history of German Shepherd dogs

The history of German Shepherds started in German in 1899.

The German Shepherd Dog is a breed of large-size that originated in Germany in 1899. As part of the Herding Group, German Shepherds are working dogs developed originally for herding and guarding sheep. Because of their strength, intelligence and abilities in obedience training, German Shepherd dogs are often employed in police and military around the world.

The German Shepherd (German: Deutscher Schäferhund), is a breed of medium to large-sized working dog that originated in Germany. In the English language, the breed’s officially recognized name is German Shepherd Dog (GSD.)

The GSD breed was officially known as the “Alsatian Wolf Dog” in the UK from after the First World War until 1977 when its name was changed back to German Shepherd. Despite its wolf-like appearance, the German Shepherd is a relatively modern breed of dog, with their origin dating to 1899.

The man responsible for the German Shepherd breed is Captain Max Von Stephanitz. In 1889 Captain Max von Stephanitz began the standardization of the German Shepherd dog breed.

The development of the German Shepherd dog breed all started at a dog show in Karlsruhe in western Germany in the 1880s.

A medium-sized yellow-and-gray wolf-like dog caught the attention of Max Von Stephanitz. The dog was of the primal canine type, had endurance, steadiness and intelligence. He was a working sheepherder, requiring no training other than direction. This dog, name Hektor Linksrhein, was purchased by Max Von Stephanitz, and renamed Horand von Grafrath, and became the first registered German Shepherd Dog.

Born in Dresden, Kingdom of Saxony, into German nobility, Max Von Stephanitz was a career cavalry officer and spent some time serving at the Veterinary College in Berlin. Here he gained valuable knowledge about biology, anatomy, and the science of movement, all of which he later applied to the breeding of dogs. Max Von Stephanitz was promoted to Captain in 1898 and shortly after took his release.

Max Von Stephanitz purchased property near Grafrath in the 1890s, where he began experimenting with dog breeding. He used many of the techniques utilized by English dog breeders of the period.

Max Von Stephanitz was primarily interested in improving German shepherd dogs because they were the local working dogs at the time. Max was also obsessed with the look of these dogs. He greatly admired dogs with a wolf-like appearance. These dogs had tall prick ears, were highly intelligent, had sharp senses and a willingness to work.

Stephanitz enjoyed attending dog shows and observed many different types of shepherding dogs in Germany. He noticed, however, there was no breed standardization.

Max Von Stephanitz believed he could create a better working dog that could be used throughout Germany.

Max Von Stephanitz first “German Shepherd” dog purchase

Max purchased his first dog, Hektor Linksrhein, in 1899 and changed his name to Horand von Grafrath. Horand was used as the primary breeding stud by Stephanitz and other breeders to create the German Shepherd dog.

Horand von Grafrath, the first “German Shepherd”, is the foundation of the German Shepherd breed as we know it today.

Stephanitz used the knowledge acquired during his years at the Veterinary College to establish a ‘grand design’ for the German Shepherd dog he wanted breeders to aim for.

Max wanted judging of his German Shepherd dog breed based on “angle of bones, proportions and overall measurements.”

Horand’s son, Hektor v. Schwaben, and his grandsons Heinz v. Starkenburg, Beowolf and Pilot were also instrumental in standardizing the GSD breed. Dogs from other areas of Germany such as Franconia, Württemberg and Thuringia were also used as breeding dogs.

On 22 April 1899, Stephanitz founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (S.V.) with his friend Artur Meyer. Three sheep masters, two factory owners, one architect, one mayor, one innkeeper, and one magistrate joined them as co-founders.

Along with establishing a German Shepherd breed standard, the S.V. also developed a Zuchtbuch (Breed Register.) Twenty years later they published the Körbuch (Breed Survey Book), which determines a dog’s suitability for breeding, based on physical and mental characteristics, and not solely on dog show wins. Under Stephanitz’s guidance, the S.V. became the single largest dog breed club in the world.

Max Von Stephanitz introduced the German Shepherd breed to other types of work such as delivering messages, rescue work, sentry duties, and personal guard dogs. The German Shepherd made its world debut in these roles during the First World War.

How German Shepherds came to America

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, German Shepherd Dogs served the German Military. GSDs performed a number of tasks on the battlefield within the ranks of the German Army.

German Shepherd dogs served as sentries, messengers, and ammunition carriers. They proved themselves very capable in aiding wounded soldiers on the battlefield. GSDs even led injured and blinded soldiers off the battlefield to safety for medical attention. This latter act by the new GSD breed led to the development of the first seeing eye dog; an important function the GSD still serves today.

German Shepherds in World War 1
German Shepherds and their handlers in World War 1

Soldiers on both sides of the conflict were impressed by the high intelligence and functionality of the German Shepherd dog. The GSDs performed numerous heroic acts under stressful and dangerous conditions.

