It is unusual to find professional historians who have published research on dog breed histories. I have written about Edmund Russell’s Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200–1900, which is an environmental history of the greyhound and the British sighthound cultures. But I have found very few other researchers who have looked carefully at other breeds.
I did discover that a very good scholarly article has been published about German shepherds. Edward Tenner has published his remarkable piece in Raritan. It is entitled “Constructing the German Shepherd Dog,” and it follows the story of how the breed was developed and then promoted internationally.
Tenner posits his work on this thesis:
Dog breeding has been largely the province of enthusiasts rather than geneticists or animal behaviorists, and therefore motivated less by animal health and fitness. Dogs are often unwitting bearers of cultural meaning; they can serve democratic, aristocratic, and fascistic purposes. The values of breeders, the ambitions of organizational entrepreneurs, the strategies of military and police officials, the whims of socialites, and even the genres of media producers play a part. One of the most striking results of these interactions is the German Shepherd Dog, whose early career as a breed was entangled with German nationalism and biological racism but who has since become, both as a working and a household dog, one of the world’s most popular and ironically cosmopolitan companion animals.
The story begins with the German Empire in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The German nation is new, constructed from ancient regions that had maintained a certain amount of autonomy for centuries. Germany was at the cusp of becoming a major player on the world stage. At the time, the British Empire was the main power, but the Germans were interested in taking British ideas and making them work in Germany.
The new German nationalism adopted the memes of breed improvement the British, but then turned them onto the native breeds of Germany. The collie had been renowned for its service as a sheepdog and then utilitarian working animal and family pet.
Sheep husbandry in Germany had a very different history from the British Isles. In German culture, shepherds had been seen as the itinerant vagabonds of agriculture. They were landless and mobile, always moving their flocks to better grazing. This status changed a bit, when various German prince imported merinos to improve their wool-stock, and for much of the nineteenth century, shepherds achieved higher status in the society.
However, the newly unified German Empire saw a great decline in wool production in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Germany had produced many good sheepdogs, but if they were to be preserved in the way the collie had been, drastic measures were going to be taken.
Tenner posits that the German dog fancy had three basic contingents: one that was focused on promoting Great Danes and hunting dogs, another that was interested in promoting English style urban show dogs, and one that was a “socially mixed experiment” that was about improving working breeds for the police and for the pet market. German shepherds obviously derive from the final faction.
Great Danes were considered the first dogs of new German Empire. Bismarck kept at least one with him at all times, and virtually all aristocrats were either keeping them or breeding them. The breed had its origins in the hunting boar and brown bear, but by that late date, they were mostly being promoted as estate guardians in much the same way mastiffs were in England. In the early days of the German dog fancy, the native sheepdogs were an after thought. Eyes were strongly drawn to the Doggen.
However, by those final decades of the nineteenth century, the German nation had gone crazy with collies, and it had also found itself in a naval cold war-style competition with the British Empire. Airedales started to become seen as useful police and military working dogs, and the nation began to feel that it could best the British with its native dogs. And these nationalist fanciers looked towards the sheepdogs for that answer.
The beginnings of the standardization of German sheepdogs focused heavily upon those that possessed a wolf-like phenotype. The various regional German sheepdogs have traits that point to some ancestry with poodles, schnauzers, and even Australian shepherds. However, prick-eared dogs were found in several areas of the country, and because the ancient German culture had historically held wolves as totemic animals, there was a desire to focus on this type of dog.
Initially, two basic strains came to the fore.
One was the Thuringian sheepdog. Thuringia, in east-central Germany, had a declining wool industry, and out of work sheepdogs were easily procured. These dogs were most often sable, but occasionally, they came in white. These dogs were mostly bred for their looks, and it was not unusual for these dogs to be bred with wolves.
Tenner writes of one dog named Phylax that was a wolfdog:
In an 1895 contest, a judge described the society’s prize animal, Phylax von Eulau, as a ‘seductively beautiful, purely wolf-colored, high-stepping, short-backed, very large wolf mix (Wolfsbastard), which would do ten times more credit to a menagerie with its wild facial expression, hard movement, and wild behavior, than it could ever perform working behind a herd of sheep.’
The fact that many Thuringian sheepdog breeders were crossing these dogs with wolves suggests that a large portion were not really all that interested in producing a sheepdog. They were into producing a late nineteenth century version of the German wolf totem.
Phylax the wolfdog had been exhibited as part of an organization called the Phylax Society. It was founded to turn the German sheepdogs into a useful working dog. This society, founded in 1891, was full of internecine conflicts that it eventually dissipated by 1897.
In 1898, a German cavalry captain named Max von Stephanitz retired his post and devoted the rest of his life to dog breeding. He had seen what happened to the Phylax society, and he decided to create another organization that would eventually go on to standardize the German shepherd dog. His organization, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), still exists today.
