The German Shepherd Dog – It’s History, Purpose and Future

The German Shepherd is not only one of the world’s most popular companion dogs, but also probably the most widely used breed for service work. The development of the German Shepherd Dog, along with a number of existing breeds, helped pioneer the modern use of dogs for service and community work that we can see today. For a breed of dog that has only been officially recognised for just over 100 years, it has made an outstanding contribution to mankind worldwide.

The origins of the breed came from various sheep dogs found in Germany during the last century. In the second half of the 19th century, dog breed fanciers began to fix the type of sheep dog found in Germany that would eventually form the basis of the modern German Shepherd Dog. Various attempts were made to form associations to develop the German Sheep Dogs such as the Phylax Club, which was formed in the early 1890’s, but disbanded in a few short years. Not only were dog fanciers discussing the breeding of dogs, but also the training of dogs was becoming of great interest. A driving force of the time was Doktor Gerland who presented the world’s first trained police dogs just prior to the turn of the century. These events helped to bring the development of sheep dogs to the attention of many influential people in Germany.

During 1899 a German dog fancier and cavalry officer Captain Max Von Stephanitz purchased a dog named Hektor Linksrhein which greatly impressed him. Von Stephanitz subsequently renamed the dog Horand v Grafrath. On 22 April 1899 Von Stephanitz, Adolf Meyer, Ernst Von Otto and others, formed the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde (SV) in Germany. The translation of this name is roughly “The German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany”. The SV started a registration book and Horand v Grafrath became the first registered German Shepherd Dog. On 20 September 1899, the SV adopted a breed standard based on the proposals of Meyer and Von Stephanitz and later held its first specialty show at Frankfurt-am-Main, using the titles Sieger and Siegerin. The development of the German Shepherd Dog had begun.

Von Stephanitz who became President of the SV realised that increased industrialisation in Germany would reduce the demand for sheep dogs and, in co-operation with German authorities earlier this century, began trialing the German Shepherd in other roles to ensure its survival as a working breed. Through his firm guiding hand the SV became the largest single breed club in the world, and the breed became one of the most versatile breeds known to man.

German Shepherds slowly grew in popularity, and clubs for the development of the breed began to form in countries where the breed had been exported. As early as 1904, it is believed unofficial imports of the breed had arrived in Western Australia. By 1910 the breed had a firm foot hold in Europe, and in Germany the service potential of the dogs were realised by helping to equip over 500 Police stations throughout Germany with trained Police Dogs. Still being used as a sheep dog, the German Shepherd was also finding popularity with the German military. Von Stephanitz was adamant that the breed should remain a working dog, and constantly looked for new tasks to keep the breed working.

The onset of the First World War, saw both the German and French military using the German Shepherd as well as a number of other breeds for various functions, including search and rescue of casualties in ‘no mans’ land, providing what was to become the basis for modern search and rescue dog teams. Dogs were also used to carry ammunition, messages, cables and first aid supplies between the trenches, often through artillery and small arms fire. Many allied soldiers, impressed by the bravery of the dogs, took captured German Shepherds home with them after the war.

Many soldiers were blinded during the First World War and German Shepherds were trained in large numbers by the German authorities as ‘seeing eye’ dogs for the blind. Other countries, including Great Britain, then attempted to train dogs based on this German program. The British dog trainers, however, experienced a great deal of negativity from the general public at first, and it took some time to gain public acceptance for the program. The success of guide dogs has since been proven worldwide. The United States also later formed a Seeing Eye Dog School using German Shepherds. This occurred in 1929 in the US State of New Jersey. Although the Labrador Retriever does the majority of guide dog work in Australia, the German Shepherd remains one of the most popular choices for this type of work worldwide.

During the 1920’s, canine movie stars such as Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart made the breed extremely popular outside of Germany. Great harm was caused as unscrupulous breeders, keen to cash in on this newfound popularity, introduced poor breeding practices which, along with some irresponsible owners, worked against the founding principles of the breed.

Anti German sentiment following the First World War, caused the British to re-name the breed as the Alsatian Wolf-Dog. Although all dogs are thought to have evolved from wolves, the name Alsatian Wolf-Dog led some people to believe the German Shepherd had been directly bred from wolves. The truth is that the German Shepherd carries no more wolf’s blood than any other breed.

The year 1925 saw the breed’s official Australian history begin with the importation of Crufts winner Ito of Fallowdale into Australia. Also on the same boat was Pinkerton Rhoda. As a number of further importations followed, graziers and pastoralists in Australia began to express concerns that the breed was dangerous. This was partly based on the British re-naming of the breed, Alsatian Wolf-Dog. Australian graziers and pastoralists started to express fears that German Shepherds would mate with dingos and produce a powerful and intelligent sheep killer. Powerful lobby groups such as the Western Australian Pastoralists and Graziers Society started to call for the breed to be declared a dangerous noxious pest.

