The German Shepherd Dog (GSD), also known as the German Shepherd or the Alsatian, is perhaps one of the best known dog breeds around the world. German Shepherd Dogs are found in all kennel clubs and in virtually every country in the world. Although they are now known and famous as police dogs, military dogs and protection dogs, they didn't always have such a high profile type of job.
The original German Shepherd Dog was actually a combination of several different herding breeds. From the rugged areas around Germany and surrounding countries, shepherds and farmers prized their combination herd guardians and herding dogs, which were typically mid to large sized dogs, rangy and athletic while not being bulky or heavy. These dogs had to be smart, strong and courageous enough to protect the herds of sheep in the mountainous areas, but they also had to be intelligent enough to understand commands and expectations of the shepherds and farmers. These dogs often also served as guardians of the farms themselves, and provided a watchdog and guard dog function, protecting both property and livestock that was around and away from the farm. This often included sheep, poultry and geese, cattle and goats or pigs.
Initially there was no attempt to define or cultivate a particular appearance or physical build. In essence the sheer ability of these dogs was all that mattered as working and herding animals. The earliest herding breeds in Germany ranged from the heavy, long haired dogs to very short coated varieties of dogs, both which were bred together to bring out the desired working characteristics. This breeding for performance rather than appearance continued until the late 1800's when a group of interested dog breeders in Germany came together to form the Phylax Society. The Phylax Society, started in 1881, only lasted about 3 years as a functioning group, but their idea of developing a breed standard for herding dogs in Germany was an idea that caught significant attention among breeders. The exact reason the Phylax Society dissolved was due to internal struggles as to how important appearance was in relation to actual performance, which was an ongoing issue within German dog breeding groups as well as those in other areas.
In 1889 a military man and interested dog owner by the name of Captain Max von Stephanitz happened to be attending a dog show in the western part of Germany. Always interested in natural talent and herding ability, the Captain was impressed by a very large, wolf-like dog that was outstanding in the herding competition at the show. After the event he approached the owner and agreed to purchase the dog, which was then named Hektor Linksrhein. The dog had been selectively bred from a long line of herding dogs owned by the family, and it was the perfect match for the type of dog that Von Stephanitz had promoted in the now defunct Phylax Society. Captain Von Stephanitz quickly changed the dog's name to Horand von Grafrath, and used this dog to form the basic standards of a true working and herding breed that was to be based on balanced temperament and natural ability and intelligence, without specific regard for uniform appearance.
Through very careful breeding, which included line breeding to enhance specific temperaments and traits, Von Stephanitz began to develop the original German Shepherd breed. He founded the Verein für Deutsche Schferhunde, SV or the Society of the German Shepherd Dog. Horand von Grafrath became the first officially registered dog and was used almost exclusively in early breeding programs. Within a few generations there was a unified temperament and mental ability emerging with the new breed, and demand for the puppies increased quickly. One of the most important puppies in these early litters was Beowulf, which is considered by many to the father of most of the modern German Shepherd lines. Although dark in color and slightly rangier than modern members of the breed, he is definitely the prototype of the current German Shepherd Dog.
Although the breed was very popular with farmers and shepherds, Captain Von Stephanitz was concerned about the decreasing need for herding animals. With his military contacts he worked through a series of training programs and tests of attitude, mental ability and temperament to show how versatile the German Shepherd breed could be. This actually formed the origins of Schutzhund training that many military or guard dogs are still trained in and tested. It also created additional demand for these dogs in military and police use.
Although the Verein für Deutsche Schferhunde was popular in Germany, it wasn't until 1907 that the first of the breed came to the United States. They quickly became a must have breed and the German Shepherd Club of America was first formed in 1913. At approximately the same time, 1919 to be exact, the UK Kennel Club accepted the German Shepherd into its registry, and by 1926 there were several thousand registered dogs. With the onset of World War l both the US and the UK changed the registry names, the UK to Alsatian and the US to the Shepherd Dog, due to issues with the word German in the dog's name. It wasn't until much later that both Kennel Clubs again restored German to the name.
In 1926 Von Stephanitz made one last adjustment to the breed standard in the form of a dog named Klodo von Boxberg, which had the typical long, lean and short loined German Shepherd appearance. This dog was shown and bred in both Germany and America, and is considered to be one of the most influential dogs in the modern German Shepherd lines.
With the rapid rise in the popularity of the dogs, especially in the United States where breeding was not controlled the same way it was in Germany, many of the modern genetic concerns and faults found in some German Shepherds were brought into most of the breeding lines. Some dogs that were not of the temperament that the original breeders strove for also were used in breeding "show quality" dogs, differing from the strict temperament breeding standards originally envisioned.
Modern GSD breeders have corrected many of the early breeding issues and have developed a breed that is a wonderful working dog, excellent guard and protective dog but also a loving, intelligent and highly loyal companion pet. According to the American Kennel Club the GSD continues to be in the top three most popular breeds, a position this great breed will likely continue to hold into the future.
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