Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.
The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) is one of the most popular and well-known breeds of dogs worldwide. It didn’t gain popularity overnight, though. This dog has a rich origin story and has been a crucial aspect in the development of domestic dogs across the world.
We are going to look in detail at the origins of this fascinating breed. German Shepherds have been around for quite a long time—they’re big, furry, and originated from—guess where? Germany! They were bred initially to be guard dogs and help with the herding of animals, but their companionship, intelligence, and friendliness quickly made them a popular choice for pets.
After reading this article, you will have a much better understanding of the ancestry of your favorite furry friends.
The Origin of the German Shepherd Breed
The origin of the German Shepherd can be traced back to Europe in the middle of the 19th century when people were first beginning to try and develop standard dog breeds. Before this, dogs had not been nearly as domesticated as they are now. You could not go to a store and pick out a purebred Alaskan Husky, for example. What you saw was what you got, and oftentimes, people have no idea what kind of dog they even had.
Dogs were bred in accordance with the local needs by choosing and selecting different traits that would be desirable for those hoping to own a dog. In Germany, farmers needed their animals protected, and they needed help herding their sheep. This required a good blend of strength, agility, intelligence, and a good sense of smell and direction.
As breeders continued to isolate these traits, the easily recognizable German Shepherd breed slowly emerged. These dogs have no problem herding sheep, and the traits of intelligence and strength ran through the whole breed. However, the appearance of these dogs, and their individual abilities, often varied between individuals.
Naturally, to create a standardized breed, the breeders needed to eliminate these differences.
The Phylax Society
This eventually became possible, and the first major contributor was the Phylax Society, a committee that was formed in Germany in 1891. This society was dedicated to the creation of standardized dog breeds throughout Germany. They intended to develop breeds of dogs that could be easily identified and had minimal variance between individuals.
This would allow pet owners and commercial dog owners to choose animals based on skill sets and physical attributes. They knew that people would be much more likely to purchase animals if they were able to assume that each animal would be just as productive and durable as the next.
The Phylax Society didn’t last very long. Members disagreed on which traits should be isolated and bred; they also disagreed on the methods of which dogs should be bred, leading to a lot of internal conflicts. The society was disbanded after only three years, but it provoked individuals and the dog breeding industry to move forward.
The Gold Standard
Just because the Phylax Society was disbanded didn’t mean that all of its members were out of the dog breeding game. Max Von Stephanitz was one such member and one who had vocalized his opinions strongly enough to contribute to the eventual disbanding of the group.
Max believed the dogs were supposed to be working animals and should be bred to reflect that. One day, in 1899, Max was perusing a dog show. At the show, he encountered an animal that had been bred to match the standards he so sorely desired. The dog he found was strong, intelligent, agile, and quite large—more than capable of handling immense amounts of work.
Max was elated and bought the dog immediately. After doing so, he founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde—also known as the Society for the German Shepherd Dog. This made Max’s dog, which he had named Horand, the first GSD in the world. The breed was added to the dog breed register that same year.
Continued Breeding Programs
Max’s dog became the center of attention for quite some time. He became the main focus of many breeding programs because people were so enamored by his physical strength and characteristics. Horand was bred with all sorts of dogs from other parts of the society, spurring the creation of many popular dog breeds.
In the early days of dog breeding, inbreeding was necessary to isolate the desired traits. Max’s dog and his immediate offspring were known to father close to 100 dogs each. Hektor, the most successful of Horand’s offspring, had 84 dogs, most of which were inbred with the original GSD.
How the Breed Gained Popularity
The UK Kennel Club was an instrumental group during the early years of dog breeding and domestication. The UK Kennel Club didn’t accept the GSD on its registry until 1919, and when they did, there were only 54 of them registered.
The small numbers didn’t last long, though. 7 years later, in 1926, the number of German Shepherds had grown from a mere 54 to over 8,000. By this time, GSDs were becoming internationally well known. This was partly due to world events at the time.
The breed of dogs was internationally-recognized towards the end of the first World War because many soldiers returned home with stories about the dogs. They told their families and friends about how friendly, strong, and loyal these amazing dogs were.
Naturally, people saw potential in the breed. Animal actors from the United States helped to further spread the popularity of the German Shepherd, and soon they were becoming registered in the United States.