The most significant year in the early Australian history of the breed was 1929. This year saw the founding of the Alsatian Club of Victoria, which is now known as the German Shepherd Dog Club of Victoria Inc (GSDCV). On 22 February of that year, the dog KCC Ch Claus von Eulengarten arrived in Melbourne. This dog was the 26th German Shepherd imported into Australia and was not only a show champion, but also a trained Police Dog.

The year 1929 also saw the Australian Government respond to the continued fears of the graziers and pastoralists by placing a directive against the import of the breed into Australia. The Government then passed legislation in the next few years to officially legislate against the importation of German Shepherds into Australia. At this stage only about 55 to 60 official imports had entered Australia.

The early 1930’s saw the popularity and the numbers of German Shepherds wain. This meant that purist breeders were able to slowly rebuild the reputation and standing of the German Shepherd. The outbreak of the Second World War saw the German Shepherd pressed into military service in large numbers. The breeding stock in Germany was greatly reduced, as large numbers of dogs were lost during the war. The tragedy of war once again highlighted the breed’s useful qualities and helped to restore the reputation of the German Shepherd. This conflict also saw large numbers of dogs being trained to detect the presence of various types of unexploded devices. This activity has evolved into today’s explosive and drug detector dog programs, which have been extremely effective for law enforcement agencies world wide.

The years following the Second World War saw world wide resurgence in the popularity of the German Shepherd. The situation in Australia, sadly, had not improved with the import ban still in place. The lack of new blood lines made it difficult for Australian breeders to make improvements to the breed and Australian German Shepherds were unable to progress to the level of those found in Europe. Breeders in Australia had to make the most of a bad situation and struggled on. However, breed clubs such as the GSDCV, and other groups started to promote the positive aspects of the breed. They hoped that common sense would win through and that the import ban would be lifted in the future.

In 1963, the German Shepherd Dog Council of Australia (GSDCA) was formed with the intentions of improving the standing of the German Shepherd and removing impediments, such as the Federal Government import ban. Owners of German Shepherds in Western Australia and the Northern Territory were not even allowed to breed from their existing stock.

Through various lobbying of the Australian Government a one year trial lifting of the ban on importing the breed into Australia commenced during 1973. The then Customs Minister, Mr Lionel Murphy, saw that the ban was ludicrous, and through the help of other politicians such as Mr Don Chipp (current Patron of the GSDCA), was able to allay the fears of the farmers and graziers. The trial was a success and in 1974 the import ban was permanently lifted. At last breeders were allowed to bring in new blood lines from Europe which allowed great advancement and improvement in the quality of the breed in Australia. 1974 also saw the formation of the World Union of German Shepherd Dog Clubs, with the aim to promote breeding and training according to German standards. This organisation was formed out of the former European Union of German Shepherd Dog Clubs due to the wishes of non-European clubs.

In the immediate years that followed the lifting of the ban a steady improvement to the standard of German Shepherds found in Australia took place. The importing of new blood lines made available to Australian breeders the genetic material that they required to advance the breed and this has enabled them to move towards the standard of dogs found in Germany. In fact in an ironic twist the Federal Government during the early 1980’s funded the Kamarn Breeders Foundation Ltd which produced about 70 litters of German Shepherds. A large number of these puppies went on to become working dogs such as police and guide dogs. After three years of grants the Federal Government removed support and the program eventually ceased. We can only wonder how much more contribution could have been made to the Australian community by the breed if the Federal Government had supported the breed earlier. The Australian Customs Service currently benefits from a breeding program for Labrador Retrievers funded by the Federal Government.

In 1993, the GSDCA with the assistance of the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC), took advantage of an opportunity to revert to Country of Origin standards and adopted the full FCI and SV Breed Standard. These recent developments and various GSDCA breed improvement schemes have resulted in a vastly improved quality of the German Shepherd Dog in Australia, from that available prior to the lifting of the import ban.

In 1999 the 100th anniversary of the German Shepherd Dog was marked by world wide celebrations. To help celebrate that historic milestone the GSDCV hosted the Centenary German Shepherd Dog Exhibition on Saturday 13 November 1999 at Bundoora Park, Bundoora, Victoria. The Right Honourable Sherryl Garbutt officially opened this historic event, who was the then Minister for the Environment and Conservation, and paid tribute to the service done by the breed. Highlights of this great day included exciting Agility, Fly Ball and Obedience Demonstrations. These demonstrations not only entertained the crowd, but also demonstrated the intelligence, agility and speed of the German Shepherd Dog.

The working side of the breed was also highlighted and included various demonstrations and displays. These featured Police Dogs, Search and Rescue, Pets As Therapy, Seeing Eye Dogs, Bomb Dogs, Sheep Herding and more. The claim of the German Shepherd Dog to be the most versatile breed of working dog was clearly evident as people walked about the various Government and Community Displays.
Today the German Shepherd remains one of the most popular breeds of dogs in the world. The founding club has grown to over 100,000 members which makes the SV the largest single dog breed club in the world. The founder of the breed Captain von Stephanitz believed that, “The breeding of shepherd dogs is the breeding of working dogs; and this must always be the aim, or we shall cease to produce shepherd dogs. The breed is still extensively used as a working dog around the world, however most are owned as companion animals, where they make an ideal family pet because German Shepherds are good with children and other pets.

