History of the German Shepherd

German Shepherd dog guarding a herd of sheep

Originating in Germany in 1899, the German Shephard breed has a long and interesting history. Historically, these dogs were used for herding and guarding sheep. They were bred to carry traits such as strength, intelligence, speed, and a keen sense of smell.

Prior to the 1850s, local shepherds throughout Germany would selectively breed dogs that they thought met these standards. Although the dogs all carried the necessary traits, the breed wasn’t standardized from region to region. In 1891, an organization known as the Phylax Society was formed with the goal of creating a standardized German dog breed. However, this organization was disbanded after only three years due to their inability to agree on whether the standard should focus on working characteristics alone or if it should also include aesthetic traits.

In 1899, Max von Stephanitz, a former member of the Phylax Society, came across a dog named Hektor Linksrhein at a dog show. Von Stephanitz was so impressed with this dog’s intelligence, strength, loyalty, and beauty, that he immediately purchased the dog. He renamed it Horand von Grafrath and founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog). He proclaimed Horand von Grafath to be the first German Shephard dog and added him to the society’s breed registry.

Von Stephanitz believed that German Shepherd dogs should be bred purely for their working characteristics. No matter how beautiful the dog, he believed it was worthless if it didn’t have the strong traits that a working dog should have. He used this philosophy and his “gold-standard” dog to initiate the breeding program that created the modern-day German Shepherd dog.

Horand von Grafrath produced many offspring with dogs owned by other society members who Von Stephanitz believed had all of the most desirable traits. The dog’s most successful offspring was Hektor von Schwaben who was then inbred with another of Horand’s puppies to produce the famous pup, Beowulf.  This ideal specimen of a dog then went on to father a total of 84 puppies, including several wolf crosses. Inbreeding continued among these litters, and it is from this breeding that every German Shepherd dog now has a genetic link.

Rise and Fall of Popularity

The German Shepherd’s popularity saw a series of peaks and dips, many of which were related to global events that were happening at the time, primarily World War I and World War II.

The UK Kennel Club didn’t begin accepting registrations for the German Shephard breed until 1919. At that time, only 54 dogs were registered. However, it didn’t take long for the breed to catch on. By the year 1926, the number of German Shepherds registered had grown to 8,000!

Across the pond in America, the Queen of Switzerland was the first German Shepherd registered in the United States in 1908. Sadly, her puppies had defects due to poor breeding and she did not contribute much to the proliferation of the breed. However, she did help grow the popularity of the breed in the U.S. and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was founded in 1913.

When World War I began, things changed as all things German became taboo. The American Kennel Club changed the breed’s name to “Shepherd Dog” and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America became the Shepherd Dog Club of America. In England, the breed was renamed “Alsatian Wolf Dog.” Eventually the “wolf dog” was dropped, and the breed was known as “Alsatian” until 1977 when enthusiasts pressured the kennel club to bring back the name “German Shepherd Dogs.” Although the change was made, the name “ Alsatian” was still listed in parenthesis until as recently as 2010.

Impact of the World Wars

After the first World War, American and Allied soldiers returned home with stories of the majestic German Shepherd dogs. Some even brought dogs home with them.

The German Shepherd’s loyalty, strength, and beauty became internationally known and appreciation for the breed enjoyed a resurgence. Movies like Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart further fueled the breed’s popularity.

Unfortunately, demand for German Shepherd dogs in the 1920s led to a growth of puppy factories and shoddy breeding. The subsequent health and disposition problems caused the breed to fall out of favor once again.

During World War II, German Shepherds were used by both Allied and Axis forces as guards, sentinels, messengers, mine detectors, and more. As tensions with the Germans settled down, the dogs once again became popular in the United States. By the 1960s, they were in-demand as a family pet and for important jobs like military and police work. In 1993, German Shepherds became the American Kennel Club’s third most popular dog breed in the United States. In 2009, they became the second most popular dog breed in the U.S. and still hold that title today.

Modern-Day German Shepherds

While German Shepherd dogs were originally bred for sheep herding, they’re now an extremely versatile breed with characteristics that make them ideal for a wide variety of important careers. They’re well-known for their superior intelligence. In fact, they currently hold the title of the third most intelligent dog among all breeds. They’re also highly active, self-assured, and extremely protective.

German Shepherds are now commonly used as police dogs, search and rescue, guard dogs, military dogs, and more. The police use them for tracking down criminals, patrolling blighted areas, and detecting and holding suspects. In the military, they’re used for scout duty and to warn soldiers of the presence of booby traps, enemy forces, and other dangers. They’ve even been trained to parachute out of airplanes.

Their superior sense of smell and ability to focus regardless of distractions also make them ideal for narcotics and explosive detection, mine detection, and cadaver searches. German Shepherds were once the primary dog used for assisting the blind, although this role has now been taken over by Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. Staying true to their roots, German Shepherds remain excellent herding dogs and are still used by farmers to tend sheep while they’re grazing in the fields. They also make excellent family pets and are popular therapy dogs.

The continued popularity of German Shepherd dogs means that puppy buyers still need to watch out for puppy mills and shoddy breeding. German Shepherds without proper breeding are prone to health problems like hip dysplasia, neurological disorders, and temperament issues. Those looking for a high-quality German Shepherd puppy need to ensure that their breeders are properly vetted and that the puppies come with a health guarantee. This will help ensure that the dog will have the best possible genetic makeup and isn’t prone to hereditary problems. 

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