German Shepherd Dog

The History

By Judy Cooper


The German Shepherd Dog.

The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) has a surprisingly short history as a distinctive breed. The history of the types of dog used in Germany for watching sheep, family protection and hunting that made up the GSD, goes back to the unrecorded period before the Roman Empire. The Germanic people would breed their dogs to other dogs to develop the traits that they wanted. If they herded sheep and they liked the way their neighbours dog did the work (i.e. intelligence, stamina, courage, attentiveness etc.) they would arrange a mating. Whilst this was haphazard at times it did bring about a distinctive ‘type' of dog.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century a Captain Max von Stephanitz of the German army resigned his commission to be a gentleman farmer. It was his observation that dogs used to herd the sheep of his area were too small. Sometimes it was all the dog could do to control some of the more stubborn and intractable characters in the flock. Because of this von Stephanitz set about looking for the type of dog he pictured in his mind. It had to be firm of nerve, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness. It was in 1899 that von Stephanitz established the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhund, (SV, German Shepherd Dog Club) His dog, Hordand von Grafath, became not only the first dog registered with that club, but he also became the prototype of the GSD's to follow.

It was von Stephanitz who established, developed and standardised the look and type for GSD's throughout the world.

Whilst originally developed for the herding of sheep and cattle, which it still used for in Germany and some other European countries the GSD has developed into one of the most versatile working dogs in the world, i.e.:- Police Dogs – Guide Dogs – Search and Rescue – Sheep and cattle herders – Guard Dogs – Bomb and Drug detection – Show Dogs – Obedience Champions and lastly, but not least, Family Pets.

The German Shepherd Dog is not a dog for everyone, nor for every family. It can be dangerous if not trained with positive reinforcement and consistency. It also has to be properly socialised as a puppy. A well bred GSD is loyal, intelligent and protective. They are also frighteningly intelligent and expect their owners to be their superiors and if they are not, the GSD will take the lead.

They are the third most popular pedigree dog throughout the world, and considering the short space of time that the breed has been in existence, that speaks for itself regarding the regarding the esteem the GSD is held in.

The advent of two world wars curtailed the development of the breed to a certain extent and also helped to establish creation of many ‘types' and bloodlines in different countries, but the basic principles which von Stephanitz put into place still hold good in all these variations. The main differences noticeable in most of these breed variations is in the line of the back and small alterations in size and colour. All told there are about twenty five of these off shoot types but they are all recognisable as GSD's.

During the second world war the breeding of GSD's in Britain fell away. After the end of the war, with the start of the return to normality, things took a turn for the better and some dedicated breeders began to start up. Owing to the stringent quarantine laws and the expense of keeping a dog in quarantine for six months there was a dearth of imports, and so only English stock was used. This led to the English type of Alsatian (as the breed was called then) These were descended from the old lines imported to the British Isles prior to the war.

They developed into a heavy boned, long bodied type with uniform beautiful shoulders, with a generally soft temperament and variable drive. They did find work as police service dogs and guide dogs for the blind. When the quarantine laws were relaxed, with the advent of the pet passport there began a wholesale import of German post war lines. These are supplanting the old English breeding. Unfortunately it was not understood by some breeders that the Germans breed two distinctive types of dog – working lines and show lines. Most GSD's in Britain are kept as pets and the offspring of German working lines are not suitable, in a lot of cases, for the pet dog purpose, and this has created a lot of behavioural problems.

Germany still adheres to a rigid regime in the breeding and registration of GSD's, but unfortunately other countries do not. The English Kennel Club (EKC) will register all that apply under their pedigree scheme as long as certain criteria are applied. This has led, not only in Britain, but other countries as well, to unscrupulous breeders breeding indiscriminately. Because of this many serious health problems have surfaced, some life threatening. Belatedly, steps have started to be taken to try to eliminate some of the worst of these, but it is too little, too late.

None of this detracts from the fact that the German Shepherd Dog is one of the most loyal, faithful and easily trained dogs in the world today


So you want to own a German Shepherd?

Before you should even think of doing this there are many considerations to be taken into account. If you are fainthearted or a ‘couch potato' then don't even think about owning one of these dogs, it will only end up in heartbreak for yourself and trauma for the dog.

You have to be a special person to own a German Shepherd dog, and also be extremely responsible and committed to the care, training and exercise needed by this breed. You should also have some knowledge of this breed type and the needs of the dog that you are taking on.

