German shepherds as we think of them today are actually a relatively new breed. While their ancestors do have a long and illustrious history, the tan and black-saddled dog that we think of as the stereotypical German shepherd dog was only bred into existence within the last two centuries.
Not just a favorite in America and, of course, in Germany, these dogs are world renowned for their intelligence, versatility, and extreme loyalty. Though they can grow to be quite big and strong, with massive jaws that make them the ideal choice for military institutions and police forces, they are gently and protective enough to have around even small children.
Because of centuries of selective breeding, they can be trained to work with individuals with disabilities, to be loving caretakers for children, and to be vicious guard dogs who will not back down even from the most ferocious attackers.
Early History of the German Shepherd Dog
This breed did not begin to be standardized until 1889. A captain in the German army, by the name of Max von Stephanitz, picked one of the many shepherd types that were being bred to work with the military and in the fields. He was a yellow dog with gray patches and a wolf-like appearance, currently employed as a sheepherder.
His original owners reported no training that had gone into getting him to herd the sheep, he had simply been born knowing how to keep the herd in line. The dog was purchased by the captain, who renamed him Horand von Grafrath. He was the very first German shepherd of the breed, though still very dissimilar from the dogs that we think of today.
Von Stephanitz was also the founder of the first successful dog club centered on the German shepherd. He was the first president of this club and through regular inbreeding of Horand with his siblings, it was very easy to standardize the breed in just a few years. These dogs were bred not just for their body shape and coloration, but also for their intelligence and versatility. His entire endeavor was governed by a single idea: “utility and intelligence.”
Unlike how German shepherd show dogs are bred today for a specific coloration and body style, the focus of early breeding efforts was to achieve a line of dogs that were all as naturally employable as the original Horand von Grafrath. The standardization of the color and body shape was a side effect of the inbreeding—the beauty always took a back seat to the personality traits, as von Stephanitz believed that a beautiful dog without the right traits was useless.
These early breeding efforts laid the foundation for the entire breed, making those personality traits part of the breed’s overarching characteristics.
Of course, the inbreeding during this time, including breeding Horand with his own sisters and his children with their siblings and half-siblings standardized the breed, but it also resulted in some of the congenital defects that still persist in the breed even today. Not unlike the royalty in Europe, especially in the early days, who suffered from widespread hemophilia because of inbreeding between very closely related families, German shepherd dogs have continue to have problems with heart disease and hip dysplasia.
After these kinds of defects started to manifest themselves in the litters, von Stephanitz pulled breeding individuals from other strains who had similar origins in herding, to try to breed out many of these issues. As German’s pastoral era ended and the industrial period began, the dogs that the captain had worked so hard to breed began to be picked up by police forces and to get attention from dog clubs that governed working breeds.
In order to get these dogs admitted to the working dog clubs, von Stephanitz, in conjunction with the police, began to develop tests to demonstrate a dog’s tracking ability, protective nature, and obedience. These tests would eventually be used to develop the Schutzhund trials that are still used today.
The dogs would be widely utilized in the oncoming war, to do everything from carry messages to delivering supplies, to tracking prisoners, to working with the Red Cross. This would largely be due to von Stephanitz’s own lobbying for GSD, making them an integral part of Europe’s history.
1907: The Beginning of German Shepherds in America
The first German shepherds came to America in 1907, as a part of a German shepherd dog exhibit. Her name was Mira von Offingen, and she was entered in dog shows as a part of the “open class” in shows in both Philadelphia and Newcastle. It would be six years before a GSD would win a championship in America.
That same year, in 2013, Anne Tracy and Benjamin Throop would form the very first club for German shepherds in America. Their first show was in 1915, but when the country finally joined the First World War in 1917, anything German became extremely taboo.
The club immediately changed its name to the Shepherd Dog Club of America, dropping the German altogether, despite the dogs being from the exact same bloodline as the dogs that still bore the German name. The same happened in England, where the name of the breed became “Alsatian.” Any German connections would be largely ignored until the war was over.
When the war did end, most breeders and breed enthusiasts saw how the dogs were utilized by the German army during the war and were impressed with the loyalty and utility of the dogs and how easy they were to train. Some of the American soldiers brought German shepherd puppies home with them, and one such dog made his way into popular culture.
