The German Shepherd is not only one of the world’s most popular companion dogs, but also probably the most widely used breed for service work. The development of the German Shepherd Dog, along with a number of existing breeds, helped pioneer the modern use of dogs for service and community work that we can see today. For a breed of dog that has only been officially recognized for just over 100 years, it has made an outstanding contribution to mankind worldwide.
Captain Max von Stephanitz
The origins of the breed came from various sheep dogs found in Germany during the last century. Captain Max von Stephanitz had long admired the qualities of intelligence, strength and ability found in his native German sheep-dog breeds of which there were long, rough, wire and short coated varieties, all much alike in build, but with various colourings masking the similarities of type but he had yet to find a dog which embodied all of his ideals. Captain Max von Stephanitz purchased a dog named Hektor Linksrhein which greatly impressed him. Von Stephanitz subsequently renamed the dog Horand v Grafrath. On 22nd April 1899 Von Stephanitz, Adolf Meyer, Ernst Von Otto and others, formed the Verin fur Deutsche Schaferhunder (SV) in Germany. (SV) in Germany.
The translation of this name is roughly “ The German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany “. The SV started a registration book and Horand v Grafrath became the first registered German Shepherd Dog. On 20th September, 1899, the SV adopted a breed standard based on the proposals of Meyer and Von Stephanitz and later held its first specialty show at Frankfurt-am-Main, using the titles Sieger and Siegerin. The development of the German Shepherd Dog had begun.
In the second half of the 19th century, dog breed fanciers began to fix the type of sheep dog found in Germany that would eventually form the basis of the modern German Shepherd Dog. Various attempts were made to form associations to develop the German Sheep Dogs such as the Phylax club, which was formed in the early 1890’s but disbanded in a few short years. Not only were dog fanciers discussing the breeding of dogs, but also the training of dogs was becoming a great interest. A driving force of the time was Doktor Gerland who presented the world’s first trained police dogs just prior to the turn of the century. These events helped to bring the development of sheep dogs to the attention of many influential people in Germany.
Von Stephanitz who became President of the SV realized that increased industrialization in Germany would reduce the demand for sheep dogs and in co-operation with German authorities earlier this century, began trialing the German Shepherd in other roles to ensure its survival as a working breed. Through a firm guiding hand the SV became the largest single breed club in the world, and the breed became one the most versatile breeds known to man.
A careful policy of breeding the most typical bitches obtainable to Horand was followed; the progeny were ruthlessly selected for the required type and character and close inbreeding was resorted to, until, in a few years, size and general appearance were much more stabilized and the breed was now a very distinctive one, much less like the usual working sheep-dog type than when it started out. The erect ears were practically fixed, the medium coat length was fairly consistent, the size and weight were slightly increased, and animals were starting to show quality as well as workmanlike proportions.
Breeders of the native shepherd dogs were quick to appreciate the value of stabilizing type, of following a united policy under the inspired guidance of this master mind. They were willing to be dictated to, no less, in their breeding programmes. To be told, as time went on, which dogs would best improve on other lines, how many puppies their bitches should rear; and even to have their litters inspected and picked over at birth by “ breeding wardens “ appointed by the club (SV). Any other average race is, perhaps, temperamentally unsuited to such rigid methods of control, but it was fortunate for the breed that it suited the Germans, for this concentrated drive in the same direction over the whole breed resulted in an improvement at a very much faster rate than could have been obtained had everybody bred according to their own inclinations, as we do.
Right from the beginning there were shows, though not like ours. Young adult dogs of twelve to eighteen months and eighteen months to two years were restricted to the “ youth “ classes for either sex, and mature adult dogs of over two years had only one “age” class for either sex to compete in, the winner of which was that year’s Sieger or Siegerin (Grand Champion). As the tendency was for most bitches to breed to the current Grand Champion, von Stephanitz was able to guide the development of type by his annual selection of the dog he thought was needed at this stage. Judging was a very serious business and took two days. Pedigrees were examined as well as the dogs themselves, and from the very beginning the character of the dog was every bit as important as the structure.
However, due to some Siegers being larger and nobler in a short time the breed became a little taller than was proportionate, so that the working type needed to be brought once more to mind therefore von Stephanitz chose as his 1925 Sieger a grey (sable) dog of moderate size and firm, proportionate, a dog who set his stamp on the breed for evermore, and who marks the dividing line between the “old fashioned” and the “ modern “ German Shepherd –
Max von Stephanitz made such a good job of his dictatorship; he kept a tight rein on the breed and did his best to correct faults which cropped up from time to time in the most fashionable strains. Faults from which we suffer to this day, such as colour-paling, monorchidism, weakness of temperament, missing teeth, over or under size or any other defects which he knew to be hereditary and which he thought could be stamped out if strict care were taken. And in the main, the breeders accepted advice and kept the development of the breed as their objective, rather than their own personal advancement.