The first one registered in the US was named the Queen of Switzerland, but she was not able to contribute very much to the breed itself. While she may have helped to spread popularity, her children did not survive thanks to improper breeding techniques. This hindered the growing popularity of the breed, but dogs this amazing were bound to find their popularity again.
The Resurgence of the Shepherd
Sieger Pfeffer von Bern, a GSD with a namesake that holds true to its ancestry, was a huge part of the reason that the dog breed gained its popularity back. This dog became the grand victor in some of the American Kennel Club shows and was the first German Shepherd to do so. People were once again reminded of the fantastic appearance and loyalty of these dogs, and popularity surged.
As it will, the popularity of the breed decreased again soon after. Its namesake did not hold well in America given the current circumstances of World War II—the rise of the Nazi regime led to a lot of anti-German propaganda in the Western world. Nobody wanted a dog with the namesake of the enemies of the State. Many people with German Shepherds would often tell people that they were a different breed entirely.
After the Second World War, there was a low in the popularity of the breed. As tension with Germany died down, the popularity of the breed slowly began to rise. By the 60s, many people didn’t mind owning a dog with a German name.
Populations and popularity continue to increase. By 1993, GSDs were the third most popular breed in the US. Their popularity continued to improve, and as of 2009, German Shepherds were the second most popular. It’s not uncommon to see the breed within the top five spots of dog registries worldwide.
The Modern Breed
The dogs that we know of as German Shepherds today are not the same as the ones that Max raised several centuries ago. Modern GSD breeders do not focus on the same things that Max did. This is due in part to the fact that dogs are much more domesticated these days. People are more interested in owning a dog as a pet instead of a working animal.
Since Max’s dogs were initially bred to be working animals, they were made to be strong, agile, and physically fit—more so than other traits. Many people believe that breeders failing to live up to the strict regulations that were in place when Max was breeding the original German Shepherds led to a decrease in the health and quality of the breed today.
Those who criticize modern methods of breeding believe that guidelines should be strictly followed. Max was able to eliminate hereditary defects by inbreeding dogs only with those who had desirable traits. Modern breeders are not nearly as uptight —at least, not in many cases.
Unfortunately, because of this, a lot of genetic problems have emerged in the breed that was not seen before. These problems include hip dysplasia, weak temperament, missing teeth, pale colors, and deformed ears.
Current Day Shepherds
Not all GSD breeders refuse to follow strict guidelines. These breeders mostly provide domesticated dogs for families. There are many who still breed them to be working dogs and who supply the dogs to professional Industries.
Police canines are most often German Shepherds—at least, those that are used for forensic work, not necessarily those that are used to chase down criminals (though they do make great attack dogs as well.) They are reviewed for their ability to track down criminals thanks to their amazing sense of smell, and for patrolling areas due to their keen senses. They can also be used as guard dogs.
There has also been a lot of military application with the breed. They can easily be trained as scouts that can help provide an upper hand in the line of duty. Dogs are also used to alert the military if enemies are showing up, and also to warm cold soldiers. Also, since dogs have keener senses than humans, they are more likely to detect traps or dangerous situations before their companions. Some German Shepherds have even been trained to skydive for the military.
For several years, they were the most popular choice of dogs for blind people. Since then, they have largely been replaced by Labradors and Golden Retrievers, though there are still people who train German Shepherds for the job. Their loyalty and their impressive cognitive abilities, as well as their impressive senses, make them ideal.
There are, of course, many farmers who use GSDs for their original purpose: being shepherds! They can help patrol the boundaries of farmland and keep animals in check, directing them to areas that they can graze and protecting them from predators.
GSDs have been appearing in all sorts of different lines of work nowadays. They have proven that they are ideal dogs for working as search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs, for helping the police find drugs, for detecting explosives, for working in mines, and any other tasks that require intelligence, hardworking, strong animals to work alongside man.
They remain one of the most popular breeds of dogs that have ever existed. The German Shepherd's breed origin is rich and interesting, and they have earned their place among the greatest breeds of dogs due to a powerful combination of characteristics.
These dogs are the result of a lot of hard work from breeders, the needs of farmers and the working class, the desires of the general population, and most of all, the determination and loyalty of these fantastic dogs.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on May 12, 2020:
Thank you, nice to see you enjoyed the article about the German Shepherd breed history.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 29, 2019:
How interesting. I really learned a whole lot. What again is the smallest of these. I really want one for our family.