The German Shepherd is a relatively new breed, dating back to 1899, and he owes his existence to one man: Captain Max von Stephanitz, a career captain in the German cavalry with a goal of creating a German breed that would be unmatched as a herding dog.
Centuries before von Stephanitz came along, farmers in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, relied on dogs to drive and protect their herds. Some dogs were legendary for their skill, and sheepherders would travel days to breed their female dogs to a notable sire. However, as von Stephanitz noted, no one had developed the herding dogs of the region into a distinct breed.
In 1898, von Stephanitz retired from military life and began his second career, and what would prove to be his passion: experimenting with dog breeding to create a superior German herding dog. Stephanitz studied the breeding techniques of the British, noted for their exceptional herding dogs, and traveled throughout Germany, attending dog shows and observing German-type herding dogs.
One day, in 1899, von Stephanitz was visiting a dog show when a wolfish-looking dog caught his eye. He immediately bought the dog, named Hektor Linksrhein. Later renamed Horand v Grafeth, the dog's powerful physique and intelligence so impressed von Stephanitz that he formed a society — the Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde — to found a breed out of Horand's descendents.
Although he had intended for his breed to work as herding dogs, as Germany became more and more industrialized, von Stephanitz saw the need for such dogs fading. He was determined that his breed would continue as a working dog, and he decided that the dog's future was in police work and military service.
Making good use of his military connections, von Stephanitz convinced the German government to use the breed. During World War I the German Shepherd served as a Red Cross dog, messenger, rescuer, guard, supply carrier, and sentry.
Although German Shepherds made their way to the United States before the war, it wasn't until the war that the breed became popular in the U.S. Allied servicemen noted the dog's bravery and intelligence, and a number of dogs went home with these soldiers.
One such dog was a five-day-old puppy plucked from a bomb-riddled kennel in France by an American corporal from Los Angeles. The corporal took the puppy home, trained him, and turned him into one of Hollywood's most recognizable four-legged stars: Rin Tin Tin, who appeared in 26 movies and helped popularize the breed in America.
Although the Allies were impressed by the German dogs, they weren't so happy with the dog's German roots. During wartime all things German were stigmatized, and in 1917, the American Kennel Club (AKC) changed the breed's name to the Shepherd Dog.
In England, the dog was renamed the Alsatian Wolf Dog, after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The AKC went back to using the original name of German Shepherd Dog in 1931; it took until 1977 for the British Kennel Club to do the same.
Von Stephanitz stayed closely involved with the development of the breed, and as early as 1922, he became alarmed by some of the traits that were turning up in the dogs, such as poor temperament and a tendency to tooth decay. He developed a system of tight quality control: Before any individual German Shepherd was bred, he needed to pass numerous tests of his intelligence, temperament, athleticism, and good health.
American breeding of German Shepherds, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so regulated. In the United States, the dogs were bred to win dog shows, and breeders put more emphasis on looks and on the dogs' gait, or way of moving.
After World War II, American- and German-bred German Shepherds began to diverge dramatically. At one point, the U.S. police departments and military began importing German Shepherd working dogs, because homegrown German Shepherds were failing performance tests and plagued by genetic health conditions.
In the past few decades, some American breeders have begun to put the emphasis back on the breed's abilities rather than just appearance, importing working dogs from Germany to add to their breeding program. It's now possible to buy American-bred German Shepherds that live up to the breed's reputation as a capable working dog.