According to the American Kennel Club, the German Shepherd is the second most popular breed of dog in the entire world. Of every breed, the German Shepherd is considered to be the most versatile breed due to the intelligence, athletic abilities, and character of the dog. Classified as a Herding dog, the Shepherd is also frequently used in the military based on his courage and loyalty, as a guide dog, and a police dog. The males grow to 65 to 90 pounds, and a female to between 50 and 70 pounds, so this is not a great animal for small apartments. If kept healthy and barring any accidents, an owner can expect this dog to be around for 7 to 10 years. Like other great breeds, the German Shepherd has been popular for mixing breeds, also. My vet told me my girl Sally is a Shepherd-mix and I think the other parent must have been a Corgi based on her stubby legs. But Sally also inherited the Shepherd’s stamina, intelligence, and personality.

My Girl Sally

Horand von Grafrath

History

The German Shepherd is a breed that is one of the most recently recognized, dating back to 1899. The selection of superior animals had the goal of being a top-notch herding animal and is contributed to a Captain in the German cavalry, Captain Max von Stephanitz. For centuries, European farmers had depended on dog to protect and drive their herds and some became famous for their skill. As a result, sheepherders would travel for days to breed their females to an outstanding male. Von Stephanitz noticed that these animals had not been developed into a specific breed and after he retired from the military, he began breeding dogs to create a superior German dog for shepherds.  In his travels and research, however, von Stephanitz found dogs that were great at herding, others who were intelligent, and others who were athletic.  But he didn’t find any with all these traits combined.  It became von Stephanitz’s passion to make this happen.

In a dog show which von Stephanitz attended in 1899, a dog by the name of Hektor Linksrhein caught his attention. A wolfish-looking animal, von Stephanitz was impressed with his intelligence and powerful body. He immediately bought him, renames him Haroand v Grafeth, and created a society based completely on this dog’s offspring. As Germany became more industrialized, von Stephanitz shifted his goal of his German Shepherd from herding to working with the police and military. Using his previous connections with the military, von Stephanitz promoted the German government to use the breed and during World War I, the German Shepherd was used as a sentry dog and guard dog, a messenger, during rescues, and with the Red Cross and supply carriers.

German Shepherd Heroes

Military Service.  There are countless stories of the relationships between dogs trained for the military and their handlers. One of the most recent is the movie Megan Leavey which documents the true story of a female soldier who worked with a German Shepherd named Sgt. Rex in bomb detection in Iraq.  They went on over 100 missions in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. In one incident, an explosion caused serious injuries to both dog and handler. An additional story was the fight Leavey went through for years to bring Sgt. Rex home to her. She was finally successful in 2012 and he lived the life of a retired soldier for 8 months before he died after a decade of military service.

The program to use dogs as sentry alerts was started during the Vietnam War when it was found that forty dog teams used over a four-month period in 1965 after a successful Vietcong attack on Da Nang Air Base was able to maintain a perimeter around machine gun towers and bunkers. The dogs detected the presence of intruders and reinforcements were quickly sent to the positions.  A total of 467 dogs were deployed to Vietnam and captured soldiers talked about their fear and respect for the animals to the point that bounties were placed on the dogs and their handlers. The United States War Dogs Association estimates that military dogs saved the lives of over 10,000 US soldiers during the conflict.

A German Shepherd mix from New York named Chips was the most decorated war dog from World War II. At that time, many families donated their dogs to war duty and the Edward Wren family volunteered Chips. Chips and his handler were shot on an Italian beach by an Italian machine-gun team, but Chips broke away from his handler and attacked the shooters. They were forced to surrender to the American troops.

Today, dogs trained in the military are automatically given rank as an NCO and always outrank their handlers. The idea is that when your partner outranks you, you will treat him with the respect he deserves and not mistreat the animal.

Today, dogs trained in the military are automatically given rank as an NCO and always outrank their handlers.

Rescue Dogs. German Shepherds were the search and rescue dogs crawling through the ruins of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, looking for survivors and comforting rescue workers and families.

Therapy Dogs.  The first seeing eye dog was a German Shepherd named Kiss, who his owner renamed Buddy. One terrible consequence during World War I was the blindness that resulted from thousands of soldiers and civilians exposed to the use of mustard gas. Dorothy Harrison Eustis was living in Switzerland and was training German Shepherds to work as police dogs. She was asked about developing a program to train dogs to help guide the blind. A young man by the name of Morris Frank who lost his sight at the age of 16 was read her story and he begged his father to contact Ms. Eustis to train a dog for him. Buddy and Morris came together and became the first American to benefit from a seeing eye dog.

