Germany was once the home of a wide range of farm dogs, sheepdogs, and livestock guardians, every place and every purpose having its own unique type of dog. No one questioned this policy for many years—it was just how things were done among the rural peasantry.
All this changed when the Industrial Revolution hit Germany. Beginning as early as the 1830s, Germany made frequent attempts to modernize its economy after the pattern of Great Britain. Wars in 1870 and 1871 assisted the process considerably by completely unifying all of the small states and kingdoms that made up Germany. Unity achieved at long last, industrialization exploded throughout the country.
A paradigm involving many local landrace dog breeds did not fit the new circumstances. Dog breeding became a serious, organized enterprise in Germany, with breeders seeking to consolidate the many types into a breed that epitomized a standard of perfection. The problem at first was that breeders could not agree on what defined “perfection.” Some felt that an evaluation of form and physical characteristics was the best way to achieve the perfect dog. Others insisted that working ability was the only true measure of a dog’s worth.
One man brought order out of this chaos, and that one man was Max von Stephanitz, a captain in the German cavalry. Von Stephanitz fell into the second category of dog breeders, those who valued function over form. He felt that there was great potential in the gene pools of the German sheepdogs, but had yet to find his ideal dog.
Accordingly, von Stephanitz retired from the cavalry in 1898 to pursue his passion. For the first year, he spent his time studying the breeding principles that had proven so successful in Great Britain. He also traveled all across Germany to examine the many types of herding dogs.
In 1899, while attending a dog show, von Stephanitz happened to meet a dog that proved to be pivotal to his project. The dog’s name was Hektor, but von Stephanitz immediately bought him and changed his name to Horand. In Horand, von Stephanitz believed that he had found the perfect working sheepdog. Just as von Stephanitz was the sole originator of the German working dog, Horand was the sole foundation.
At first, the primary goal of the breeding program was to establish a breed of intelligent herding dogs that were consistently ready, willing, and able to work. Extensive inbreeding to Horand was the tool by which this was to be accomplished. The breed was to be known as the German Shepherd Dog. However, it did not take von Stephanitz long to realize that industrial Germany no longer needed a herding dog. Not willing to give up his prized working dogs, he repurposed them. He saw the potential that a smart, powerful dog could have in police and military work, and convinced the German government to adopt the breed.
World War I was the ultimate test of von Stephanitz’s breeding program. As many as 48,000 German Shepherds were enlisted in the army, usually after being taken by force from their owners. These dogs found many types of work on the war front. Some served as sentries, while others carried supplies and messages across the battlefields.
German Shepherds had been imported to America as early as 1907 and had been recognized by the American Kennel Club the following year. The war left a bad taste in the mouth of the public for anything German, however, so the breed did not take off until the armistice. Then returning soldiers who had been impressed with the dog’s abilities imported new specimens and promoted its abilities as a police and military dog.
One such dog was a young puppy saved from a kennel in France that the Germans had used to breed a supply of military dogs. Corporal Lee Duncan brought the puppy and his siblings, just a few days old, back to his unit for good luck, naming the puppy Rin Tin Tin after a doll that French children often gave to American soldiers as a lucky charm. After serving as the mascot of the 135th Aero Squadron, Rin Tin Tin came back to America to appear on the silver screen and save Warner Bros. from bankruptcy.
Rin Tin Tin was such a tremendous success that the popularity of the Shepherd Dog (not German Shepherd Dog in those post-war years) not only rebounded, but soared to new highs. By the mid-1920s, every third dog that the AKC registered was a Shepherd Dog.
But popularity is never without consequences for dog breeds. Breeders quickly jumped on the bandwagon and bred indiscriminately just to make a fast dollar. At the same time, the AKC promoted a focus on show conformation. Max von Stephanitz expressed great concern for his dogs, observing that the breed was already on a slippery slope of health problems and bad dispositions.
After performing with courage and devotion on both sides in World War II, the German Shepherd began to change at an even faster rate. American breeders emphasized a far-reaching gait known as the “flying trot,” characterized by extremely long strides. This unique style of movement was very flashy, but it necessitated an extreme conformation, with the back legs angled unnaturally. While show breeders made great progress in reducing problems with biting that had been lurking in the breed (a show dog that bites a judge won’t remain a show dog for very long), they also created a new version of the German Shepherd that was physically unable to work. Not surprisingly, police and military forces began to import the dogs they needed straight from Germany.
Although the divide between show and working bloodlines continues to widen, some American breeders have taken the time to redevelop good working German Shepherds on our own shores. Importation is no longer necessary to obtain sound dogs for police and military purposes.
Meanwhile, a few variations on the German Shepherd maintain a small but loyal following. The longhaired German Shepherd is not eligible for the show ring, but still has fans. The white German Shepherd was barred from the AKC in 1968. It was sufficiently popular, however, for the United Kennel Club to recognize it as a separate breed, the White Shepherd, in 1999. Finally, a unique color pattern has appeared in one bloodline of purebred German Shepherds due to a genetic mutation. Dogs with this new coloring are called Panda Shepherds, as a piebald gene gives them a somewhat panda-like appearance.
Despite its many ups and downs, the German Shepherd Dog has consistently remained one of the most popular dogs in the world. It is also currently the second most popular dog in America.
German Shepherds, particularly those from working bloodlines, are exceptionally versatile dogs. They are among the most common choices for dangerous duties, such as military and police work. In addition to their strong protective instincts, they have keen noses, which can be put to use detecting drugs and explosives or tracking down missing people in a search-and-rescue situation.