Only once did von Stephanitz fail to impose his will on the rank and file, when in 1930-1 he selected Herold aus der Niederlausitz as his Sieger, in the belief that a return to the old working type was needed again. Very possibly he was right. His 1929 Sieger, Utz v Haus Schuetting, had brought several faults as well as great virtues, and no doubt in Herold, von Stephanitz saw a change of improvement in firmness, mobility and pigmentation. Unfortunately, however, Herold was not another Klodo, which was what was needed. He was a very common grey dog, 67cm high, of only moderately good construction and with a glaring yellow eye; and despite the official blessing of the coveted Sieger title, the breeders did not like him, and gave him no opportunity to exercise any influence on the breed. He was eventually sold to Japan, and in his unworthy footsteps followed more of the medium sized, rather heavily built Grand Champions, first exemplified by Utz, and now accepted as the German ideal.
In 1937 the practice of awarding a Sieger title was discontinued, this was a year after the death of von Stephanitz himself. He had lived to see the breed which he had envisaged from the chance sight of a handsome shepherd dog thirty-seven years earlier, the breed which he had planned and directed, loved and lived for, grow into one of the world’s most beautiful canines and certainly the most versatile in all spheres of dogs utility to man. In 1938 the selection of an annual Sieger was replaced by the Auslesegruppe system, wherein a group of dogs from those classified “excellent“ was selected as being superior merit. In 1955 the Sieger title was reintroduced, but the Auslesegruppe was retained.
The onset of the First World War, saw both the German and French military using the German Shepherd as well as a number of other breeds for various functions, including search and rescue of casualties in “ no mans “ land, providing what was to become the basis for modern search and rescue dog teams. Dogs were also used to carry ammunition, messages, cables and first aid supplies between the trenches, often through artillery and small arms fire. Many allied soldiers, impressed by the bravery of the dogs, took captured German Shepherds home with them after the war.
Many soldiers were blinded during the First World War and German Shepherds were trained in large numbers by the German authorities as “seeing eye“ dogs for the blind. Other countries, including Great Britain, then attempted to train dogs based on this German program. The British dog trainers, however, experienced a great deal of negativity from the general public at first, and it took some time to gain public acceptance for the program. The success of guide dogs has since been proven worldwide. The United States also later formed a Seeing Eye Dog Schooling using German Shepherds. This occurred in 1929 in the US State of Jersey. Although the Labrador Retriever does the majority of guide dog work in Australia, the German Shepherd remains one of the most popular choices for this type of work worldwide.
During 1920’s canine movie stars such as Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart made the breed extremely popular outside of Germany. Great harm was caused as unscrupulous breeders, keen to cash in on the new found popularity, introduced poor breeding practices which, along with some irresponsible owners, worked against the founding principles of the breed.
The anti German sentiment which followed the First World War caused the British to re-name the breed as the Alsatian Wolf Dog. Although all dogs were through to have evolved from wolves, the name Alsatian Wolf-Dog led some people to believe the German Shepherd had been directly bred from wolves. The truth is that the German Shepherd carries no more wolf’s blood than any other breed.
In 1999 the 100th anniversary of the German Shepherd Dog was marked by world wide celebrations. A variety of shows, displays and events were held. The breeds’ high intelligence, well balanced temperament, physical size, courage and affinity for people continue to make it a very versatile service dog. These attributes are also utilized in obedience training, pets as therapy programs, search and rescue, sheep herding and all allow the breed to exercise its intelligence and drives. German Shepherds also enjoy physical exercise and their owners must be prepared to regularly exercise them. Many owners test this training and fitness by competing in various conformation and obedience competitions. Conformation shows allow individual animals to be compared against the breed standard.
The SV/FCI breed standard states that the German Shepherd Dog should be suitable as an all round working, herding and service dog. To achieve this a dog must be of well balanced temperament, steady of nerve, self assured, absolutely free and easy, and (unless provoked) completely good natured, as well as alert and tractable. He must have courage, combative instinct and hardness, in order to be suitable as companion, watch, protection, service and herding dog. The breed standard also describes the breed as being medium sized, slightly elongated, powerful and well muscled, the bones dry and the overall structure firm. The height of the withers for dogs is between 60 – 65cm, and for bitches is 55-60cm. The length of the body is greater than the height at the withers by about 10 to 17%. The physical make up of the dog is described in further details and helps enable the breed to carry out its intended purpose.
In relation to movement the Breed Standard describes the German Shepherd Dog as a trotter. The limbs must be of such length and angulations that the hindquarters may be thrust well forward under the body, and the forequarters reach equally far forward, without noticeable change in the top line. Any tendency towards overangulation of the hindquarters lessens their firmness and endurance, and thus the dog’s utmost working ability. With correct structural proportions and angulations, a roomy, smooth, ground covering gait results, that gives the impression of effortless forward propulsion. With the head pushed forward, and a slightly raised tail, an even and clam trot results in a softly curving and unbroken top line, running from tips of the ears, over the neck and back, to the tip of the tail.
It is believed that dogs that closely fit the breed standard will have the physical and mental characteristics to enable them to have the potential and willingness to work in a variety of tasks without undue stress. As with most dog training effective socialization and training is of utmost importance in any attempt to capitalize on this genetic potential. The other area of importance is the general health of the animal. It is not worth putting extensive training into an animal that may suffer from potential health problems, such as hip or elbow dysplasia.