The German Shepherd Dog has a long history in its native country. But modern German Shepherd Dog history actually hinged on one chance meeting.
A Passion for the Breed
Growing up in an wealthy family in mid-19th-century Germany, Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz had always wanted to study agriculture. He even spent time at a Berlin veterinary school. But instead of pursuing his dream to be a gentleman farmer, he gave in to family pressure and joined the military.
As a cavalry officer in the German countryside, von Stephanitz came to admire the intelligence and lightning-fast responsiveness of the sheep-herding dogs he met there. But in a time where grazing land was slowly disappearing, these sheepdogs began becoming less popular. So von Stephanitz decide to create a formal breed of German sheepdog, buying a large estate near the Bavarian town of Grafath, where he would raise them.
In April 1899, von Stephanitz attended one of the country’s largest dog shows (part of his continuing quest for breeding stock) with his friend Artur Meyer. That is where he spotted a dog named Hektor Linksrhein.
While the 4-year-old’s striking, wolf-like appearance doubtless first drew von Stephanitz’s eye, his intelligence and depth of character sealed the deal. “A gentleman with a boundless zest for living” is how von Stephanitz described him. Impressed, von Stephanitz gladly handed over 200 German gold marks to purchase the dog on the spot.
Von Stephanitz gave this prized acquisition a new name – Horand von Grafrath – and, soon, a new identity. Within a month, von Stephanitz and Meyer founded the world’s first German Shepherd Dog club, Verein für deutsche Schäferhunde. Members included three shepherds, two factory owners, a mayor, an innkeeper, an architect, and a magistrate. “Horand” received the inaugural registration number SZ1, effectively making him the first-ever German Shepherd Dog.
Beauty and Brains
For centuries, people had cared more about a sheepdog’s functionality, rather than its looks. Still, local and regional styles of dogs did develop. Von Stephanitz harnessed these different dogs’ traits to produce what he considered the ultimate German herder.
Horand came from Thuringia in north Germany, where dogs of his kind were common. Horand was not a one-off. Instead, Friedrich Sparwasser in Frankfurt had deliberately bred him, focusing on fixing the upright ears and wolf-like body style that so many fanciers admired. From Horand’s immediate family, several dogs – his littermate brother, Luchs, their parents, and their paternal grandparents – were later registered as German Shepherd Dogs, as well.
The Thuringian dogs, however, tended to be smaller and stockier, often with wiry coats, curled tails, and sharp temperaments. Von Stephanitz believed that crossing dogs from Wurttemberg in south Germany – which were generally larger, heavier-boned, and easier to handle – with Thuringian dogs would provide him with a middle ground.
To von Stephanitz, a dog’s working ability was as important as its appearance. He disagreed with people who wanted the breed to be just a showpiece. To this day, when German Shepherd Dogs are evaluated at dog shows, they undergo a quick temperament test by the judge, to make sure their temperaments are stable.
Horand had already achieved perfection in that department, as far as von Stephanitz was concerned. According to von Stephanitz, Horand was “untrained in his puppyhood,” but “nevertheless obedient to the slightest nod when at his master’s side.” He noted the breed’s high energy level, which needed to be channeled. He described the German Shepherd Dog as “never idle, always on the go, well-disposed to harmless people, but no cringer, mad on children and always in love.”
A Service and War Dog
Not surprisingly, von Stephanitz used Horand extensively at stud, working intensely to fix the traits that he found so valuable. Thanks to the success of some of those offspring – in particular his grandsons Heinz von Starkenburg, Beowolf, and Pilot – Horand’s blood flows through the veins of virtually every German Shepherd Dog alive today.
Though the breed was being developed just as World War I was beginning, the German military hadn’t yet fully appreciated the value of war dogs. Von Stephanitz relentlessly and successfully promoted his breed as a peerless service dog. He even mourned the fact that Horand had never had the opportunity to prove himself in that respect. “What could not have become of such a dog,” he asked rhetorically, “if we only had at that time military or police service training?”
World War I brought with it anti-German sentiment across the globe. In the United States, the American Kennel Club directed the German Shepherd Dog Club of America to change its name and the breed’s name. The club rechristened itself the Shepherd Club of America, and similarly removed the word “German” from the breed name. The British responded similarly, renaming the breed the Alsatian. But in the aftermath of World War I, the German Shepherd Dog’s reputation as a war dog spread, and canine film stars such as Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart – war veterans both – ensured a skyrocketing popularity worldwide.
American fanciers met von Stephanitz in person in 1930. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, the show’s wealthy patroness (who was herself a German Shepherd Dog breeder), invited him to judge at the famous Morris & Essex Kennel Club Show. So many dogs were entered that von Stephanitz was forced to judge both sexes over two days – and, in the European tradition, wrote a critique on each.
The German Shepherd Dog always resonated with people from its homeland, even as World War II approached. Hitler was fascinated with German Shepherd Dogs, thanks to his relentlessly loyal dog Prinz, and a number of Nazis soon joined the breed club. Though Von Stephanitz was a man of his times (and so not immune to anti-Semitism, as some of his writings unfortunately show), he nonetheless resisted the changes – or, perhaps, the loss of control. Eventually forced to resign from the club, von Stephanitz died a year later, in 1936.
Today’s German Shepherd Dog
Today, the dog von Stephanitz left behind has become one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. He might be surprised at the varying styles of dogs across different countries and continents. But he would find common ground with modern fanciers in a particular saying, a version of which circulated among breeders of his day: “There are wolves, there are dogs – and then there are German Shepherd Dogs.”