A good working German Shepherd can act as sort of a combination herding dog and livestock guardian. He has a unique instinct to “furrow,” which means to patrol an unfenced pasture. As he makes his rounds, he both keeps his herd or flock in the pasture and drives predators out.
German Shepherds are also top competitors in many dog sports, including agility, obedience, and herding trials. The sport of Schutzhund was developed in Germany specifically to test the abilities of this breed. Schutzhund involves tests for obedience, tracking, and protection skills.
Dogs from show bloodlines often do not have the temperament or physical stamina for performance. These German Shepherds, however, can make satisfactory companions.
It is nearly impossible to generalize about the temperament of the German Shepherd Dog, since there are so many variations. Each bloodline is unique, and there are often substatial differences between individuals of the same type. It is always best to ask breeders about their temperament-testing programs. Too many breeders fail to take temperament into consideration when choosing breeding stock.
Working bloodlines that trace back to the Soviet occupation of East Germany and Czechoslovakia are the ultimate police and military dogs. These German Shepherds are exceptionally driven and intense. They can be aloof and extremely aggressive, although perfectly stable. While they have high levels of energy, they do not channel their drive into frivolous activity, and need a serious job at the side of a trusted owner. They are highly trainable and obedient, but are not afraid to take the initiative if they feel the situation calls for it.
West German working bloodlines may be the closest in temperament to Max von Stephanitz’s ideal. Although still very high-energy and work-oriented, this type of German Shepherd can actually make a good pet for an active, competitive family. His temperament is very sound, and he is just as courageous as (although less aggressive than) his East German counterpart. While he is too intense to make a good couch potato until the end of the day when his work is done, his solid disposition makes him trustworthy around children. He is also a good herding dog. He prefers to work close to the stock, using his physical presence to control animals rather than stalking them. This type of German Shepherd has a natural instinct to gather loose livestock into groups, in keeping with his “furrowing” behavior. However, he can be taught to drive a herd in front of him.
German show lines also come from West Germany. They have plenty of drive, energy, and personality, but are not quite as bold as working German Shepherds. Their trainability and sound temperaments can make them excellent family watchdogs, or even top-winning Schutzhund competitors, but they lack the extreme courage needed for serious life-and-death protection work.
American show lines are the most laid-back German Shepherds. Because show dogs are disqualified for biting, this type was bred for a softer, mellower personality. He tends to be relatively low-energy, making him a good pet. The show German Shepherd is still quite smart and trainable, although not to the same degree as a dog from a working bloodline. What makes the difference is that a working German Shepherd will boldly push through any difficulties in his path to complete his task; a show German Shepherd will willingly obey until he meets up with an unfamiliar situation, then will wait for further instructions. He is also less courageous than his working counterparts.
Unfortunately, the most common type of German Shepherd is that bred by backyard breeders. These breeders may be well-meaning, but they often lack the expertise to properly test and breed for temperament, and may lack the resources to seek out proven breeding stock. While some soft, gentle dogs do come from backyard bloodlines, most German Shepherds bred in this way are extremely unstable. They tend to suffer from nervousness and anxiety, and may attack if frightened. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster in a family dog, let alone a working dog.
The White Shepherd has been maintained separately long enough to have developed its own unique temperament. He is a meek and mild soul, needing a softer touch to bring out the best in his sensitive disposition. His lower energy levels mean he needs less exercise and mental activity than the average German Shepherd. It is important that he be accustomed to novel circumstances and new people at an early age to avoid problems with fear. The White Shepherd is more talkative than the German Shepherd, using a variety of grunts, moans, and howls to communicate his feelings.
In keeping with the large number of bloodlines within the German Shepherd breed, the prevalence of health problems varies widely. East German bloodlines don’t have very many health issues due to stringent testing. West German bloodlines, whether show or working, were subjected to less testing in their past, so they might have the occasional inherited health issue. American show lines have severe soundness flaws related to their extreme conformation, while backyard-bred German Shepherds are prone to just about every disease in the book.
The most common health problems in German Shepherds are:
- Panosteitis (“growing pains”).
- Hip dysplasia.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Von Willebrand’s disease (a blood-clotting disorder).
- Degenerative myelopathy (a progressive disease of the spinal cord).
- Spinal stenosis (arthritis of the spine leading to nerve injury; also called cauda equina).
- Hot spots.
- Aspergillus mold infection.
- Pannus (immune-mediated inflammation of the cornea leading to blindness).
- Anal furunculosis (recurring boils in the anal region, probably due to an autoimmune disorder).
- Various forms of cancer.
Note that, like most large dogs, all German Shepherds can develop bone disorders while growing. Puppies should be exercised gently until two years old. This means no roughhousing on hard surfaces and no jumping above the dog’s elbow height. Some experts also recommend restricting the puppy’s calorie intake to avoid excessively fast growth.
- Wide range of bloodlines to fit every purpose.
- Low grooming requirements.
- Suitability for most climates.
- Difficulty of finding well-bred dogs.
- Legal liabilities.
- Need for experienced handling.
- Potential for biting, either protectively or in fear, depending on the bloodline.
- Year-round shedding plus “blowing coat” twice a year (these dogs are sometimes called “German Shedders”).
- Need for plenty of exercise.
- Numerous health problems.