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The existence of the German Shepherd Dog hinged on one chance meeting.

Growing up in an affluent family in mid-19th-Century Germany, Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz had always wanted to study agriculture, even spending time at Berlin’s veterinary school. But instead pursuing his dream to be a gentleman farmer, he relented to family pressure and joined the military.

As a cavalry officer in the German countryside, Von Stephanitz came to admire the sheep-herding dogs he encountered there for their intelligence and lightning-fast responsiveness. But as modernity encroached and grazing land slowly evaporated, these peerless sheepdogs began dwindling in number. Before they disappeared entirely, Von Stephanitz decide to create a formal breed of German sheepdog, buying a sprawling estate near the Bavarian town of Grafath on which to raise them.

His continuing quest for breeding stock prompted Von Stephanitz to attend one of the country’s largest dog shows in April 1899, accompanied by his friend Artur Meyer. And 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 club, Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde with a membership that included three shepherds, two factory owners, a mayor, an innkeeper, an architect and a magistrate. Horand was given the inaugural registration number SZ1, effectively making him the first-ever German Shepherd Dog.

German Shepherd Dog c. 1955
Ch. Chimney Sweep of Long-Worth, German Shepherd Dog. c. 1955

Beauty and Brains

At the turn of the 20th Century, when Von Stephanitz began trying to standardize Germany’s many “flavors” of herding dogs, the craze for identifiable breeds was cresting. But for centuries before, the prevailing philosophy had been, simply: Beauty is as beauty does. A good sheepdog was a good sheepdog, no matter how it looked. Still, local and regional styles of dogs did intrinsically develop, and Von Stephanitz harnessed them to fix the traits he wanted in what he considered the ultimate German herder.

The newly rechristened Horand came from Thuringia in north Germany, where dogs of his kind were common. Horand was not a one-off: He had been very deliberately bred by Friedrich Sparwasser in Frankfort, who focused on fixing the upright ears and wolf-like body style that so many fanciers admired. From Horand’s immediate family, his littermate brother, Luchs, both their parents and both their paternal grandparents were later registered as German Shepherds 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 crosses to dogs from Wurttemberg in south Germany – which were generally larger and heavier boned, with more tractability – would give him the middle ground he sought.

To Von Stephanitz, a dog’s working ability was as important as its appearance, and he disagreed bitterly with those who would have the breed be just a showpiece. To this day, when German Shepherds are judged at dog shows, each submits to a quick temperament test by the judge, to vouchsafe its stable temperament.

Horand had already achieved perfection in that department, as far as Von Stephanitz was concerned.

“Although untrained in his puppyhood, nevertheless obedient to the slightest nod when at his master’s side; but when left to himself, the maddest rascal, the wildest ruffian and an incorrigible provoker of strife,” Von Stephanitz wrote of Horand, reminding of the breed’s high energy level, which needs to be channeled. “Never idle, always on the go, well-disposed to harmless people, but no cringer, mad on children and always in love.”

German Shepherd Dog at a dog show
Best of breed winner from the Ladies Kennel Association of Ceylon dog show in October of 1961.

A Service and War Dog

Not surprisingly, Von Stephanitz used Horand extensively at stud, linebreeding intensely on him to fix the traits that he found so valuable. Thanks to the success of some of those offspring – in particular his three grandsons Heinz von Starkenburg, Beowolf and Pilot – Horand’s blood flows through the veins of virtually every German Shepherd alive today.

Though the German Shepherd was being developed just as the storm clouds of the Great War were gathering, the German military hadn’t yet fully appreciated the value of war dogs. Von Stephanitz relentlessly and successfully promoted his nascent breed as a peerless service dog, and 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, and changing semantics across the globe: In the United States, American Kennel Club directed the German Shepherd Dog Club of America to change both its name and that of the breed; by the proscribed deadline, the club rechristened itself the Shepherd Club of America, and similarly lopped the word “German” off the breed name. Across the pond, the British responded in kind, renaming the breed the Alsatian. But in the aftermath of the war, the Shepherd’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, when he was invited to judge at the famous Morris & Essex Kennel Club Show by the impossibly wealthy Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, the show’s benefactress and a German Shepherd breeder herself. So many Shepherds were entered that Von Stephanitz was forced to judge both sexes over two days – and, in the European tradition, wrote a critique on each.

Developing in the time and place that it did, the German Shepherd always struck nationalistic chords in its homeland, and as World War II approached, the breed heeled obediently into some of its darkest days. Hitler was fascinated with German Shepherds, thanks to his relentlessly loyal dog Prinz, and a number of Nazis soon joined the German Shepherd club. Though Von Stephanitz was a man of his times, and so not immune to the prevailing anti-Semitism, as some of his writings unfortunately attest, 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.

group of German Shepherd Dogs
1949 Ch. Nyx of Longworth, dam of the famed “D” litter of six champions.

Today’s German Shepherd Dog

Today the breed Von Stephanitz left behind has become one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. He might be surprised at the drama of today’s German Shepherd ring, as well as the varying styles of dogs across different countries and continents. But he would find common ground with modern fanciers in this aphorism, a version of which circulated among breeders of his day:

There are wolves, there are dogs – and then there are German Shepherd Dogs.
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