The History and Origin of the German Shepherd Dog - German Shepherd Rescue Elite (2024)

Dog(Canis lupus familiaris)

Other names for the
German Shepherd Dog

Berger Allemand
Deutscher Schäferhund



Male35–43 kilograms (77–95lb)
Female25–33 kilograms (55–73lb)


Male60–65 centimetres (24–26in)
Female55–60 centimetres (22–24in)


SeeDescriptionsection below


Most commonly tan with black saddle

Litter size


Life span

9-13 years

TheGerman Shepherd Dogis a breed of large-sized dog that originated in Germany in 1899. As part of theHerding Group, German Shepherds are working dogs developed originally for herding and guarding sheep. Because of their strength, intelligence and abilities in obedience training they are often employed in police and military roles around the world.


German Shepherd Dog

In Europe during the 1850s, attempts were being made to standardise breeds.The dogs were bred to preserve traits that assisted in their job of herding sheep and protecting flocks from predators. In Germany this was practiced within local communities, where shepherds selected and bred dogs that they believed had the skills necessary for herding sheep, such as intelligence, speed, strength, and keen senses of smell. The results were dogs that were able to do such things, but that differed significantly, both in appearance and ability, from one locality to another.

To combat these differences, thePhylax Societywas formed in 1891 with the intention of creating standardised dog breeds in Germany. The society disbanded after only three years due to ongoing internal conflicts regarding the traits in dogs that the society should promote; some members believed dogs should be bred solely for working purposes, while others believed dogs should be bred also for appearance.While unsuccessful in their goal, the Phylax Society had inspired people to pursue standardising dog breeds independently.

Max von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry captain and former student of the Berlin Veterinary College, was one such ex-member. He believed strongly that dogs should be bred for working.

In 1899, Von Stephanitz was attending a dog show when he was shown a dog namedHektor Linksrhein. Hektor was the product of few generations of selective breeding and completely fulfilled what Von Stephanitz believed a working dog should be. He was pleased with the strength of the dog and was so taken by the animal’s intelligence, loyalty, and beauty, that he purchased him immediately.After purchasing the dog he changed his name toHorand von Grafrathand Von Stephanitz founded theVerein für Deutsche Schäferhunde(Society for the German Shepherd Dog).Horand was declared to be the first German Shepherd Dog and was the first dog added to the society’s breed register.

Horand became the centre-point of the breeding programs and was bred with dogs belonging to other society members that displayed desirable traits. Although fathering many pups, Horand’s most successful wasHektor von Schwaben.Hektor was inbred with another of Horand’s offspring and producedBeowulf, who later fathered a total of eighty-four pups, mostly through being inbred with Hektor’s other offspring. In the original German Shepherd studbook, Zuchtbuch für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SZ), within the two pages of entries from SZ No. 41 to SZ No. 76, there are four Wolf Crosses.Beowulf’s progeny also were inbred and it is from these pups that all German Shepherds draw a genetic link. It is believed the society accomplished its goal mostly due to Von Stephanitz’s strong, uncompromising leadership and he is therefore credited with being the creator of the German Shepherd Dog.


When theUK Kennel Clubfirst accepted registrations for the breed in 1919, fifty-four dogs were registered, and by 1926 this number had grown to over 8,000.The breed first gained international recognition at the decline of World War I after returning soldiers spoke highly of the breed, and animal actorsRin Tin TinandStrongheartpopularised the breed further.The first German Shepherd Dog registered in the United States wasQueen of Switzerland; however, her offspring suffered from defects as the result of poor breeding, which caused the breed to suffer a decline in popularity during the late 1920s.

Popularity increased again after the German ShepherdSieger Pfeffer von Bernbecame the 1937 and 1938 Grand Victor in American Kennel club dog shows, only to suffer another decline at the conclusion of World War II, due to anti-German sentiment of the time.As time progressed, their popularity increased gradually until 1993, when they became the third most popular breed in the United States. As of 2009, the breed was the second most popular in the US. Additionally, the breed is typically among the most popular in other registries.The German Shepherd Dog’s physique is very well suited to athletic competition. They commonly compete in shows and competitions such asagility trials.


