not around to prevent unwary humans or dogs from wandering into their territory.
Unfortunately, many people that purchase a German Shepherd to protect the home think they need a very dominant, aggressive dog. This is a risky decision, and the wrong choice for a family pet. A well bred, sound and loving German Shepherd is naturally protective of their home and family without excessive aggression. The typical German shepherd puppy will start to show awareness of their environment around six months of age: it is at this age that they will begin to warn of approaching strangers. A large, alert dog and a few warning barks is generally all the protection most families require. It is important to note that an overly aggressive or unsound dog should never be trained in protection work, nor encouraged to act aggressively, because it will be a danger far more often than an asset. Anyone that is seriously interested in acquiring a personal protection dog for them or their family should choose the dog and the trainer carefully, for an unstable dog or unknowledgeable trainers can create a disaster.
In the home German Shepherd Dogs are loyal and loving family members that typically do well with children. However, due to the fact that so many German Shepherd dogs are badly bred by unknowledgeable people there can be a wide range of temperaments. Trainers familiar with the breed commonly see dogs that exhibit neurotic behaviors such as aggression, skittishness or extreme fear and fear biting. Before bringing a large, powerful and potentially aggressive dog such as this into your home it is important that your carefully research the dogs pedigree, talk to owners of related dogs and perform your due diligence to ensure you are getting a dog of sound temperament. Temperament is inherited, therefore it is a direct result of the dog's breeding (genetics). In the event that you do find a suitable dog, always ensure that any play between large dogs and small children is supervised to ensure that the dog is being treated with respect and that it is not placed into a position that would make it feel the need to act out aggressively.
While much of the above may seem precautionary or negative, the well bred German Shepherd Dog tends to make a wonderful, loving and worry free family companion. It is the result of unsound breeding practices by unscrupulous individuals that has created such a wide array of personality types within the breed. The type of German Shepherd Dog that you bring into your home depends upon you and your willingness to perform the proper research. If you want a family companion, then steer clear of high-energy working lines, and if you want a dog for protection, you should likewise stay away from show lines. More so than most other breeds, with German Shepherds, you must carefully and diligently research the pedigree or you will end up with a dog that is nothing like you were looking for. In this breed more than most others, individual dogs can vary from one extreme to the other.
As the German Shepherd possess a thick double coat of fur with a coarse long topcoat some grooming and ritual brushing is required if you plan on letting them live in the house. This generally consists of regularly brushing and combing the dog twice a week so that the double coat is well managed. In some strains the undercoat will shed or “blow out” annually; for females this may happen twice a year. German Shepherds are considered to be moderate shedders that typically shed year-round. Caring for this breed requires that you put up with plenty of dog hair on the furniture and carpet.
German Shepherds are ardent cleaners themselves, and will tend to many of their own needs independently. If an owner notices an increase in the amount of hair removed during grooming, however, extra attention may need to be paid to the coat in coming weeks.
Although the average lifespan of a German Shepherd is 9.7 years (normal for a dog of their size), the breed is known to be susceptible to a wide array of congenital health defects; a problem only exacerbated by the breeds current status as the second most popular dog breed in America. The popularity of the breed and its long history as a servant and protector of man has also made it a very profitable dog to breed and sell. As such there are many individuals, on both the large and small scale that see breeding German Shepherds as a quick and easy way to make money. It’s the simple economics of supply and demand; as such a popular breed, the demand is currently outstripping supply. This almost guarantees that German Shepherd Dog breeders will be able to sell their puppies quickly (which cuts down on holding costs) and at a premium. The result has been a surge in not only the number of puppy mills that crank out hundreds upon hundreds of German Shepherd puppies each year, but also the number of backyard breeders hoping to make some quick cash; both of which produce puppies that may or may not be of sound body or temperament.
Since German Shepherds are typically a cash crop to these individuals, they tend to care very little about preserving the health, intelligence or stamina of the breed. They are more interested in how quickly they can sell a litter of puppies and how much money they will make in the process. It is this so called “puppy mill” mentality that has made many congenital defects considerably more acute and life altering for dogs unfortunate enough to be affected by them. If you are interested in acquiring a German Shepherd Dog puppy, ensure that you seek out a licensed, reputable and experienced breeder that is willing to provide not only a health guarantee for the puppies they sell, but has had all breeding stock genetically screened and cleared of genetic problems before breeding. It is generally advisable to start your search for a puppy with the parent club for the breed. Breed clubs typically have a code of ethics that requires breeders to adhere to a certain standard. While this won’t guarantee that you get a perfect Puppy, it’s considerably better than risking potential health problems by purchasing from puppy mills, pet stores or back yard breeders.
Further degrading the health of the breed is that many common ailments of German Shepherds are a result of the tremendous amount of early inbreeding the breed experienced during its creation. Although this firmly implanted many of the admirable and excellent qualities that the breed possesses today, it did so at the cost of increasing recessive gene related health issues. From heart disease and cancer, to hip and elbow dysplasia, to stomach disorders and skin diseases, German Shepherds are one of the riskiest breeds in terms of long-term health. The list of serious health problems to which the breed is susceptible is, unfortunately, dismayingly long.
According Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), the most common problems are Degenerative Myelopathy- affecting 19.2%, Elbow Dysplasia- also affecting 19.2% and Hip Dysplasia- affecting 19% of all German Shepherd Dogs surveyed. This does not take into account cancer, which will claim the lives of over 15% of all German Shepherds fewer than 10 years of age. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) is particular prevalent within the breed.
Other health problems that have been reported in this breed include: