The History of the German Shepherd Breed

Description of the German Shepherd Breed:

  • Noble and Beautiful
  • Versatility, Intelligence, Dependability, and Loyalty
  • By nature, wary of strangers, though once one is accepted by him, a friend for life.
  • He is an efficient, obedient worker, quick to learn and what is learned is never forgotten.
  • His is an active dog, thriving on work—little is beyond his capabilities
  • His eyes indicate the love and affection he has for those who care for him
  • He has an intelligent expression that will command attention
  • He loves human companionship
  • His one desire is to be with you and to please you
  • He will respond to his owner’s mood whether happy or sad
  • He has a keen sense of humor and enjoys playing games
  • But he is a frightening adversary when defending those he loves

Words of Advice:

In bringing a German Shepherd into your home, you are making an addition to your family. He will become a part of it. Your house, your yard, and your very possessions (in fact, all that you own) will, from then on, be under his special protection. He needs your love and care (attention to his grooming, exercise, food, and general welfare) for he will give you not only his love but his very life if called upon.

In the Beginning:

Man even long ago recognized that dogs’ ability far exceeded their own in many areas and served as an excellent complement to man, strengthening man’s weaknesses — the dog could run better, see better, hear better and had a far more acute sense of smell than man.
Wild dogs were captured and reared within man’s encampment, and in return for food, shelter, and protection, they would help man hunt and give him advance warning of predatory animals. This was the beginning, and as man settled from his nomadic wanderings his requirements of the dog changed. Before long, man began to use the dog to help tend his sheep and flocks.
The size, coat, and color of sheepdogs at this time varied greatly, dependent upon many factors:
Coats were often determined by the weather — Man in cold climates would raise dogs with longer, thicker coats, while those of temperate climates would raise dogs with shorter coats.

Man in areas where predatory animals were found in large numbers would need more powerful dogs than those lands with fewer predators. The wolf, the bear, the coyote, etc. — all would influence man’s choice of sheepdog.

Man’s own personal preferences (with no regard to any “breed” standards) even played a significant role in the development of the early sheepdogs.

Throughout the world, especially in Europe, development was taking place. In Germany, as in France, the United Kingdom, Holland, and others, the growth of large industrialized cities meant that predators were quickly declining. With advances in transportation and communication came the forming of societies of herders. A greater awareness of the excellence of the shepherding dogs of different areas was noted and the first trends toward selective breeding of herding dogs, record keeping, and a gradual trend toward one type of dog which could work equally well under all conditions. The establishment of dogs of fixed type was now at hand although there were still great variations to be found from one area to another.
Breeders would meet and discuss the relative merits and shortcomings of certain dogs. Dogs of high merit became quickly sought after as breeders tried to fix into their stock the sterling qualities seen in dogs from other areas. It came to pass that in Germany, in 1891, a group of enthusiasts formed the Phylax Society with the aim of fostering and standardizing native German breeds. The society was short-lived and in 1894 it was disbanded, but it had sown the seeds from which the German Shepherd was to emerge.
I am only going to mention a few early dogs and one truly significant person here in this history, though it will readily be appreciated that there were many dogs and many people whose efforts and sacrifices have furthered the growth of the German Shepherd.

It was at this time Capt. Max von Stephanitz appears in the breed’s history and indeed it is this man who is acclaimed as the father of the breed. Von Stephanitz had long admired the qualities of intelligence, strength, & ability found in many native sheepdog breeds but had yet to see one which embodied all of his ideals. Chance was to play its part. While visiting a show with a friend in 1899, he saw a dog that impressed him greatly to all accounts, so much that then & there he purchased the dog and promptly formed a society, the Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde or SV (German Shepherd Dog Club) as it is called. This was a milestone in the breed’s history and marked the beginning of a new era for it. From this date, the German Shepherd, as a specific breed, had arrived.
Von Stephanitz became the SV’s first president, & in a short period of time achieved the standardization of form & type in the breed. A standard was developed based on mental stability and utility. The captain’s motto was “Utility and Intelligence”. To him, beauty was secondary, & a dog was worthless if it lacked the intelligence, temperament, & structural efficiency that would make it a good servant of man. A breed standard was developed as a blueprint, dictating the exact function & relationship of every aspect of structure, gait, & inherent attitude. It was this strict adherence to this breed standard that was later to make this new breed the world’s greatest all-round dog.

Horand von GrafrathIt all started at a dog show in Karlsruhe in western Germany. The medium-sized yellow-and-gray wolflike dog that caught Von Stephanitz’s attention was of the primal canine type, supple and powerful, and possessed endurance, steadiness, and intelligence. He was a working sheepherder, born with this ability, requiring no training other than direction and finish to become proficient at the task. This dog, Hektor Linksrhein, was purchased by von Stephanitz, renamed Horand von Grafrath, and became the first registered German Shepherd Dog. Horand was greatly admired by many breeders who were quick to use him in their breeding programs. Not surprisingly, he became the dog that best exemplified the goals of early breeders. This animal was the basis on which much future development would be made.

Von Stephanitz inbred heavily on Horand and also Luchs, his brother, to consolidate the bloodline. Horand’s most celebrated son was Hektor v Shwaben, who in turn sired Heinz v Starkenburg and the litter brothers Beowolf and Pilot.
The degree of inbreeding was necessarily high at this time, for although it carried risks of incorporating faults, it likewise enabled the breeders to fix permanently those qualities which today are such features of the breed. Von Stephanitz then inserted unrelated blood of herding origin through Audifax von Grafrath and Adalo von Grafrath. The dogs of Thuringia, Frankonia, and Wurttemburg were all used, each area providing dogs which had special merits of tail and ear carriage, size, color, and temperament.

Each of these dogs in turn sired many progeny and became pillars in the development of the German Shepherd. Von Stephanitz was a cavalry captain and was ideally suited to impose his strong will over the SV of which he was president. In this capacity and with uncompromising dedication he directed the breeding programs.
With the oncoming of the twentieth century, and having seen the SV develop into the largest single breed club in the world, Von Stephanitz was turning his attention to the long-term future. As Germany became increasingly industrialized and the pastoral era declined he was able to foresee that in a growing industrialized nation the role of the pastoral shepherd dog would decline and the breed must be able to adapt to other work if it were to continue as a functional animal.With the co-operation of police and working dog clubs a set of specific tests was developed in tracking, formal obedience, and protection work. This was the prototype of the present Schutzhund trials. He persuaded the authorities to utilize the German shepherd dog in various branches of government service.

World War I — 1914 – 1918:

During World War I, the dog served as Red Cross dogs, messenger dogs, supply carriers, sentinel, tracking and guard dogs. Many servicemen from the USA, UK, and the Commonwealth saw first hand the German Shepherds bravery, intelligence, and steadfastness, and many stories were taken back home. Not surprisingly, a number of dogs were acquired by servicemen and transported home with them.
In 1913, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was formed by Benjamin Throop and Anne Tracy, with 26 charter members.

In 1915, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America’s first specialty show was at Greenwich, Connecticut.

In 1917, when America entered World War I, all things German became tabu. The American Kennel Club changed the name of the breed to the Shepherd Dog and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America became the Shepherd Dog Club of America. In England, the name of the breed was changed to the Alsatian.

In 1919, when the English Kennel Club gave the breed a separate register, some 54 animals were included, but by 1926 the ranks had swelled to 8,058, such was the unprecedented success of the dog. At the end of the War it was thought that the breed would not flourish were the word German to appear in its name and it was therefore decided to call the breed the Alsatian Wolf Dog after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The “Wolf Dog” tag was later to be dropped—again as it was felt that this would prejudice the breed. Thus we had for many years the misnomer of the breed brought about by national hostilities. In 1977, following numerous campaigns by breeders the name of the breed was changed back to the German Shepherd Dog by which it is known in the USA, Australia, and most other countries.

After World War I:

Rin Tin TinWith the end of World War I came a new appreciation for the breed. The German Army had made good use of the breed as a war dog. Tales told by returning U.S. fighting men, some bringing shepherds with them, and the intelligence and striking appearance of the dogs caught the attention of the general public. Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart, whose movies played on variations of the “boy and his dog” theme, shot the popularity of the breed sky-high. Puppy factories flourished to meet the demand, gutting the American market with poor quality “German police dogs”, resulting in a down-turn in popularity of the breed.

Serious breeding did continue such as by Mrs. Harrison Eustis, of Fortunate Fields Kennels, in Switzerland. Her approach was completely scientific with exhaustive research of breedings undertaken. The most widely known usefulness to which her dogs were put was as guide dogs for the blind at the famous Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey.

