“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax assessor?” Mark Twain once asked, before answering with his customary wryness: “The taxidermist takes only your skin.”
In our polarized times, in which once-incontrovertible facts have become matters of opinion, one certainty remains: Nobody likes to pay taxes. And while today we pay the piper with electronic transfers or, less and less, paper checks by mail, a century ago that unpleasant task fell to the tax collector.
Not surprisingly, as they made their rounds, tax collectors worried about their personal safety: They were not only at risk of blows from angry constituents who disputed their assessments or just plain didn’t want to hand over any part of their income, but they were also tempting targets for criminals all too eager to separate them from their hard-won tithes.
Though demanding work, tax collecting often was not a full-time job, particularly in smaller cities and villages. As a result, many tax collectors maintained other livelihoods as well.
That was the case with a certain late-19th-Century entrepreneur from Apolda, Germany, who also was a night watchman, dog catcher, and – shades of that Twain quote – flayer, or skinner, of dogs. Brilliantly cross-pollinating his customs and canine careers, Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann created the breed that today bears his name, the Doberman Pinscher.
Dobermann’s Famous Guard Dog
Surveying the dogs in his pound, Dobermann selected the strongest, steeliest, and most intelligent to help with his tax collecting. The importance of an unflappable temperament for this perilous work could not be overstated.
The exact combination of breeds that Dobermann used to create his famous guard dog is not known, but there are some educated guesses. The old German Shepherd, an influence in so many European breeds of the period, offered intelligence, biddability, and stamina. The Rottweiler was one plausible source of the black-and-tan pattern that became inextricably linked with the Doberman, contributing strength and natural guarding ability. The German Pinscher – the latter word means “terrier” in German – likely added pluck and speed. And that all-around favorite hunting breed, the Weimaraner, may have provided the scenting ability that is so crucial in a working dog.
When he first set out to create the breed that would posthumously be bestowed his name, Dobermann worked with two other local dog aficionados: fellow night watchman Herr Rebel and Herr Stegmann, who often journeyed to Switzerland with his butcher’s dogs to purchase cattle. Together, they bred their first litters from dogs that reportedly were supposed to have been skinned.
One of those, presumably, was “Schnuppe,” a relatively smooth-coated, reportedly mouse-gray female. A surviving photograph from the 1870s depicts Schnuppe at Dobermann’s feet – a small, vaguely terrier-sized creature who resembles no recognizable purebred we know today.
But Dobermann, who never kept stud records, was not concerned with good looks; his overarching criterion was a dog with the guts and drive to stand up to anything that dared challenge it. In fact, some of Dobermann’s early dogs may have had too much of a good thing, relentlessly chasing game and paying the price with a hunter’s bullet.
Streamlining the Doberman Pinscher
While they may have developed a reputation for their sharpness, the dogs were reportedly a success when first formally presented to the public. While the Doberman Pinscher wouldn’t step into a show ring until 1897, more than three decades earlier the fledgling breed was exhibited at Apolda’s inaugural dog market in 1863. Amid the various stalls with shaggy shepherds and lap-sized companions, Dobermann’s dogs stood out for their depth of character.
After Dobermann’s death, attention began to be paid to the breed’s appearance as much as its working ability. Around the turn of the 20th Century, crosses were made to two English breeds – the black-and-tan Manchester Terrier and the Greyhound – giving the breed some of its streamlined fluidity.
While Dobermann sparked the creation of his eponymous Pinscher, it was a liqueur manufacturer, Otto Göller, who fed it just the right kindling to ensure it would burn brightly until today. Five years after Dobermann’s death in 1894, fellow Apolda resident Göller founded the first Doberman Pinscher club (in a pub during that same annual dog market), and helped write the first standard. At its peak, his von Thuringen kennel held some 80 dogs, many of which he exported abroad. A talented salesman and fervent promoter of the Doberman Pinscher, Göller even named a bitter from his distillery after the breed.
From those humble roots in Apolda, the Doberman Pinscher has gone on to become one of the most recognizable breeds in the world, even if its name has morphed over the years: Outside of North America, the breed is called the Dobermann, the word “Pinscher” having been dropped because it no longer even remotely resembles a terrier. In the United States and Canada it is the Doberman Pinscher; somewhere along the way the second “N” of its originator’s proper name was dropped. But no matter how they spelled it, American soldiers were impressed by the breed’s loyalty and courage in the trenches of World War II, prompting the United States Marine Corps to adopt the Doberman Pinscher as its official war dog.
Today, at any given dog show, the Doberman Pinscher is usually among the most eye-catching breeds, thanks to its gleaming cost, chiseled head, and impossibly polished silhouette, which makes it look for all the world like it has been poured into its skin. But no matter how flashy the dog, or how precise the presentation, a Doberman Pinscher who shows the slightest hesitation is rarely rewarded by judges who understand what a premium should be placed on fearlessness.
Louis Dobermann today might be surprised to see how his rough-hewn protector has evolved into such a smooth and peerless showman. But he would without question recognize its steady and watchful temperament, which was the always the first – and most important – attribute of a Doberman worthy of the name.