During the 1800s Europeans began efforts to standardize dog breeds. In Germany, this was preceded, at the local level, by farmers informally breeding dogs to bring out the best qualities needed for sheep herding, including intelligence, speed, and a strong sense of smell.
Captain Max von Stephanitz
An ex-cavalry captain and one-time student at the Berlin Veterinary College, von Stephanitz set out to establish a breed that would represent the best of the best amongst herding dogs. He sought breeding dogs with the finest qualities. Von Stephanitz had been a member of the Phylax Society which had been formed in 1891. Its members shared the goal of developing a herding dog with the best traits bred into it. But the society was disbanded after three years because the members couldn’t agree on which qualities to emphasize in developing the intended breed. Some wanted to focus entirely on the dog’s working abilities, while others were also concerned with appearance.
After this, Von Stephanitz persisted on his own, searching for the right dog with which to found a breed. In 1899 he was shown a dog that immediately impressed him as encapsulating the best qualities he was looking for. The dog was the product of a few generations of selective breeding, and Von Stephanitz immediately purchased him, giving him the name Horand von Grafrath. This was to be the patriarch of the German Shepherd Dog. Von Stephanitz then founded Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog). Horand was bred with other dogs owned by society members with a view to preserving and perpetuating their best-combined qualities. A number of Horand’s prodigious progeny were interbred in order to fix the most desirable traits for the breed.
Interbreeding and Genetic Diversity
Interbreeding is a common practice in the development of new animal breeds and is effective in its goals so long as it is not carried to extremes. Genetic diversity must be sufficient over time in order for a breed to retain health and vigor, including good reproductive outcomes. Conversely, a limited gene pool caused by continued inbreeding means that deleterious (harmful) genes become widespread and the breed loses vigor.
The German Shepherd Builds a Reputation
The German Shepherd quickly gained recognition. The breed’s abilities as service dogs were not lost on the German army, which employed the dog extensively during both World Wars. Some American servicemen, having witnessed the performance of these dogs brought examples home with them on their return from Europe. In 1913 the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was founded, and that same year the first German Shepherd was voted National Champion.
A German Shepherd Goes to Hollywood
But it was in the 1920’s that German Shepherds first achieved great popularity, largely as a consequence of some starring roles in the movies! Rin Tin Tin
was one of the dogs rescued from the WW1 battlefield by an American soldier. He was brought back to the United States by the soldier, Lee Duncan who then trained him. When he heard of a movie crew having trouble trying to get wolves to cooperate in front of the camera, he offered Rin Tin Tin as a more workable alternative. Duncan had to overcome some skepticism but eventually prevailed.
Rin Tin Tin was a huge hit, and went on to perform in 27 Hollywood Films! Another GSD, Etzel von Oeringen, whose screen name with Strongheart starred in a number of films including the 1925 version of Jack London’s White Fang.