Soldiers in WW1 were so impressed by the dogs’ capabilities, that Germans, as well as Americans and the English, began to develop their own version of German Shepherd Dogs for use in the military. American soldiers took many GSDs back to America after the war. German Shepherds would prove themselves again in conflict when World War II broke out in 1939.

Today, German-bred German Shepherds are much more expensive than American-bred lines, due to original bloodlines from which GSDs came.

The first Schutzhund trial was held in Germany in 1901 and tested the dogs’ abilities in tracking, obedience and protection. The English Kennel Club honored the breed with its own register in 1919.

Stephanitz died in Dresden on the 37th anniversary of the club he and Artur Meyer founded together. The S.V. is still in existence and is headquartered in Augsburg, Germany.

German Shepherd Stats

German Shepherds are medium to large-sized dogs. GSD standard height at the withers is 60–65 cm (24–26 in) for males, and 55–60 cm (22–24 in) for females. 

German Shepherds are longer than they are tall, with an ideal proportion of 10 to ​8 12. The AKC official breed standard does not set a standard weight range. They have a domed forehead, a long square-cut muzzle with strong jaws and a black nose (muzzle.)

GSD eyes are medium-sized and mostly brown or caramel in color. The ears are large and stand erect, open at the front and parallel, but they often are pulled back during movement.

A German Shepherd has a long neck, which is raised when excited and alert and lowered when moving at a fast pace as well as stalking. The tail is bushy and reaches to the hock.

German Shepherds have a double coat which is close and dense with a thick undercoat. The GSD undercoat is soft, almost like plush cotton in spots, while the top coat is slick and wiry-feeling.

German Shepherds have a double coat which is close and dense with a thick undercoat. The GSD undercoat is soft, almost like plush cotton in spots, while the top coat is slick and wiry-feeling. This top wired coat allow water and snow to slide right off the GSD, while the soft undercoat keeps them warm.

German Shepherds have been called German Shedders for a reason, as they “blow coat” or “shed” much of their soft undercoat in the spring to prepare for hot summer months. If you have a German Shepherd, you’re vacuuming a lot. This isn’t true for short-hair German Shepherds, as they don’t shed nearly as much as long coat German Shepherds.

The GSD coat is accepted in two main variants: medium and long. The long-hair gene is recessive, making the long-hair variety rarer. Treatment of the long-hair variation differs across standards; they are accepted but not competed with standard coated dogs under the German and UK Kennel Clubs.

There is also a short-coat German Shepherd, which is what I have. This GSD resembles a malinois.

Belgian Malinois, cousin to the German Shepherd. Notice the short hair coat, which results in much less shedding.
Belgian Malinois, cousin to the German Shepherd. Notice the short hair coat, which results in much less shedding.

Most commonly, German Shepherds are either tan/black or red/black. Most color varieties have black masks and black body markings which can range from a classic “saddle” to an over-all “blanket” look.

Rarer GSD color variations include the sable, pure-black, pure-white, liver, silver, blue (blueish-grey) and panda varieties. The all-black and sable varieties are acceptable according to most standards, however, the blue and liver are considered to be serious faults and the all-white is grounds for instant disqualification from showing in conformation at All Breed and Specialty Shows.


German Shepherds were bred specifically for their intelligence, and they are scary intelligent! In a list of breeds most likely to bark as watchdogs, the GSS ranked in second place. Coupled with their strength, this trait makes the breed desirable for police, guard and search and rescue dogs. GSDs learn tasks quickly and interpret instructions better than other breeds. Most German Shepherds learn tasks after given instruction 3-5 times.

GSD Temperament

German Shepherds are moderately active dogs and are described in breed standards as self-assured. A GSD with a great temperament will rarely bark at, or even acknowledge the small yip yip dog barking from across the street.

German Shepherds have a willingness to learn and an eagerness to have a purpose. GSDs want to learn and want to please you, (the alpha of their pack.) They are curious, which makes them excellent guard dogs and highly suitable for search missions.

German Shepherds are incredibly loving and protective of their families and this of course includes kids.

GSDs are overprotective of their family and territory, especially if not socialized correctly. Your GSD puppy should be socialized (exposed to) as many people as possible. By meeting different people and dogs at an early age, GSDs accept people much better than if never socialized at all. Socializing your GSD puppy will not make them weak, as the guardian and protector of family is in their blood.

GSDs are not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers. German Shepherds are highly intelligent and obedient, as well as very protective of their owners. You will not find a better babysitter for your kids, as GSDs are very protective of all family members.

Our German Shepherd, Leia, is very laid back and sweet. She loves kids and most people in general (if she doesn’t sense anything wrong with them.) I always trust her instincts, even if the person seems fine to me.

As Leia reached adulthood, I wondered if she was really a German Shepherd, since she was just “too sweet.” Then the cable guy came to the door, someone she never saw before. She wasn’t having that at all. Her deep warning bark was much different. She was reminding the cable guy he’s being watched. .