The Original Rin-tin-tin

Show Business. Rin-Tin-Tin is still a name recognized by many today as the standard for the Hero Dog, ranking right alongside Lassie as a canine television star. The origin of Rin-Tin-Tin lies in a World War I soldier named Corporal Lee Duncan who was stationed in France. He rescued a little German Shepherd puppy from a breeding kennel that had been bombed and had bullet holes in the walls. When he returned to the US, Duncan brought the puppy along. Living in Los Angeles, he trained him and put him into show business. Rin-Tin-Tin went on to appear in 27 movies and when he was at his most popular, he received 10,000 fan letters every week.

Another movie star dog was Strongheart.  Originally named Etzel von Oeringen, he was born in 1917. He worked first in Berlin as a police dog and partnered with the German Red Cross during World War I. His owner became destitute following the sanctions imposed on Germany after the country lost the war, and he sent Etzel to a kennel in New York when he was three years old.  He was purchased for starring in film and he became the first dog movie star, following two years later by Rin-Tin-Tin. Sadly, in 1929, Strongheart was burned by a studio light and the wound became a tumor. He died in the home of the man who scripted his movies at 12 years of age.

Etzel von Oeringen (aka Strongheart) became the first dog movie star, followed two years later by Rin-Tin-Tin.

Bullet, the Wonder Dog was a black and silver German Shepherd that appeared on the Roy Rogers show between 1951 and 1957. Bullet was the actual pet of the Roy Rogers family and on the show, he ran after the bad guys (in black hats) after alerting Roy to their presence and came to the rescues of Dale and Roy whenever they were in trouble.

Bullet, the Wonder Dog

Bullet was the actual pet of the Roy Rogers family and on the show, he ran after the bad guys.

Let us not forget the Bionic Dog Maximillian who was a German Shepherd seen in the last season of “The Bionic Woman ” in 1978. The character had four bionic legs that allowed him to run as fast as 90 miles per hours and he also had a bionic jaw that could bite through solid steel. He was very heroic and never paused when someone needed to be rescued.

AKC Standard for show-quality German Shepherds

In 2015, Rumor was the representative for the German Shepherd at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show and took first place. The top judges in their field decided Rumor exhibited best the standards for the breed of German Shepherd. When looking at the photo, you see an animal that is well-muscled and strong. When Rumor moved in the rings as he progressed through his victories, the judges could see he was agile, alert, and lively. There is development of harmony between the front and back of the dog and he is longer than he is tall.  His body has smooth curves rather than angles. Rumor gives the impression of quality that is hard to define, but always notices. Whether the best German Shepherd show dogs are male or female, the sex of the dog should be easily recognized by its femininity or masculinity.

Things to consider when thinking about getting a German Shepherd

As I stated before, the original purpose of the German Shepherd breed was to herd flocks of sheep and this takes LOTS of energy. It helps the animal stay fit, strong, agile, and occupied. If she doesn’t get this exercise, she will get bored and a bored dog chews and barks. And barks. And barks. 

Another drawback to owning a German Shepherd is similar to that of other hairy dogs and that is the reason why they are sometimes jokingly called a “German Shedder” because they REALLY shed.  A lot.  She’ll need lots of brushing and you better have a good vacuum cleaner. 

As early as 1922, German Shepherd creator von Stephanitz became alarmed with some health problems surfacing. Some animals were getting nasty personalities and rotten teeth.  So von Stephanitz established strict testing for his goals for the breed and that included passing down health issues. Unfortunately, American breeders were not as careful as the Europeans and while American German Shepherds look and move like champions, they are consistently demonstrating health problems like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, underperforming thyroid, poor blood clotting, and abnormal eyes. These problems result in a dog that is crippled, in pain, blind, and ultimately the owner has to decide if her quality of life is too poor to continue. In addition, American dogs were failing in performance tests and genetic health conditions, so US police programs started to import animals from Germany to boost American breeding programs.

The best way to avoid problems in your German Shepherd is to only purchase the animal from a reputable breeder that can provide documentation that ancestors are free from the problems associated with the breed.  If you already have a member of this wonderful breed, visit your vet often and watch for signs of lameness, pain, scratching, and anything else abnormal.

The final word 

German Shepherds are a wonderful breed of dog for work and home. They are intelligent, loyal, and beautiful. With care, the owner of a German Shepherd can enjoy almost a decade of a partnership that is the reason these animals are one of the most popular breeds in the world.

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