The breed was namedDeutscher Schäferhundby von Stephanitz, literally translating to “German Shepherd Dog”. The breed was so named due to its original purpose of assisting shepherds in herding and protecting sheep. At the time, all other herding dogs in Germany were referred to by this name; they thus became known asAltdeutsche SchäferhundeorOld German Shepherd Dogs.

The direct translation of the name was adopted for use in the official breed registry; however, at the conclusion of World War I, it was believed that the inclusion of the word “German” would harm the breed’s popularity,due to theanti-German sentimentof the era.The breed was officially renamed by the UK Kennel Club to “Alsatian Wolf Dog”which was also adopted by many other international kennel clubs. Eventually, the appendage “wolf dog” was dropped.The name Alsatian remained for five decades,until 1977, when successful campaigns by dog enthusiasts pressured the UK Kennel Club to allow the breed to be registered again as German Shepherd Dogs.The word “Alsatian” still appeared in parentheses as part of the formal breed name and was only removed in 2010.

Modern breed

The modern German Shepherd Dog is criticised for straying away from von Stephanitz’s original ideology for the breed:that German Shepherds should be bred primarily as working dogs, and that breeding should be strictly controlled to eliminate defects quickly.Critics believe that careless breeding has promoted disease and other defects.Under the breeding programs overseen by von Stephanitz, defects were quickly bred out; however, in modern times without regulation on breeding, genetic problems such as colour-paling,hip dysplasia,monorchidism, weakness oftemperament, and missing teeth are common, as well as bent or folded ears which never fully turn up when reaching adulthood.


German Shepherds are large sized dogs, generally between 55 and 65 centimetres (22 and 26 in) at thewithers, with an ideal height of 63 centimetres (25in) according to Kennel Club standards.Weight is 30–40 kilograms (66–88lb) for males and 22–32 kilograms (49–71lb) for females.They have a domed forehead, a long square-cut muzzle and a black nose. The jaws are strong, with a scissor-like bite. The eyes are medium-sized and brown with a lively, intelligent, and self-assured look. The ears are large and stand erect, open at the front and parallel, but they often are pulled back during movement. They have a long neck, which is raised when excited and lowered when moving at a fast pace. The tail is bushy and reaches to thehock.

German Shepherds can be a variety of colours, the most common of which are tan/black and red/black. Most colour varieties haveblack masksand black body markings which can range from a classic “saddle” to an over-all “blanket.” Rarer colour variations include the sable, all-black,all-white, liver, and blue varieties. The all-black and sable varieties are acceptable according to most standards; however, the blue and liver are considered to be serious faults and the all-white is grounds for instant disqualification in some standards.

German Shepherds sport adouble coat. The outer coat, which sheds all year round, is close and dense with a thick undercoat. The coat is accepted in two variants; medium and long. The long-hair gene isrecessive, making the long-hair variety rarer. Treatment of the long-hair variation differs across standards; they are accepted under theGermanand UK Kennel Clubs but are considered a fault in the American Kennel Club.


German Shepherds were bred specifically for theirintelligence,a trait for which they are now famous.In the bookThe Intelligence of Dogs, authorStanley Corenranked the breed third for intelligence, behindBorder ColliesandPoodles.He found that they had the ability to learn simple tasks after only five repetitions and obeyed the first command given 95% of the time.Coupled with their strength, this trait makes the breed desirable aspolice,guard, andsearch and rescue dogs, as they are able to quickly learn various tasks and interpret instructions better than other large breeds.


German Shepherds are highly active dogs, and described in breed standards as self-assured.The breed is marked by a willingness to learn and an eagerness to have a purpose. They are curious which makes them excellent guard dogs and suitable for search missions. They can become over-protective of their family and territory, especially if not socialised correctly. They are not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers.German Shepherds are highly intelligent and obedient.


Many common ailments of the German Shepherds are a result of the inbreeding practiced early in the breed’s life.One such common ailment ishipandelbow dysplasiawhich may lead to the dog experiencing pain in later life, and may causearthritis. A study by theUniversity of Zurichin police working dogs found that 45% were affected by degenerative spinal stenosis, although the sample studied was small.TheOrthopedic Foundation for Animalsfound that 19.1% of German Shepherd are affected by hip dysplasia.Due to the large and open nature of their ears, Shepherds are prone to ear infections.German Shepherds, like all large bodied dogs, are prone tobloat.