The breeds’ high intelligence, well balanced temperament, physical size, courage and affinity for people continue to make it a very versatile service dog. These attributes can also be utilised in obedience training allowing the breed to exercise its intelligence and drives. German Shepherds also enjoy physical exercise and their owners must be prepared to regularly exercise them. Many owners test this training and fitness by competing in various conformation and obedience competitions. Conformation shows allow individual animals to be compared against the breed standard.

The S.V./F.C.I. breed standard states that the German Shepherd Dog should be suitable as an all round working, herding and service dog. To achieve this a dog must be of well balanced temperament, steady of nerve, self assured, absolutely free and easy, and (unless provoked) completely good natured, as well as alert and tractable. He must have courage, combative instinct and hardness, in order to be suitable as companion, watch, protection, service and herding dog. The breed standard also describes the breed as being medium sized, slightly elongated, powerful and well muscled, the bones dry and the overall structure firm. The height of the withers for dogs is between 60-65 cm, and for bitches is 55-60 cm. The length of the body is greater than the height at the withers by about 10 to 17%. The physical make up of the dog is described in further detail and helps enable the breed to carry out its intended purpose.

In relation to movement the Breed Standard describes the German Shepherd Dog as a trotter. The limbs must be of such length and angulation that the hindquarters may be thrust well forward under the body, and the forequarters reach equally far forward, without noticeable change in the topline. Any tendency towards overangulation of the hindquarters lessens their firmness and endurance, and thus the dog’s utmost working ability. With correct structural proportions and angulations, a roomy, smooth, ground covering gait results, that gives the impression of effortless forward propulsion. With the head pushed forward, and a slightly raised tail, an even and calm trot results in a softly curving and unbroken topline, running from tips of the ears, over the neck and back, to the tip of the tail.

It is believed that dogs that closely fit the breed standard will have the physical and mental characteristics to enable them to have the potential and willingness to work in a variety of tasks without undue stress. As with most dog training effective socialisation and training is of utmost importance in any attempt to capitalise on this genetic potential. The other area of importance is the general health of the animal. It is not worth putting extensive training into an animal that may suffer from potential health problems, such as Hip or Elbow Dysplasia.

Like all breeds of dogs the German Shepherd does have a few potential health problems and owners should be aware of these. Some of the prevalent problems are being addressed by a number of breed improvement schemes administered by the GSDCA through the relevant state clubs such as the GSDCV. Affiliates of the ANKC such as the Victorian Canine Association (VCA) provide support by recording a pass in these schemes on the dog’s pedigree. These schemes are designed to asses the incidence and inheritance of Hip Dysplasia, Haemophilia, and Elbow Dysplasia. The identification of these problems and the removal of severely affected dogs from breeding should greatly decrease the incidence of these health problems.

The Hip Dysplasia scheme allows for dogs to be X-Rayed and scored for hip dysplasia. The ‘A’ Stamp is awarded to those animals that pass the scheme, and are classified as having Normal, Near Normal, Acceptable, or Boderline graded hip status. The X-Raying of elbows is used in the Elbow Dysplasia scheme, with animals clear of this condition being awarded a ‘Z’ Stamp. The Haemophilia Scheme tests males as potential carriers. Dogs cleared are given the “H-Neg” Classification. These schemes together with the Breed Surveying of dogs, are helping to improve the health and quality of dogs bred in Australia.

Performed by licensed specialist judges who are further qualified breed surveyors, the Breed Survey publicly records the physical and mental characteristics when assessing the breeding value of individual dogs and bitches. All the presenting dogs are measured and compared against the breed standard and must have passed the other breed improvement schemes before presenting to the Breed Survey. The dogs must also have acceptable temperament and are subjected to both crowd and gun tests where they must not show any unwanted behavior such as fear or aggression. The knowledge gained from the Breed Survey is published annually and is available to all Breeders to use in their breeding program. The classifications are Breed Survey Class 1 and Class 2. Certain specified faults can bar a presenting animal from obtaining either of these classifications. Presenting animals must have a five generation pedigree and be identifiable by either tattoo or microchip.

The member clubs of the GSDCA such as the GSDCV offer training, lectures, and film nights to promote responsible ownership and knowledge of the breed. Breeders are also able to utilise the Tattoo Scheme which allows their own three letter prefix combined with three digits which forms the tattoo identification that is placed in the right ear. The tattoo number is registered with the GSDCA and makes for easy identification throughout Australia.

The GSDCV also keep a list of puppies bred utilising the breed improvement schemes. Persons contemplating purchasing a German Shepherd Puppy in Victoria, can contact the clubs puppy listing officer for further information.

Readers from outside Victoria should contact their local German Shepherd Dog Club for more information.

As for the breeds future? That depends on all of us!