GSDs are severely attached to their family / pack and would die for you without question.

Bite Strength

According to the National Geographic Channel television show Dangerous Encounters, the bite strength of:

A German Shepherd has a force of over 1,060 newtons (238 lbf)

A Rottweiler has the bite force of 1,180–1,460 newtons (265–328 lbf)

A Pit bull has a force of over 1,050 newtons (235 lbf)

A Labrador Retriever has a force of over 1,000 newtons (230 lbf)

A human has a force of approximately 380 newtons (86 lbf)

Modern Day German Shepherds

The modern German Shepherd breed is criticized by some for straying away from Max von Stephanitz’s original ideology that German Shepherds should be bred primarily as working dogs and that breeding should be strictly controlled to eliminate defects. Max Von Stephanitz believed above all else, German Shepherds should be bred for intelligence and working ability.

German Shepherd Hind Leg Issues

Some GSDs bred for show have an extremely roached topline (back) that causes poor gait in the hind legs. Many breeders like the “dragging look” of the hind legs on German Shepherds. This is actually a defect caused by inbreeding, in order to keep original bloodlines in their show dogs.

German Shepherd bad hind legs from inbreeding
German Shepherd low gait is popular among show dogs but it’s a defect due to inbreeding

The debate was catalyzed when the issue was raised in the BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which said that critics of the breed describe it as “half dog, half frog.” An orthopedic vet remarked on footage of dogs in a show ring that they were “not normal.” This is why so many German Shepherd dogs suffer from hip dysplaysia.

Hip dysplasia is an abnormal formation of the hip socket that, in its more severe form, can eventually cause lameness and arthritis of the joints. It is a genetic (polygenic) trait that is affected by environmental factors and inbreeding. It is common in many dog breeds, particularly the larger breeds, and is the most common single cause of arthritis of the hips.

The Kennel Club’s position is that “this issue of soundness is not a simple difference of opinion, it is the fundamental issue of the breed’s essential conformation and movement.” The Kennel Club has decided to retrain judges to penalize dogs suffering these hind leg problems.

The Kennel Club also recommends testing for haemophilia and hip dysplasia, which are common problems with the breed. Some GSD breeders may provide x-rays of puppies to show proof of a healthy dog to potential owners.

German Shepherds as Working Dogs

German Shepherds are a popular selection for use as working dogs. They are known for being easy to train and good for performing tasks and following instructions. GSDs are especially well known for their police work, being used for tracking criminals, patrolling troubled areas and detection and holding of suspects.

German Shepherds are used in police and military
German Shepherds are widely used in Police and Military

Thousands of German Shepherds have been used by the military. Usually trained for scout duty, they are used to warn soldiers to the presence of enemies or of booby traps and other hazards. German Shepherds have also been trained by military groups to parachute from aircraft or as anti-tank weapons. They were used in World War II as messenger dogs, rescue dogs and personal guard dogs. A number of these dogs were taken home by foreign servicemen, who were impressed by their intelligence.

German Shepherd Sense of Smell

Did you know the GSD can smell as deep as 6′ underground? This makes them perfect for search and rescue as well as drug detail in law enforcement.

The German Shepherd is one of the most widely used breeds in a wide variety of scent-work roles. These include search and rescue, cadaver searching, narcotics detection, explosives detection, accelerant detection and mine detection, among others. They are suited for these lines of work because of their keen sense of smell and their ability to work regardless of distractions.

At one time the German Shepherd was the breed chosen almost exclusively to be used as a guide dog for the visually impaired. When formal guide dog training began in Switzerland in the 1920s under the leadership of Dorothy Eustis, all of the dogs trained were German Shepherd females.

An experiment in temperament testing of a group of Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds showed the Retrievers scored a higher average in emotional stability and ability to recover promptly from frightening situations, cooperative behavior and friendliness.

German Shepherds were superior in aggression and defensive behavior. These results suggested that Labrador Retrievers were more suited to guide dog work while German Shepherds were more suited to police work.

German Shepherds are used in police work and the military for their strength and high intelligence and obedience.

In 2013, about 15% of the dogs trained by Guide Dogs of America are German Shepherds, while the remainder are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the United Kingdom trains some German Shepherds, while the comparable organization in the US only trains Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and crosses between these breeds.

German Shepherds are still used for herding and tending sheep grazing in meadows next to gardens and crop fields. They are expected to patrol the boundaries to keep sheep from trespassing and damaging the crops. In Germany and other places these skills are tested in utility dog trials also known as HGH (Herdengebrauchshund) herding utility dog trials.

One Mexican German Shepherd, Zuyaqui, is regarded to be the dog who has captured the most drugs in Mexican police and military history.

