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German Shepherd Lying on ground

The essentials

  • The earliest origins of the German shepherd begin in the 19th century — German shepherds used dogs to protect flocks and herd sheep. Captain Max von Stephanitz is considered the creator of the German shepherd dog.
  • GSDs are working dogs — Von Stephanitz insisted German shepherds should work — and they have. Throughout German shepherd history, the animals have performed police work and served as guide dogs.
  • Stigmas have plagued the breed — GSDs are some of the most popular dogs in the U.S. But the dogs’ German military service during world wars and reputation for displaying aggressive behavior have led to stigmas, policies to reduce imports, and temporary declines in popularity.

Today, German shepherds are one of the most popular breeds. It has a long history, including setbacks out of the breed’s control. Initially developed as a dog that could perform farm work, the breed nearly became extinct during and after World War II.

Though the breed is known for being friendly toward young children and hard-working, even helping wounded soldiers perform simple tasks, it is associated with aggressive behavior. Still, the German shepherd has persevered. Let’s take a look at the German shepherd’s history, from its earliest origins to its roles in law enforcement and as a family pet today.

19th century: Origins of the German shepherd

German shepherds are descendants of a family of German herding dogs. Shepherds used pups to herd sheep and as guard dogs that protected their flocks from predators. The dogs’  intelligence, speed, strength, and sense of smell made them perfect for the jobs.

Standardization efforts begin

In the late 1800s, efforts ramped up to create a breed standard. In 1891, the Phylax Society was formed in Germany, hoping to develop native dog breeds. Phylax is the German word for “guardsman.” However, the group disbanded because members couldn’t come to a consensus on which characteristics the new society should highlight.

The setback proved to be temporary. Former German cavalry officer Captain Max von Stephanitz, who had been part of the Phylax Society, wanted to create a true working dog. His search led him to an 1899 dog show, where he spotted a dog named Hektor Linksrhein. Von Stephanitz believed Hektor had all the qualities he wanted in a working dog — strong, intelligent, and loyal.

He purchased the dog, changed his name to Horand Grafrath, and founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for German Shepherd Dogs). Hordand was added to the society’s breed register and is now widely considered the first German shepherd.

A pivot in working life

Von Stephanitz spent the next three decades promoting and developing the breed. This development included another detour: The invention of railroads, which made herding dogs less critical. Believing that German shepherds were born to work, Stephanitz molded them into police dogs because their sense of smell and durability made them fit for the job. Some became members of the German police, a role GSDs hold in many countries today, including the U.S.

Early 20th century: German shepherds come to America

The American Kennel Club recognized the German shepherd as a breed in 1908, and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was founded in 1913. The UK Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1919.

The GSD rose in popularity in the United States during the turn of the last century when members of the breed, Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart, became movie stars.

However, perceptions of the German Shepherd dog in the U.S. were mixed. The first of two world wars began to fuel anti-German sentiments that impacted the breed.

1914-1945: German shepherds and the world wars

In the United Kingdom, people may refer to a German shepherd dog as an Alsatian wolf dog. This name came about during the world wars due to anti-German sentiments that affected people’s feelings about the GSD.

German shepherds in World War I

A reported 40,000 German shepherd dogs served in the German army during World War I from 1914-1918. Many performed military service on the front lines. Though there was a stigma around these German military dogs, U.S. soldiers were also impressed by them and came home telling stories  (at times, tall tales ) about their amazing feats.

Fearing the word “German” would harm the breed, the UK Kennel Club renamed the GSD the “Alsatian wolf dog” for the Alsace region of France that bordered Germany. The U.S. did, too, with the AKC telling the German Shepherd Dog Club of America to lose the “German” and go by Shepherd Club of America.

German shepherds in World War II

In addition to military service on the front lines, GSDs were considered a status symbol in Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler preferred the dogs’ loyalty and obedience and owned several, and his followers followed suit. GSDs were intertwined with Nazi propaganda that tried to craft a public image of Hitler as a dog lover.

However, the bigger hit to the German shepherd’s reputation came when the obedient dogs were used in Nazi military efforts. Von Stephanitz’s writings show anti-Semitic sentiments. The dogs’ role in unscrupulous PR efforts for Hitler turned Americans and other Allied forces off to the breed and, understandably, all things Nazi Germany.

A turn in perception

American soldiers’ admiration for the breed’s bravery and the popularity of Rin-Tin-Tin, the star of Where the North Begins in 1923, helped weather the storm. In reality, GSDs died in the line of duty and when kennels were bombed. Germans also destroyed kennels because dogs were considered a potential value to Allied forces. A distemper outbreak and food shortages saw the breed become nearly extinct during and after WWII.

1950-2000: German shepherds in the 20th century

Anti-Nazi sentiments in the U.S. and abroad weren’t the only challenges the breed faced before and after World War II. Bootleggers and gangsters owned the dogs, and people began to associate aggressive behavior with the animals.

Unfortunately, this impacted the German shepherd breed during the 20th century — and still does, to some extent, today, despite sustained popularity. Police forces hired other breeds, and some homeowners’ insurance companies put clauses in raising rates for people with GSDs, which caused families to look elsewhere for pets.

German shepherds today

Today, German shepherds are among the most popular breeds, ranking fourth on the AKC’s 2022 list. They hold several roles in today’s society. The GSD is the third-most popular breed for use as guide dogs (Labradors and Golden retrievers are the most popular). GSDs also commonly serve in law enforcement, including sniffing out narcotics and on search and rescue teams. However, the German shepherd dog breed is also popular as a family pet. The dogs are generally good with young children and other pets.

There has been some controversy around the breed’s development in modern times. Some breeders have bred the dog to perform well in a show ring, with some saying it set the breed back and affected the GSD’s natural inclination to work.

Though the GSD is loved as a family pet and working dog, the breed has its share of health conditions. Some of the most common health issues include hip dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, and gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV). Also called bloat, GDV is a life-threatening condition requiring immediate treatment.

Frequently asked questions

How was the German shepherd created?

Before the breed was standardized in the late 1800s, there was some variance between German herding dogs based on where they lived and worked as herding dogs. Captain Max von Stephanitz is credited as the person who standardized the breed, believing the dogs were meant to work because of their intelligence and sturdiness. When herding started becoming obsolete with the invention of railroads, he helped the dog become a go-to breed for law enforcement.

What are German shepherds known for?

German shepherds are known for many things. They still serve as working animals, holding jobs as guide dogs, on police forces, and helping wounded soldiers with simple tasks like picking up dropped items. They are also loved family pets, generally known for being good with young children and other dogs.

Did the German shepherd dog originate in Germany?

Yes, as the name implies, the German shepherd originated in Germany. German shepherds initially used the German shepherd as a herding dog. During World War I, the UK Kennel Club changed the name to Alsatian wolf dog because of anti-German sentiments.

What are the most famous German shepherds in history?

Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin were both movie stars in the early 20th century. They have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and helped the breed gain traction in the U.S. Other stars include the cartoon Charlie Barkin in All Dogs Go To Heaven and Sam, virologist Robert Neville’s (Will Smith) only friend in I am Legend.

How did the German shepherd get its name?

The German shepherd’s name is derived from its country of origin (Germany) and initial job (herding). German shepherds already existed (as humans), so the distinction of “dog” was tacked on to avoid confusion.