The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) or Alsatian, was first "created" in the late 19th Century. At the time, Germany (where the GSD was first bred), was populated by many working dogs. These dogs were used by the many farmers of the time to help protect and herd livestock. The German Shepherd is a direct product of these times and of the work of Captain Max Emil Frederick von Stephanitz. Stephanitz, recognized as the creator of the breed, realized that, though useful, many of the herding dogs used at the time were neither large enough nor tough enough to handle the larger, more stubborn sheep. Therefore, with his knowledge of functional animal anatomy, he set out in the 1890s to create a "super-herder".
Though Stephanitz's early experiments at breeding failed to produce his perfect dog, he kept at it. Finally, in 1899, he found a dog that would become the father of the new generation of sheepherders. He immediately bought the dog, who he named Harond von Grafhath, and founded a kennel club devoted to the German Shepherd called the Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde ("German Shepherd Association") or SV.
The SV quickly began implementing plans for creating the "perfect dog." Its members organized themselves into local branch clubs and appointed Local Breed Wardens to inspect litters and evaluate breedings. With practices incredibly, and a little disturbingly, like future Nazi policy, the Wardens only allowed the "best" puppies to breed amongst themselves, thereby bringing out the desirable qualities in the GSD. They also held an annual dog show from which von Stephanitz chose the best male, or Sieger ("Victor"), and the best female, or Siegerin ("female Victor"), of the year. Using the selected dogs as models, breeders were driven to "make" their dogs match these descriptions, further "perfecting" the breed.
However, just as Stephanitz began reaping the fruits of what he had sewn, disaster almost struck. Just as the future GSD was becoming the ultimate German sheepherding dog, German sheepherding was on the decline due to the Industrial Revolution. His perfect dog was now unwanted!
Fortunately, von Stephanitz saved the breed by reinventing it as a police and military dog, the first of its kind. Originally skeptical that a dog could be an active contributor to the police, much less the military, the German government was reluctant to purchase them. However, he managed to get several German Shepherds employed in police forces. The results were spectacular; the GSDs were incredibly successful in deterring and apprehending criminals. The military was then persuaded into purchase several, which were greatly distinguished in WWI. German Shepherds, then known as German Sheepdogs, later went on to further distinguish themselves in WWII as the first dogs ever trained in search-and-rescue in order to locate buried German victims of British air-raids.
After WWII, the sky seemed the limit to what a German Shepherd could do. With the SV still guiding the breed, now as the most powerful breed club in the world, the GSD dominated the obedience ring, the Working Group, and later the Herding Group at dog shows. Furthermore, when German Shepherds were introduced into a family setting, they thrived, becoming seeing eye dogs, working dogs, and are now even being used to help predict seizures. they also continue to thrive in the police and military setting.
The only bump in the road to the GSD's success came after WWII. Hoping to turn a quick profit, many breeders began wantonly breeding them, disregarding the breed standard. What resulted were many sickly dogs with aggressive tendencies. It was these dogs and their incompetent owners that gave the GSD the undeserved reputation for being a vicious biter. However, the German Shepherd prevailed over these challenges and still managed to become a very successful dog.
The GSD, as noted above, has the undeserved stigma of being a biter. However, the average German Shepherd is a gentle, kind dog. Though German Shepherds, due to their herding background, are protective of their family, most will not attack unless provoked or their family is in danger. Though somewhat aloof towards most strangers, preferring to stay with their families, most GSDs are friendly, especially to children.
Vicious German Shepherds are usually the product of poor breeding and/or training. Some owners, wanting to make German Shepherds guard dogs, believe that an aggressive dog is the best kind at guarding. Unfortunately, this is not true and results in dogs attacking people.
Second only to the border collie in its intelligence rating, the average German Shepherd is immensely curious. Wanting mental stimulation, German Shepherds love to explore new things, sometimes to their own detriment. They are easily trainable and can learn a multitude of commands; it is this trait that allows them to succeed in so many areas, from herding to police work. Unfortunately, if a GSD is left without stimulation long enough and becomes bored, there's no telling what trouble he/she can get into.
The German Shepherd, as a large breed, suffers from many of the problems that plague that class of dogs. Several of the more prominent are:
Hip dysplasia- In this hereditary disorder, the ball of the femur does not fit correctly into the socket of the pelvic bone. This causes the ball of the femur to pop out of its socket when the dog walks or runs, which wears away the rim of the socket. Eventually, hip dysplasia can become incredibly painful and crippling. Fortunately, when detected early enough, the orientation of the GSDs hip socket can be surgically changed in a procedure known as triple pelvic osteotomy, or TPO, thereby helping to drastically reduce the symptoms.
Gastric dilatation volvus- Also called bloat, it occurs when the dog's stomach twists and flips around, cutting of digestion and, more importantly, cutting off circulation to the stomach. Bloat is caused by physical activity after a GSD has just eaten. Being top-heavy in this condition, the stomach flips when the dog runs, jumps, etc. To save the dog, emergency surgery must be immediately performed; the stomach is untwisted by hand and tacked in place in order to prevent further episodes. In order to prevent this, a dog should not physically exert him/herself 20 minutes before he/she eats and up to an hour after.
Panosteitis- Also known as growing pains, Panosteitis is an inflammation of the bones in the legs that leads to temporary lameness. Usually occurring in growing GSDs, the exact cause is unknown. However, it is believed to be caused by the fast rate of growth that large breeds undergo as puppies. The dog grows faster than its skeletal frame can stand and it puts temporaray pressure on the bones. However, with rest, the dog's prognosis for full recovery is excellent.
The German Shepherd breed standard, almost without exception, is determined by the SV's standard. However, the American Kennel Club, or AKC, uses the German Shepherd Dog Club of America's standard. There are few differences between the two. Though both standards are incredibly detailed and complex, it is possible to boil them down to the following points:
- A German Shepherd should give the impression of agile strength, being well-muscled, alert, noble, and full of life. He/she should be self-confident and fearless.
- Males should be distinctly masculine and females distinctly feminine. Males should be 24 to 26 inches (61 to 66 centimeters) in height at the withers, the highest point of the shoulder blades, and females should be 22 to 24 inches (56 to 61 centimeters). Both sexes should be longer than they are tall.
- The GSD's head is noble, cleanly chiseled, and strong. He/she should have a keen and intelligent expression with dark, almond-shaped eyes. He/she should also have erect ears and a black nose.
- The withers should be high and slope downward onto a level back.
- The shoulder blades should meet the arm at a right angle. His/her forelegs should be straight, and he/she should have well muscled upper and lower thighs.
- A German Shepherd should be covered with a double coat of medium length. the outer coat should be straight, coarse, or slightly wavy and lie close to the body. Rich, strong coat-colors are preferred, and a white colored GSD is automatically disqualified from any event.
- German Shepherds for Dummies by Dr. Caroline Coile, Ph.D © 2000
- Thanks to Gorgonzola, dann, and haze for translation help!