There are ways to help prevent hip dysplasia

Many common ailments of the German Shepherd are a result of the inbreeding practiced early in the breed’s life. One such common ailment is hip and elbow dysplasia which may cause the dog to experience pain later on in life and may cause arthritis. A study conducted by the University of Zurich found that 45% of the police working dogs were affected by degenerative spinal stenosis. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals found that 19.1% of German Shepherd are affected by hip dysplasia.

Ways to prevent GSD hip dysplasia include getting them from a good breeder, keeping them on a healthy diet, providing glucasamine tablets for their joints and limiting the amount of jumping or rough play. German Shepherds have low frequency of ear infections, since this breed is well-known for hyperactivity of its cerumen-producing glands. According to a recent survey in the UK, the median life span of German Shepherds is 10.95 years, which is normal for a dog of their size.

Glucosamine is an amino-monosaccharide that naturally occurs in all tissues, particularly in articular cartilage of joints and from the biosynthesis of glucose. Natural synthesis of glucosamine occurs in the extracellular matrix of articular cartilage in joints. However, as a result of damage to the joint or cartilage, there is decreased ability to synthesize glucosamine resulting in the deterioration of the joint, and supplementation is required.

Skeletal health and supplementation

Musculoskeletal disorders are debilitating conditions that are often associated with genetic makeup, malnutrition, and stress-related events. Some breeds like the German shepherd, are predisposed to a variety of different skeletal disorders, including but not limited to: canine hip dysplasia, Cauda equina syndrome, and osteoarthritis. These conditions can be a result of poor breeding or induced by intense exercise and poor diet.

Canine hip dysplasia (CHD) is an orthopedic condition resulting from abnormal development of the hip joint and surrounding tissue causing the instability and partial dislocation of the hip joint, resulting in pain, inflammation, lameness, and potentially osteoarthritis of the joint. German shepherds are genetically predisposed to CHD and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Germany found its prevalence estimated to be approximately 35% of veterinary cases associated with the disorder.

Osteoarthritis is one of the main contributors of musculoskeletal pain and disabilities that commonly affect German shepherds. Mechanical stress, oxidative damage and inflammatory mediators combine to induce the gradual degeneration of the articular cartilage in the joint, resulting in reduced muscle mass, pain, and locomotion.

German Shepherd health issues and hind leg problems
Keep your German Shepherd healthy with diet and supplements

It is essential to feed a well-balanced diet designed for large breeds like the German shepherd, to ensure adequate growth rates and proper maintenance of musculoskeletal health.

Dietary energy levels should be monitored and controlled throughout all life stages and activity levels of the German shepherd to assist in the prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal disorder symptoms. Several dietary factors play a crucial role in maintaining skeletal health.

Vitamins such as A and D also have crucial roles in bone development and maintenance by regulating bone and calcium metabolism. Adequate levels should be incorporated into a German shepherd diet to promote a healthy musculoskeletal system.

German Shepherds in Movies

German Shepherds have been featured in a wide range of media. In 1921 Strongheart became one of the earliest canine film stars, and was followed in 1922 by Rin Tin Tin, who is considered the most famous German Shepherd. Both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Batman’s dog Ace the Bat-Hound appeared in the Batman comic books, initially in 1955 through 1964. Between 1964 and 2007, his appearances were sporadic.

A German Shepherd named Inspector Rex is the star of an Austrian Police procedural drama program of the same name, which won many awards, where German Shepherd Rex assists the Vienna Kriminalpolizei homicide unit. The show was aired in many languages.

German Shepherds in movies such as Rin Tin Tin
German Shepherds in movies

Kántor (Cantor) was a famous and very successful police dog in Hungary in the 1950s and early 1960s. After his death his story was popularized by a two-volume novel by Rudolf Szamos, titled Kántor, the detective (Kántor nyomoz) and Kántor in the metropolis (Kántor a nagyvárosban). The novel wasn’t entirely historically accurate. In 1975 a television miniseries titled [Kántor] was also created, which was only very loosely based on the actual dog’s story, setting the events more than a decade after the real Kántor died. Nevertheless it became one of the staple productions of Hungarian television history, making German Shepherds the most popular dog breed in the country ever since.

I hope you enjoyed this post on the history of the German Shepherd. GSDs are a fascinating breed! GSDs are incredibly loyal to family, love kids and are incredibly intelligent.

German Shepherds are known as Velcro dogs, as they never leave your side. They will love the entire family, but choose their main person, who’s side they will never leave. My German Shepherd is my shadow and she hasn’t left my side since the day we got here. She will not go to bed until I do, will not leave my side when I work (she’s laying next to my desk now as I type this) and is always with me.

I’ve lived with many different dog breeds and I have to say, without a doubt, the German Shepherd is by far my favorite. You will not be disappointed if you decide to live with a German Shepherd.

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By Steve

I love dogs, especially German Shepherds!

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