The German Shepherd dog was bred to herd livestock. Because of this, they will sometimes display the traits of herding, such as nipping at heels. These dogs have enormous energy and need at least two hours of exercise every day. If they are not kept busy, they will often create their own entertainment. This is not a good thing. Some German Shepherds have a stronger need to stay active than others, but too often a dog will end up in an animal shelter because their former owner didn't want to put effort and stimulation into a dog breed that requires a good amount of exercise and attention. A Germen Shepherd also needs human companionship and can be destructive if not given proper attention by its owner. These issues need to be taken into account.

Adult German Shepherds are loyal, active, protective and very intelligent, but can also be quite wilful. The owner must be able to assert him/herself as ‘alpha' or leader of the pack. Your German Shepherd wants you to be the leader and follow the rules. Without proper socialisation they can become very rambunctious and difficult to handle. You must teach your dog to fit into your family's lifestyle and pack. A structured routine will be very beneficial to good dog behaviour. Training does not end after a six or eight week obedience training course but is an ongoing process that will last throughout your dog's life, akin to raising children. This issue also requires a great deal of thought.

While a German Shepherd requires a lot of work the investment in this work is repaid tenfold with the dog's loyalty and loving companionship. If you are not willing to avail yourself to such a high level of commitment, I urge you to consider a different breed. There are lots of nice dogs that will require much less effort on your part, but will make a loyal and trustworthy pet.

A German Shepherd has a distinctive personality. It should be steady, direct and fearless but not aggressive. It should also be self confident but will often have an aloofness that doesn't lend it to forming immediate and indiscriminate friendships – these have to be earned.

A Brief History of the Breed . The German Shepherd is a relatively new breed. It started in Germany just over one hundred years ago. It was originally developed as a herding dog for sheep and cattle but over the years has proven itself to be such a versatile dog that its uses are now manifold. It is used by the Police, Rescue Services, as a Guide dog for the Blind, Bomb Disposal work, family pets, show dogs – the list is endless. It is definitely one of the foremost dogs in terms of intelligence and temperament, and while it certainly has its problems, its qualities have never been equalled.

As is characteristic of a herding dog the German Shepherd needs a job, even if this takes the form of exercise and play. This will keep the dog engaged and active, but if you don't do this the dog will do it itself. Due to the breeds guarding trait too often the dog's self created job will take the form of excessive protectiveness. This can result in inappropriate aggression toward people who approach you or family members, other dogs or animals. Sometimes the dog will even turn on itself (i.e. tail chasing and biting).

A good temperament in a German Shepherd requires the right balance of watchfulness (not paranoid fear), steady nerve, trainability that includes a desire to do as you say without hesitation, and other working qualities. This temperament is obtained through kind and diligent training. If you are not prepared to thoroughly train your dog then the German Shepherd is the wrong choice for you. This is an extremely loyal breed with high protection ability that is best channelled into healthy bonding with your family and other pets if you have any.

Do not ask some one else to train your dog for you. You need a lot of training WITH your dog in order to handle him responsibly. A German Shepherd needs a minimum of several months of weekly class experience working side by side with other handlers who have their dogs under control.

Health Concerns.

With the careless breeding some people have done, it's not surprising that the GSD shows up on lists of breeds susceptible to a number of possibly inherited diseases. The best known is hip dysplasia, (this can also be caused by over running a puppy in its early stages before its bones have properly developed). This condition makes a dog unsuited for a number of working roles and can cause varying degrees of pain, disability and behavioural problems. The Kennel Club have brought in a voluntary code of ‘hip scoring', but unfortunately this is not mandatory and there is no proper check on the usage of it. A dogs risk of hip dysplasia is greatly reduced by careful breeding, so always enquire for the hip scores for both sire and dam. This does not guarantee that the puppy will have perfect hips.

Another thing to watch out for is allergies. If you see a puppy with skin problems, walk away from it. Separation Anxiety is another common condition found in German Shepherds. This is more often found in dogs that lose their homes and have to go into Dog Rescue. With a puppy this can be avoided by having a structured routine, regular exercise and training and lots of love and affection.

Whilst health is an issue, careful selection of a breeder, perhaps through word of mouth, and asking the right questions, can usually mean that you end up with a bright, healthy puppy.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't take precautions. Always take out a good insurance policy to cover your dog against the unexpected.


A German Shepherd Dog is a way of life. Many wind up homeless because they represent a big commitment of your time, as well as learning how to train a dog. Talk with people who own one and listen to what they have to tell you before deciding.

German Shepherds are thinkers. They need work to do and problems to solve. They need to be important to you, and they need to stay with you for the rest of their lives. These dogs will give you their hearts and ask for very little in return. They genuinely desire to please you. A well bred and trained German Shepherd is unforgettable and to see the gait of one running – poetry in motion.

If you live in a flat with little or no garden, think very carefully before getting one. It is bred to be an active dog and mustn't be allowed to become bored over long periods of time.


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