Stephanitz was a German nationalist. He was an anti-Semite. He was a scientific racist. He was all the things you would imagine a former German military officer from the nineteenth century to be like.
He also knew a lot about scientific animal breeding. He had been stationed at the Veterinary College in Berlin, and because horses were such a vital part of military operations, it would make sense that units of cavalry would be stationed at veterinary schools. Veterinary medicine was mostly concerned with horses in those days, because horses were the main form of transport for a huge part of society.
So when Stephanitz retired and bought an estate near Grafrath in Bavaria, he had ideas about what selective breeding could produce.
He also settled in area with active sheep production, and there were still plenty of working sheepdogs in Bavaria and Württemberg. It was here that another variety of wolf-like sheepdog could be found. It was larger and longer-haired. It possessed a more docile nature, and it came in the black-and-tan variants and recessive black.
The origin of the German shepherd dog as we know it today came from breeding a few Thuringian sheepdogs, most notably Hektor Linksrhein/Horand von Grafrath, to the Württemberg dogs. There was extensive inbreeding to refine the type. However, the SV was open to people of all economic stations, and the registry would take in any dog that was useful. So unlike other breed societies, which generally included only the most wealthy in society, the development of the German shepherd dog as a bred became a popular activity rather than an elite one.
Stephanitz was of the view that this sheepdog should be promoted as a working dog, but with sheepdog work declining all over Germany, he began to promote it to police departments as working police dog. His constant promotion eventually succeeded, but he had a very hard time getting the German army to forsake its Airedales, which they eventually did.
By 1914, the Kriminalpolizei line had been established in Wiesbaden, and the dog began to be thought of as a police dog. Though some experts thought the Doberman pinscher was going to be the police dog of the future, the SV just had more people that were dedicated to the task.
And when World War I began, the Germans saw how useful military dogs were for the British that they began to use German shepherds as their sentry and patrol dogs. So they went from being a type of dog that was only known in a few German regions 1899 to becoming celebrated war dogs by 1915.
During the war, Americans and the British came to know these dogs, as did the Russians. The advent of silent film created the American film stars known as Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin.
Demand for these dogs became feverish in America in the 1920s, and the poverty-stricken Germans sold thousands of these dogs to willing American buyers. Geraldine Dodge became a major promoter of the breed, and she even had Stephanitz come to judge the breed at her Morris and Essex show in 1930.
Stephanitz believed Jews had an inherent aversion to dogs, unlike the Germanic man, who has an inherited affinity for them. He didn’t forbid Jews from owning his dogs, but he thought the only reason a Jew would ever be in purebred dogs is to make money. The Nazi didn’t much care for his leadership of the SV, and they drove him from the organization. They merged it with a National Socialist animal breeding organization, and the SV itself was given over to a chicken breeder.
He had done so much to promote his dogs, though, that when the Second World War came, they fought on all sides of the conflict. The British Empire, the Americans, and the Soviets all fought with German shepherds against the Axis Powers and their dogs.
The irony of all this entire story is that this breed was created with nationalist aims, but it wound up becoming the most important working breed of dog for the twentieth century.
The Shepherd’s success is paradoxical. It was, as the wildlife biologist Glenn Radde has pointed out, the embodiment of modernity vis-à-vis the Great Danes of the landed nobility, yet it soon became a hallowed tradition. Originally bred for working qualities, it attracted some enthusiasts more concerned about appearance than health and soundness. Inspired in part by ethnocentrism and racism, it appealed across borders and ethnic lines as few other breeds have. Volunteered by their owners for German victory, Shepherds were spread by the stunning defeat of the Treaty of Versailles. Most of all, the triumph of the German Shepherd Dog shows how much of our everyday world depends on unpredictable interactions between the unforeseen and the unintentional. We can only speculate about what genetic modifications, if adopted widely, will bring.
This is the story of a plowshare being turned into a sword, but Tenner points out that the sword is being refashioned into a plowshare:
In an age of mass customization, the attraction of standards has faded, or, rather, there are many more to choose from. For example, law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States prefer Belgian Malinois to Shepherds for their allegedly keener sense of smell and sharper temperament. Some Shepherd owners and trainers pay premiums for dogs bred to the more traditional standards of the former German Democratic Republic and pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. Yet friendliness toward strangers and other dogs, a taboo for von Stephanitz and the Nazi regime, is now seen more positively by many owners with families. And this trend in turn has encouraged so-called designer dogs with parents from what the buyers hope are two complementary purebred lines — the Golden Shepherd, the Shepadoodle, the Shug, and the Shollie.
So yes, law enforcement and the military still use the German shepherd, but it is now being brought more and more into civilian life as a family dog. This will still be a working breed, but it will be more adaptable, as it always has been, to the various new tasks that lie before it.
The Malinois and the Dutch shepherd might be the more impressive police and military dog, but the German shepherd will have the edge when it comes to adaptability for new tasks. The task of family guard dog and general homestead dog are ones that it will serve with the highest distinction.