According to a recent survey in the UK, the median life span of German Shepherds is 10.95 years,which is normal for a dog of their size.Degenerative myelopathy (CDRM), a neurological disease, occurs with enough regularity specifically in the breed to suggest that the breed is predisposed to it. A very inexpensive DNA saliva test is now available to screen for Degenerative Myelopathy. The test screens for the mutated gene that has been seen in dogs with degenerative myelopathy. Now that a test is available the disease can be bred out of breeds with a high preponderance. The test is only recommended for predisposed breeds, but can be performed on DNA from any dog on samples collected through swabbing the inside of the animal’s cheek with a sterile cotton swab.


The Kennel Clubhas been embroiled in a dispute with German Shepherd breed clubs about the issue of soundness in the show-strain breed.The show-strains have been bred with an extremely sloping topline (back) that causes poor gait in the hind legs. Working-pedigree lines, such as those in common use as service dogs, generally retain the traditional straight back of the breed. The debate was catalyzed when the issue was raised in the BBC documentary,Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which said that critics of the breed describe it as “half dog, half frog”. An orthopedic vet remarked on footage of dogs in a show ring that they were “not normal”.

The Kennel Club’s position is that “this issue of soundness is not a simple difference of opinion, it is the fundamental issue of the breed’s essential conformation and movement.”The Kennel Club has decided to retrain judges to penalize dogs suffering these problems.It is also insisting on more testing for hemophilia and hip dysplasia, other common problems with the breed.

Urban Search and Rescue Task Force dog works to uncover survivors at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Use as working dog

German Shepherds are a very popular selection for use asworking dogs. They are especially well known for their police work, being used for tracking criminals, patrolling troubled areas, and detection and holding of suspects. Additionally thousands of German Shepherds have been used by the military. Usually trained forscoutduty, they are used to warn soldiers to the presence of enemies or of booby traps or other hazards.German Shepherds have also been trained by military groups to parachute from aircraft.

The German Shepherd Dog is one of the most widely used breeds in a wide variety of scent-work roles. These includesearch and rescue,cadaver searching,narcoticsdetection,explosives detection,accelerantdetection, and mine detection dog, among others. They are suited for these lines of work because of their keen sense of smell and their ability to work regardless of distractions.

At one time the German Shepherd Dog was the breed chosen almost exclusively to be used as aguide dogfor thevisually impaired. In recent years,LabradorsandGolden Retrievershave been more widely used for this work, although there are still German Shepherds being trained. A versatile breed, they excel in this field due to their strong sense of duty, their mental abilities, their fearlessness, and their attachment to their owner.

German Shepherd Dogs are used for herding and tending sheep grazing in meadows next to gardens and crop fields. They are expected to patrol the boundaries to keep sheep from trespassing and damaging the crops. In Germany and other places these skills are tested in utility dog trials also known as HGH (Herdengebrauchshund) herding utility dog trials.

In popular culture

Strongheart, one of the earliest canine stars.

German Shepherds have been featured in a wide range of media.Strongheartthe German Shepherd was one of the earliest canine film stars and was followed byRin Tin Tin, who is now acclaimed as being the most famous German Shepherd. Both have stars on theHollywood Walk of Fame.German Shepherds were used in the popular Canadian seriesThe Littlest Hobo.Batman’s dogAce the Bat-Houndappeared in theBatman comic books, initially in 1955,through 1964.Between 1964 and 2007, his appearances were sporadic.

Rex, a German Shepherd, is the eponymouspolice dogcharacter of the Austrian television dramaInspector Rex.

The animated movieAll Dogs Go To Heavenstars a German Shepherd named “Charlie Barkin”. He is also the main character in the sequel and the TV series.

The 2003 Disney movie101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventureshows Thunderbolt the German Shepherd, who is a television hero.

