Written by Doris Donnerman (last updated April 6, 2009)
The German Shepherd Dog is one of the world's best known dogs. This was made so, perhaps, by the American motion picture. He has maintained his popularity by his great beauty and strength, his superiority as a guide dog for the blind in military service, and in obedience contests.
He grew to world-wide popularity immediately after World War I, when the German nation was in disrepute with a major portion of the globe. Then, after a slump which was more or less consonant with the depression, though not caused by it, he returned to popularity as Hitler's Germany was coming to power. Then, though a second world war devastated the world as nothing like it had before, the German Shepherd maintained, and even increased his popularity.
Today, the German Shepherd stands among the first ten in American dogs. Breed clubs promote him intelligently. He is regularly seen in obedience work; and good specimens are to be seen everywhere. Because of German thoroughness in documentation, more is known about the actual origin of the German Shepherd than is the case with almost any other dog. Yet this breed too has been burdened by romantic stories trying to root its origin in ages long gone by. It is now stated as fact that the German Shepherd is a descendant of a Bronze Age race of shepherd dogs.
Another writer noted a stray line in Tacitus, the Roman historian, which speaks of "the wolf-like dog of the country around the Rhine." This was taken as proof that the German Shepherd had existed in its present form from early Roman times. It was argued too, that the German Shepherd was, in times past, called the "wolf dog."
The days of their greatest use were coming to an end. The railroad was making cattle driving unnecessary. Ranges were being fenced. The wolves were gone from the mountain slopes. Population pressures were making the intensive raising of livestock relatively restricted in certain areas.
The sportsmen of that day were looking for dogs with which they might enter the new sport of dog showing. They looked for the outlandish; for dogs which could be promoted; and finally, for dogs of beauty. They realized suddenly that the shepherd dog, with his amazing and almost human abilities, was a part of a fast vanishing past.
The Germans began to seek means of perpetuating these sheep and cattle dogs. They also cast about for a means of utilizing the abilities of the dogs. The first attempts at training dogs for police and war work began to be made. The fact that these rapidly-vanishing shepherd dogs could be at once a thing of beauty and a police or war dog lent point to the efforts of German fanciers to save their shepherd dogs. They went to work with vast enthusiasm.
Thus, it might be said that the German Shepherd gets its erect ears and wolf-gray color from the Thuringian. Or that he gets his tail carriage and other colors from the Wurttemburg; and his size, great strength of back, and gait from the Swabian.
Pictures of some of these dogs are still extant. They were a weedy lot, though some of them were beginning to look like German Shepherds. Their mixed origin, however, produced several varieties. Thus, in 1915, there were three coat varieties listed:
There were 450 police stations using dogs in Germany as early as 19l0. Most of these dogs were German Shepherds. By the end of World War I, 48,000 dogs were in German Army service, plus countless others in civilian police work. Most of these, too, were German Shepherds, although the war and police service must be given credit for rescuing a number of other breeds from extinction.
The Germans then began an intensive breeding program to fix type. They created a modem miracle, and yet they sewed the seeds for what later became a disaster to the breed. For somewhere, shyness crept in. It did not appear so often in Germany, at least at first, but it played havoc with foreign breeders who did not understand what they were up against. However, the results of this did not show up until much later.
During World War I the Belgians and French were using dogs for war purposes. The English were using Airedales and Irish Terriers for certain war purposes also. It seems reasonable that these breeds would have jumped into world-wide popularity because of their war records as it turned out; it was the dog of the enemy which did so, the Airedale excepted.
There are several reasons why the German Shepherd was the one to forge ahead. First, the British had not been blind to the new German dog, and a substantial number had been imported to England before the war. The British breeders, though they hated the Germans, clung to their dogs. The name was merely changed to Alsatian.
Since prejudice against the Germans was rampant in the United States as well as England, the "German" was dropped from the breed name. But the Americans never would permit a name denoting the wrong origin to be applied as the British did.
Following the war, the breed certainly would have continued its steady development, since some of the greatest German Shepherds which ever lived were imported at this time. But another incident occurred which suddenly skyrocketed the breed into world-wide fame.
In the half-dozen years that followed, the German Shepherd became the most popular dog in the world. In a half-dozen countries, he was the leading breed, and usually by overwhelming majorities. Perhaps the Canadian record is the best example, for there the breed appears to have been unknown until after World War 1.
Many things had happened. The Germans had unloaded upon us the misfits they themselves might have destroyed. Americans bred to any and everything. Shyness showed up. Many of the dogs were work dogs, misunderstood and aggressive. Their owners couldn't handle them; the neighborhoods couldn't tolerate them. Every slum had its dozens of mongrel, half-wild "police" dogs. Mongrels and pure-bred were biting people. The newspapers always carried the same story "German police dog runs berserk ...". The results were disastrous. A group of American breeders stood by their breed. Wealthy and enthusiastic fanciers were added. They kept breeding good ones, and importing more, until in the end, the American dogs became the envy of the world.
World War II did not bring a cessation of activity in German Shepherds. In fact, American dog breeding continued to grow throughout the war years. In the case of the German Shepherd, the breed began to make a name for itself as a war dog.
The German Shepherd was selected as the official Navy and Coast Guard dog, and the Widener Estate at Elkins Park, Pa., became a training center for the dogs. World War II was a global affair. And it turned out that the German Shepherd had the coat to take almost any kind of weather better than most any other kind of dog. Thus, a German Shepherd trained at Elkins Park could be ordered to Coast Guard patrol on any coast, from Alaska to Florida without consideration of climatic conditions.
This is perhaps the place to mention the German Shepherd's other outstanding contribution to man, that of a guide for the sightless. When the Germans began to train guides for the blind in 1917, German Shepherds predominated in the work. Since then, many thousands of German Shepherds have devoted their lives to leading the blind. Other dogs have done so also, but German Shepherds have predominated, and the public has come to associate the breed with that activity.
The first impression of a good German Shepherd Dog is that of a strong, agile, well-muscled animal, alert and full of life. They appear to be both well balanced with harmonious development of the fore quarter and hind quarter. The ideal height for the males is twenty-five inches, and for females twenty-three inches at the shoulder. Weights of the males of desirable size in proper flesh and condition average between 75 and 85 lbs., and of females between sixty and seventy lbs.
The Shepherd is normally a dog with a double coat, the amount of under coat varying with the season of the year and the proportion of the time the dog spends out of doors. He should, however, always be present to a sufficient degree to keep out water, to insulate against temperature extremes, and as a protection against insects. The outer coat should be as dense as possible, hair straight, harsh and lying close to the body.
The German Shepherd is not one that fawns upon every new acquaintance and usually is approachable, quietly standing his ground and showing confidence and a willingness to meet overtures without making them. He should be poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert, both fit and willing to serve in any capacity as companion, watch dog, blind leader, herding dog or guardian.
The German Shepherd must not be timid, shrinking behind his master or handler, nervous, looking about or upward with anxious expression or showing nervous reactions to strange sounds or sights. Nor sluggish or manifestly disinterested in what goes on about him. Lack of confidence under any surroundings is not typical of good character. Cases of extreme timidity and nervous unbalance sometimes gives the dog an apparent, but totally unreal courage and it becomes a "fear biter," snapping not for any justifiable reason but because it is apprehensive of the approach of a stranger. In summary: He should never be forgotten that the ideal Shepherd is a working animal, which must have an incorruptible character combined with body and gait suitable for the arduous work which constitutes its primary purpose. All his qualities should be weighed in respect to his contribution to such work, and while no compromise should be permitted with regard to his working potentiality, the dog nevertheless possesses a high degree of beauty and nobility.
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