Rin-Tin-Tin was a dog adopted by an American soldier, who brought him home from the war and later had many starring roles in television and movies. As more and more of these movies and shows were made, the breed’s popularity shot through the roof.
In order to keep up with demand for this breed, puppy mills sprung up all over the country. The low-quality dogs produced by these mills, however, did not impress the American public and the popularity again began to decline.
During this time, there were very few serious breeders. Only Harrison Eustis and his wife, who ran Fortunate Fields Kennels in the country of Switzerland. They were dedicated not just to producing German shepherds, but to producing high quality, intelligent animals from a wide enough breeding pool to prevent many of the most common shepherd health issues. During this time, most of the GSDs imported from overseas were trained as seeing eye dogs for the blind at an institute in New Jersey.
German Shepherd Breed Surveys Begin
Germany was one of the first countries to start surveying and formally standardizing breeds like the shepherd. Representatives would write down the body shapes, colors, and personality traits for each dog in that breed, to determine which really were part of the breed, and which were not.
While this practice did not really catch on outside of Germany, but American buyers still wanted to source their dogs from these formally approved lines, and because the Germany economy was running rampant, American money was highly valued and welcomed for this breed.
During this time, von Stephanitz reviewed the breed standard against his own standard and discovered that they were much larger and squarer than his dogs. They were also being bred mostly for size and color and not for their personality traits or even temper. Because he was still a warden of the breed, he was able to divert breeding efforts, at least in Germany, towards the original standard. In order to start this breeding process, he chose a new breed leader, his name being Klodo von Boxberg.
This dog not among the dogs who had become the breed standard. He was longer, shorter, with a sloped back and the tan color and black saddle that has become the standard of German shepherds today. He was bred widely both in Germany and in America, where his recessive and dominant traits became the foundation of these dogs in both countries. The diseases he carried as recessive traits manifested when dogs were inbred, while his strong temperament and body can be found when dogs from his line are properly bred.
The History of German Shepherds Before and After World War II
Right before the beginning of the Second World War, there were several German shepherd dogs imported to the US. They were heavily inbred and this inbreeding laid the foundation for the stereotypical GSD dogs. The popularity of these dogs once again fell during the war, but after the war, there was yet another boom.
Both sides of the war wanted German shepherds to train to seek out mine fields, to work along the East and West Berlin border, and to serve in the army in a number of different capacities, despite the fact that the dogs currently being bred were not considered to be high quality dogs. They were beautiful, but they lacked the necessary temperament and personality to make them true staples of the breed.
After the war, many American breeders began importing German shepherd dogs to help cleanse the lines and return the breed to the right temperament, without losing the classic coloration and body style. Kennels blended the two most popular and stereotypical lines, producing dogs that were once again obedient, loyal, intelligent, as well as having the classic German shepherd appearance. Throughout the next decade, there were many famous litters that were widely bred and used to again standardize the breed.
German breeders were likewise standardizing the breed on their side of the pond and exporting dogs to American, as well as to Japan, Scandinavia, France, and Italy, where they were used as sheepherders and police dogs and service animals, as well as being show dogs and family pets. One of the most impactful breeding individuals during this time was named Canto. He was not just smart and energetic, he seemed to be bred especially for dog shows.
Because many breeders wanted dogs that were catered towards the show world, they wanted to breed their dogs with Canto. He was often bred with german shepherd working types, in order to produce hard-working, beautiful dogs.
Present Day German Shepherd Dog
The breed has been largely unchanged since the mid-1970s, both in America and in Germany. Just as there has been in the past, there continues to be cycles of inbreeding and then widely breeding, which creates generations of weaker dogs, followed by generations of stronger dogs.
The breed has changed much since it was originally standardized by Captain von Stephanitz. The show lines are rarely bred for a standard temperament, and dogs not bred for body shape and color, usually lack the tan and black saddle that has become the breed standard. When not properly bred, a German shepherd can be a fearful, aggressive, if beautiful dog. These problems continue to occur largely because there are few regulations for breeding in the world.