The 2007 Hollywood movieI am LegendstarringWill Smithas virologist Robert Neville shows a German Shepherd Dog Samantha (Sam) as the only companion of Neville in the deserted New York City where a lethal strain of virus has spread. The movie portrays a close bond between the main character and his dog.

Next – Breed Standards

The History and Origin of the German Shepherd Dog - German Shepherd Rescue Elite (2024)


The History and Origin of the German Shepherd Dog - German Shepherd Rescue Elite? ›

The German Shepherd Dog is a breed of large-sized dog that originated in Germany in 1899. As part of the Herding Group, German Shepherds are working dogs developed originally for herding and guarding sheep.

What two breeds make a German Shepherd? ›

While there isn't a single specific breed that formed the German Shepherd, several breeds played a role in its development. Some of these breeds include: German Sheepdogs: The German Sheepdogs, which were herding dogs found in various regions of Germany, served as the foundation for the German Shepherd breed.

What are 3 interesting facts about German Shepherds? ›

  • Fact #1: German Shepherds Are One of The Smartest Dog Breeds.
  • Fact #2: World War I Made Shepherds Famous.
  • Fact #3: German Shepherds Aren't Dangerous Dogs.
  • Fact #4: The First Modern German Shepherds.
  • Fact #5: German Shepherds Remain Hugely Popular in America.
  • Fact #6: German Shepherds Have Stars on The Walk of Fame.

Who was the first person to own a German Shepherd? ›

This dog, Hektor Linksrhein, was purchased by von Stephanitz, renamed Horand von Grafrath, and became the first registered German Shepherd Dog.

When did German Shepherds become military dogs? ›

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, German Shepherd Dogs began serving with the German Military. They performed a number of tasks on the battlefield and within the ranks of the German Army. These new dogs served as sentries, messengers, and ammunition carriers.

What is the best bloodline for a German Shepherd? ›

Probably an American line or West German line would be best for you. If you're wanting a working dog for police work, Schutzhund, security, or personal protection, you'll definitely need to purchase from a working line. If you want a stable temperament, the German and/or Czech working line is your best bet.

What are German Shepherds weakness? ›

Since GSDs are prone to hind leg weakness, they are at an increased risk for severe arthritis. Dogs with bad hips and arthritic joints may change their gait and walk lower to the ground, causing German Shepherd legs to appear even more bent.

What makes a German Shepherd special? ›

German Shepherds are famous for their intelligent, loyal, and hardworking natures. They are often used as guide, therapy, search-and-rescue, police, military, and narcotics and explosives detecting dogs. While they can come across as aloof to strangers, they are known to be wonderful family dogs.

How smart is a German Shepherd? ›

German Shepherd

A German Shepherd is a very common working dog, and it's thanks to their huge intelligence. This is a breed who has been a devoted companion to the armed forces, police and security services, so you may not be surprised to know that they are one of the cleverest dog breeds.

Is A German Shepherd A dog or a wolf? ›

Is a German Shepherd the closest dog to a wolf? German Shepherds share 99.9% of their DNA with wolves and are said to be descendants of the grey wolves.

Is a German Shepherd a one person dog? ›

German Shepherds will generally attach themselves to one person in the family, but they can still be a good family dog.

What are German Shepherds called in Germany? ›

The German Shepherd (German: Deutscher Schäferhund), also known as the Alsatian, is a breed of medium-large size dog. It was first developed in Germany. They are often used as police dogs, but they have many other uses.

What were German Shepherds called during the war? ›

So, they created a new name for the German Shepherd, which was the Alsatian.

What is the real breed of German Shepherd? ›

The German shepherd dog is a herding breed known for its courage, loyalty and guarding instincts. This breed makes an excellent guard dog, police dog, military dog, guide dog for the blind and search and rescue dog. For many families, the German shepherd is also a treasured family pet.

How did German Shepherds originate? ›

What is the original German Shepherd? ›

Horand was declared to be the first German Shepherd Dog and was the first dog added to the society's breed register.

What is another breed of German Shepherd? ›

The Shiloh Shepherd is another breed that was originally created by crossing the German Shepherd with other dogs. Though they look very similar to German Shepherds, they tend to be a bit larger and often have more calm, relaxed, easygoing personalities.


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