Where Did They Come From?
Shepherd dogs have existed in Germany for centuries and were used for herding and guarding livestock. The German Shepherd Dog has become so well known as a police dog that this role has largely been forgotten. But, in fact, German Shepherds retain their herding instincts, as can be seen by those dogs who compete in the American Kennel Club’s Herding Tests.
The early working dogs were of mixed type. Strong, powerful dogs were found in the southern hills, while more athletic dogs appeared on the central and northern plains where they would trot tirelessly for miles.
It is rare for one person to get the credit for establishing a breed, but Captain Max von Stephanitz has this distinction. In 1899, he formed the first German Shepherd breed club, which was called the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV).
As president of the club, von Stephanitz was dedicated to improving the breed and creating one type, while still preserving the superb working abilities of the dogs. Strict rules and regulations were laid down by the SV and a Breed Standard was drawn up. A major Championship show was held annually, known as the Sieger Show, where the best dog and bitch won the title of Sieger and Siegerin.
The first German Shepherd to be registered with SV was Horand von Grafrath, who was owned by von Stephanitz and considered to be a fine example of the breed. Horand’s son, Hektor von Schwaben, was made Sieger in 1900 and 1901 and he was essentially a combination of the northern and southern types.
The German Shepherd’s tremendous working ability was swiftly recognised. The breed was adopted by the German Police in the early 1900s, and then by the armed forces when the First World War broke out. At the end of the war, servicemen returned home telling tales of these heroic and intelligent dogs.
An American soldier called Lee Duncan found a wounded German Shepherd who had been working as a messenger behind enemy lines. He decided to take the dog home with him to California. He called the dog Rin Tin Tin and the rest is history. Rin Tin Tin became a Hollywood superstar, performing amazing feats of intelligence in the silent movies. He starred in 22 back-and-white films, and when he died in 1932, it was headline news. As a result of Rin Tin Tin’s fame, the breed’s popularity soared.
Anti-German feelings were running high in 1919, and there were moves to deny the breed’s national heritage. The British Kennel Club registered the breed as the ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ and the American Kennel Club used the ‘Shepherd Dog’.
In the mid-1920s, the Kennel Club dropped the name ‘Wolf Dog’ and the ‘Alsatian’ became the most popular breed in Britain. Inevitably, this led to over-breeding by unscrupulous breeders who were determined to cash in on the demand for dogs, and bred without regard for temperament. By the late 1920s, the Alsatian had a reputation as a questionable and unreliable character, and Press reports portrayed him as a savage dog who was closely related to the wolf.
Soon the breed was in decline, but although numbers dwindled this had the positive effect of eliminating the commercial breeders, leaving the true enthusiasts an caring breeders to repair the damage.
Excerpt from the book: ‘A Comprehensive Guide to Buying, Owning, and Training the German Shepherd Dog’, reproduced with kind permission from the author, Katrina Stevens.
Photos on this page contributed by Katrina Stevens.
Visit Katrina's web site at www.kesyragsd.co.uk.