The history of the German Shepherd, in comparison to other breeds, is a relatively recent tale. However, a century is all it took for this breed to secure it’s place as the top breed for canine protection. The UK Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club have all consistently ranked the German Shepherd among the top three most popular breeds alongside the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever.
Prior to the registration of the German Shepherd as an official breed, shepherd dogs throughout Germany were being bred for strength, intelligence and loyalty. Despite being bred for similar working qualities, shepherd breeds in Germany varied greatly in ability and appearance from community to community. The 1800s sought to standardize dog breeds in Germany with limited success. The Phylax society was developed for this purpose in 1891, but disbanded three years later as it’s members could not agree between breeding solely for working qualities versus breeding for appearance and showmanship as well. It was not until 1899 that Captain Max von Stephanitz, heralded by some as the father of the German Shepherd, established standards for the breed. His motto was “utility and intelligence,” and insisted that dogs be bred for their working abilities above all else. Von Stephanitz had seen a yellow and black wolf-like dog named Hektor Linksrhein at a dog show in Germany. He was so impressed by the strength and loyalty of the dog that he decided to purchase it on the spot. He renamed the dog Horand von Grafrath, and founded the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog) with Horand as the first registered German Shepherd. Horand was bred with admirable Shepherd dogs owned by other society members, and inbreeding among the best of these pups standardized the breed. Prior to the establishment of the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, all dogs used for shepherding in Germany were known as Deutsche Schaferhunde. These un-standardized breeds were renamed to Altdeutsche Schaferhunde (old German Shepherd).
At the turn of the century, just prior to the First World War, Von Stephanitz predicted the decline in demand for dogs as shepherds in an increasingly industrial society. Showing his dedication to the breed, Von Stephanitz began to promote the working German Shepherd for it’s intelligence and adaptability to different roles in German society. Most notably, German Shepherds began work with German police forces, a role for which the breed would later achieve world-wide recognition. In order to prove the strength, intelligence and loyalty of the breed, Von Stephanitz began the first of what would later become the Schutzhund trials. These trials were meant to prove a dog’s worth as a protection dog, a guard dog and a tracker. Dogs who did not perform admirably in these trials were not permitted to breed. This practise is continued in Germany to this day. Imports in America and Britain would also prove their worth through adaptability. Britain, already having many capable shepherd breeds, found use for German Shepherds as guide dogs for the visually impaired.
World War I saw the first use of German Shepherds in military roles. The same inherent abilities that helped the breed’s success in police roles made the German Shepherd vital to the German war effort. German Shepherds were employed as security dogs, trackers and messengers. Heroic German Shepherds were even trained to pull wounded soldiers away from the front lines. The heroism of the German Shepherd did not go unnoticed as French, American and British soldiers returned with rescued German Shepherd puppies. Stories of the valiant breed told by returning soldiers after the war created a spike in international popularity of the German Shepherd. However, anti-German sentiment caused Britain to rename the breed to the Alsatian Wolf-Dog, after the French-German border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The name German Shepherd would not be used again in Britain until 1977.
Fueled by the stories of soldiers after World War I, German Shepherds took the air-waves of American television. Televised German Shepherds such as Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart in the 1920s and 1930s boosted the popularity of the breed in the United States. Unfortunately, a lack of breeding standards in the United States, and the rise of puppy mills intent on cashing out on German Shepherd popularity, created an influx of poorly bred dogs. Fortunately, the efforts of a handful of serious breeders were able to maintain strong bloodlines in the German Shepherds of America.
In Germany, the rise of the Nazi party prior to World War II began to take it’s toll on the German Shepherd kennels and German Shepherd breeders of Germany. The Nazi party began taking kennels throughout Germany. Von Stephanitz himself was forced by the Nazis to relinquish control over the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde. Von Stephanitz died a year later. The German Shepherd was a powerful asset to both the Allied and Axis powers throughout the war. German Shepherds served as sentries, messengers, trackers and even mine-detectors. Adolf Hitler promoted himself as an animal-lover, and was often seen with his beloved German Shepherd Blondi. However, behind closed doors, many German Shepherds met their deaths at the hands of Nazi officials who deemed them to be unfit for service. In the weeks prior to Hitler’s suicide, the beloved Blondi met the same fate as Hitler had his doctor feed her a cyanide pill in order to test it’s effectiveness. Many of Germany’s best bloodlines were destroyed during the war. Those that survived the war succumbed to famine and disease in the battered and beaten post-war Germany. The few remnants of the traditional German bloodlines would revive the German Shepherd breed in Germany. However, it would take until 1949 for the German bloodlines to make a full come-back.
The end of World War II created the first definitive split in German Shepherd bloodlines. German Shepherd bloodlines in the United States continued on after the war. American bloodlines were marked by a number of subtle, yet distinct features, such as an elongated torso. The dogs that survived in Germany were tough and lean, and this was reflected in the traditional German bloodlines that were built up from the survivors.
Throughout the 50s, 60s and early 70s, German Shepherds continued their work in police roles across the globe. Meanwhile, German Shepherds were accompanying United States and United Nations forces as scouts and trackers in the Korean War and the War in Vietnam. Many veterans claim they owe their lives the valiant efforts of German Shepherds in Vietnam. Unfortunately, many of these dogs were labeled as “surplus armaments” and were euthanized after the war.
In recent history, it is not uncommon to see German Shepherds on the news bravely accompanying police forces in drug-busting raids, or sniffing out illegal arms-smuggling operations amidst a jungle of freight-containers. The United States has continued to use German Shepherds throughout the Gulf War and the War in Iraq. Some controversy has been caused by the use of aggressively-trained German Shepherds as intimidation during interrogation of insurgent detainees, but the majority of German Shepherd roles in Iraq have been as scouts and trackers. It has even been reported that the United States special forces have begun training German Shepherds to parachute into enemy territory ahead of US troops in order to scout ahead using small cameras attached to their heads. While this may sound slightly absurd, it’s interesting to note that the German Shepherd is not exempt for the tech-savvy cyber-soldier innovations of modern war-fare. Domestically, German Shepherds are finding loving families and life-time employment as family protection dogs alongside similar breeds such as the Dutch Shepherd and Belgian Malinois.
In only a century, the German Shepherd breed has flourished in working roles around the world, and stubbornly survived the hardships of history’s bloodiest wars. No matter what the future may bring, there is no doubt that the German Shepherd will be there, standing strong, proud, and ready to serve.