Von Stephanitz had become alarmed at the trend in the breed toward oversized square dogs. Other problems included lack of steady temperament and faults of dentition. He and the breed wardens decided drastic measures needed to be taken. In 1922 Germany introduced a system of regular breed surveys – a criticism of each dog, with a graded description and recommendation for (or against) breeding. This type of system never caught on in America due largely to the cultural differences inherent in American society. However, good dogs were still produced as German dogs were easily available for American dollars highly sought after in inflationary Germany.

Klodo v boxbergAt the 1925 Sieger show von Stephanitz selected Klodo von Boxberg as world sieger. This dog was dramatically different from the type of dog that had gone before him. He was of lower station, deeper and longer in body, short in loin and with a far-reaching gait. As it turned out Klodo proved to be a potent sire, successfully heralding a “new” type of shepherd. That same year Klodo was imported to America by A. Gilbert of Maraldene Kennels in Hamden, Connecticut. Klodo, through a number of important sons and daughters, is largely responsible for both the faults and virtues of modern North American lines.

In 1936 John Gans Pfeffer von Bernimported Sieger Pfeffer von Bern and in 1938 Sidney Heckert Imported Odin vom Busecker Schloss. Through their intense inbreeding and line-breeding, these were dogs that molded the majority of our modern day lines. Pfeffer was German Sieger in 1937 and had a great show career in America. Through Pfeffer a uniform type in America was established but with the faults of long coats, missing dentition, faulty temperament, overlong bodies and loins, and orchidism (missing one or both testicles).

World War II (Late 1930’s – 1945) and After:

The German Shepherd Dog was widely sought after during World War II, employed by Allied and Axis forces, as mine detectors, sentinels, guard work, messenger, and other services. In America, Dogs for Defense was formed, providing thousands of dogs to the army. Even at the outbreak of World War II, the trained dogs of the Allied Forces were seen wherever the troops traveled, spreading the breed’s popularity like a blanket around the world.

In Germany a very active market developed for German Shepherd Dogs. They were actively sought in countries such as Japan, Italy, Scandinavian, South America, France, and others. The SV matured with innovations such as the “a” stamp (European hip scoring system), a tattoo identification system, emphasis on producing bloodlines, and stricter regulations for top ratings given to dogs.

In America the reverse happened as show status was emphasized, professional handlers began to control the sport and systems such as the Futurity/Maturity system emphasized early breeding of dogs before their true genetic worth became clear.

The SV began to place more and more importance on training degrees. The mid-sixties saw a minimum Schutzhund 1 degree, and the AD, an endurance test. Temperament and courage tests became more demanding, and the SV forced breeders to concentrate on problem areas such as missing teeth, poor croups, etc. Since SV officials were also the jduges at the Sieger show, it was only the animals meeting their dictated requirements that received the top honors. Schutzhund 3 become mandatory for the top VA awards.

Although starting with a common base, the breed in Germany and America has taken a separate but parallel course. The Americans and the Germans have evolved closely-bred, although differing breeds in looks, movement, style, and structure. Both systems have cemented both desirable and undesirable characteristics into the breed. The Americans have the option to pursue their own views and choose their own bloodline courses whether from within or outside their country. The Germans, controlled by the SV, will likely continue to look within to develop the breed. The future will be interesting for the breed in both countries …



Since World War II, the German Shepherd has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the world’s most popular breeds. This is as it should be, for while task for task other breeds may surpass it, no other single breed has been able to master such a wide range of skills as the German Shepherd Dog.

The German Shepherd is large enough to tackle a man and win a contest, yet agile enough to cope with a flock of sheep. He may not be able to outrun a Greyhound but he can show an amazing turn of speed, and having developed from natural working strains, he can maintain a steady canter far longer than most other breeds.

It can be seen from the foregoing that our modern German Shepherd is a king among dogs, noble of head, athletic in body. Here is a dog developed to be functional, the epitome of dedicated and carefully planned breeding.

But there can be problems too. The very popularity of the breed has, itself, been the cause of much trouble. Rapid popularity has meant that at times many undesirable breeders have appeared on the scene with the sole object of making money. In this situation, mediocre dogs are bred thus perpetuating faults. The sheer numbers of dogs meant that sooner or later disaster would happen. The wrong people obtain the wrong dogs and ultimately someone gets hurt. Also, the breed’s wolfish appearance makes it a prime target for the press who often fan the flames of public dissent.

In spite of these setbacks, serious breeders have maintained the breed, though there are, of course, periods when much debate takes place over varying points — Backs may be getting too long, angulation too steep, ear and tail carriage faulty, dentition lacking, movement poor, etc. All of these debates illustrate that we must be continually on our guard lest our breed degenerate.