History of the German Shepherd

Discover the history of how the German Shepherd breed began.

By By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson | posted: March 27, 2012, 7 p.m., EDT

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Early German breeders developed the German Shepherd Dog from herding and farm dogs. Today’s German Shepherd Dog embodies the versatility needed to excel at various careers like policing, tracking, drug sniffing, search and rescue, and assisting.

The GSD’s history traces to the 1890s, when German calvary officer Capt. Max von Stephanitz sought to perfect a superior herding dog from his native country. He admired intelligent, strong dogs and saw many superior traits in native herding breeds. Despite his search, however, he didn’t find one that embodied his ideals until he attended a dog show with a friend in 1899.

Known as the father of the breed, von Stephanitz spied a dog named Hektor Linksrhein who impressed him so much that he purchased him on the spot and formed Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), of Society for the German Shepherd Dog, later that year. This milestone in the GSD’s history marked its entry into the purebred-dog arena.

German Shepherd Dog Photo: Bowtieinc, Gina Cioli

Von Stephanitz renamed the dog Horand von Grafeth, and his seed became the genetic starting point for the breed we know today. Horand’s most celebrated son was Hektor v. Shwaben, who in turn sired Heinz v. Starkenburg and his little brothers Beowolf and Pilot. Each of these dogs produced offspring who became pillars in the development of the German Shepherd Dog. As president of the SV, von Stephanitz guided the German Shepherd breeding programs. He followed the credo that the GSD should be bred for utility and intelligence above all else.

The German Shepherd Dog breed made its debut in the United States in the early 1900s and got its biggest boost in popularity after World War I when GSDs served as messenger, rescue, sentry and personal guard dogs alongside servicemen. Big-screen superstars Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart also helped promote the breed as loyal family dogs and home guardians.

The American Kennel Club recognized the German Shepherd Dog in 1908 as part of the registry’s Herding Group. Though the dogs retain their shepherding heritage, German Shepherds are now predominantly used as service animals and family companions. GSDs consistently remain near the top of the AKC’s most-registered breeds, securing their spot as one of the country’s most admired dogs.

Excerpt from the Popular Puppies Series magabook German Shepherd Puppies with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase German Shepherd Puppies here.


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