True German Shepherd History

True German Shepherd History

Author WDF Staff


Maybe the most famous dog breed in the world is the German Shepherd. They have been one of the most trusted working dog breeds for centuries, whether it is as a shepherd dog, military or police dog, these dogs have excelled in every job they were entrusted with.

Let’s dig a little bit deeper and uncover this breeds an interesting and colorful history.

German Shepherd’s origin of the name

This breeds original name is Deutscher Schäferhund in its original German language. They have been named by Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz, a former cavalry officer and a student of the Berlin Vet College who was a member of the Phylax Society whose idea was that dogs should be exclusively bred for working purposes.

Von Stephanitz was a dog breeder that was credited to have developed the German Shepherd dog breed as we know it today.

The name Deutscher Schäferhund translates to "German Shepherd Dog". The breed was named like this because of their original purpose of helping shepherds in herding and guarding sheep and other cattle. At this point, all shepherd and herding dogs originated in Germany were called by the same name; to differentiate them, this breed became known as “Altdeutsche Schäferhunde” or “Old German herding dogs”.

That name stuck and was used to register these dogs in official registers. However, after the conclusion of the First World War, the whole world wasn’t feeling too good about Germany and it was believed that keeping the word “German” in this breeds name will harm the breed’s popularity. The UK Kennel Club officially renamed this breed as "Alsatian Wolf Dog". It is still questionable whether they did that because they were thinking about the welfare of the breed or out of pure spite towards the Germans in general. They have decided to give this breed the new name after the Alsace region in France that is near the German border. Many kennel clubs adopted that name.

Eventually, the part of the name "wolf dog" was removed, after several pleas and efforts by breeders who were worried that popularizing the wolf-dog name would mean that this breed is a wolf-dog hybrid and again, would harm this breed's popularity and will even question the legality of owning this breed.

The “Alsatian” part of the name remained for 50 years up until 1977 when the first pleas were successful and dog breeders put pressure on the British kennel clubs to allow this breed to be officially registered as German Shepherds again. The "Alsatian" part of the name remained as part of the official breed name and was only discharged as late as 2010.

german shepherd and a soldier

Origin of the German Shepherd

Two years ago a study was done that concluded that a popular European herding dog breed from the 1850s was the ancestor of 7 well-known shepherd dogs: the German Shepherd, the French Berger Picard, Cane Paratore, Bergamasco Shepherd, Pastore d'Oropa, Lupino del Gigante, and the Pastore Della Lessinia e del Lagorai.

During these times, dog breeds were crossbred with the clear idea of making the best possible working dog. The local shepherds were breeding dogs that had to be smart, intelligent, fast and have a keen sense of smell to become good shepherd and herding dogs.

These dogs were very different from village to village and some efforts were made to standardize dog breeds. One of the first efforts towards that goal was the organization of the Phylax Society which was formed in 1891 and they wanted to create standardized development plans for German dog breeds. Society came to an end after only 3 years because of internal conflicts and the inability to agree on which traits they should promote in specific dog breeds.

Industrial development begins to evolve in Germany and the population of predators has declined. The German farms turned to mechanical production and the traditional jobs a shepherd dog did become obsolete. In 1899, Mr. Von Stephanitz visited a dog show where a dog by the name Hector was exhibited. Hector was a shepherd dog that was carefully bred for generations and Von Stephanitz immediately fell in love with that dog. The dog was intelligent, strong, loyal, and fast so he purchased the dog on the spot.

After buying that dog Von Stephanitz changed the dog’s name to “Horand von Grafrath” and later went on and founded the “Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde”. Von Stephanitz declared his dog Horand as the first official German Shepherd Dog and was the first dog ever to be added to the society's official breed register.

In just a few short decades of the Society for German Shepherd Dogs, the breed became one of the most popular and reached impressively high numbers around the globe, and that is the position this breed has kept to this day. By the year 1923, the Society numbered over 50.000 paying members in over 500 subsidiaries in Germany alone.

It is a common belief that the Society was so successful because Von Stephanitz was a fearless, strong and uncompromising leader. Today he is credited with creating the modern German Shepherd dog breed.

black german shepherd dog

Growing popularity

In the year 1919, the UK Kennel Club began officially registering dogs and at that time only 54 German Shepherds were registered. Seven years later, this breed's total number has surpassed the total number of 8.000. The breed received global recognition after World War I.

Soldiers returning from European battlefields spoke highly of a European dog breed and sparked interest throughout the whole US. There were also famous animal filmstars called Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart that helped with the popularization of this breed.

Popularity rose again in the aftermath of German Shepherd called Sieger Pfeffer von Bern won Best in Show in 1937 and 1938 in the AKC dog shows. That didn’t last long since the Second World War started and anti-German sentiment started to creep in the American people. Since the 1950s, this breed’s popularity is on the rise once again and in 1993 this breed became the third most popular breed in the USA. In 2016, the German Shepherd gained one place and became the second most popular dog breed in the USA.

It is a great dog for dog shows and it excels in dog sports and shows. It is no wonder why this breed remains one of the most popular dog breeds in the world.

World Dog Finder team

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