German Shepherds

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The Death of a True Working Dog

For over 100 years the German Shepherd Dog (a.k.a. “GSD”) has been the paramount of a true working dog.   The breed has played a major role in all conflicts since World War I and is the top pick for most police, military, search and rescue, and protection work.  The German shepherd is also the post popular breed of dog worldwide and has been for many decades.  They’ve also dominated the dog-movie scene since Strongheart.

In the very late 1800s Max von Stephanitz experimented with dog breeding and strived to breed a dog with a wolf-like appearance, intelligence, sharp senses, and the willingness to work.  His breeding program is credited for creating what we know today as the German shepherd.  Stephanitz also help develop the sport of Schutzhund to help test their ability in tracking, obedience, and protection.

The breed was quickly used by Germany during World War I as a military dog.  The allied forces were so impressed with how the dogs performed that many were brought back to the allied countries to start their own kennels.  Even Rin Tin Tin was brought back from a destroyed kennel in France as a very young puppy.  After World War I the dog quickly gained popularity in all aspects – working, police, military, protection, and as household pets.

GSDs even played a significant role in all wars since World War I.  After World War II the American lined German shepherd started to stray from the true working German shepherd.  There was even a split from the West German and East German (and other Soviet Bloc (Czechoslovakia etc) nations).

The USA lines started to (and quickly) strayed away from what the GSD was created for and was turned into a “show” dog with little working ability.  We even see this today.  American lines are rarely even looked at for working ability today and the vast majority of working dogs are either imported or from the few breeders who stick to the guidelines that created the breed.  In the USA you rarely see a dog that does well in the confirmation ring as well as the working / schutzund field.  Despite the standards stating “must show confidence” many are shy and timid in the show ring – some even afraid of the judge and other dogs.  Hips are another significant issue in American lines.  While the rear ends are getting lower to the ground (this has been referred to in the past as “half dog, half frog), this severely increases their chances and the severity of hip related issue (like displaysia), most breeders in the USA tend to even ignore genetic issues like DM (Degenerative Myelopathy) despite the fact that there is a simple $65 test and the ease of eliminating DM from lines.

While the USA was taking the GSD in one direction, two definite lines appeared out of the Soviet Bloc – DDR (East German) and Czech lined German shepherds.  These lines took what the breed was created for to the extreme- very intelligent, sharp, and very quick to act.  These dogs were bred for sentry, guard, and border patrol.  While this would seem good for the breed, they started to lose that pet / companion quality due to their hard temperament.  Their mentality was to bite first and ask questions later.  It is suspected that during this time the German shepherds were cross-bred with wolves (Carpathian and/or Eurasian).

For a long time (West) Germany tried to stick to what von Stephanitz wanted but even West German dogs today are starting to get the roached back, low rear end (thus leading to issues like hip dysplasia) and a split between working and show line dogs.

Sadly, in 15-20 years I see two distinct, and possibly separate, breeds within the German shepherd. A pet-like GSD that is being developed in western Germany and the USA.  The temperament will be like today’s lab – overly friendly while very few are still kept for their working ability.  Also, a hard-core working line dog being developed in former Soviet-Bloc nations.

While I do think there is time to save the German shepherd, I do not think the general GSD community would back the work that would be required.  Very strict breeding guidelines would have to be put in place as well as strict testing (physical and working ability) to make dogs eligible for breeding.

So what happened to the breed?  Like all popular breeds, the popularity brought forward many unethical breeders as well as breeders who didn’t have the breed’s best interests in mind.  Some breed just for money, others breed to promote their kennels, and others bred just to promote themselves.  Very few (in the USA) breed to better the German shepherd breed itself.

Right now the best thing that can be done to help save the breed is to educate breeders, potential breeders, and potential owners.  Teach people about proper hips, what to look for in temperament, and how their lines can affect future generations.  I do hope that the German shepherd breed will be saved.

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