German Shepherd Dog

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The proper English name for the breed is German Shepherd Dog (a literal translation from the German Deutscher Schäferhund) and they are typically titled as GSDs, Shepherds or "German Shepherds." The GSD was originally a refinement of herding dogs found in the German Thuringia Highland region to be a standardized herding dog of Germany. In the United States the GSD is the third most popular dog registered by the American Kennel Club with 43,575 registrations.[1] This breed of dog is highly versatile being used as guide dogs for the blind, police dogs, guard dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, Therapy dogs and Military dogs. Despite their diverse working skills, German Shepherds can also make loyal and loving pets inside the home, although socialization is critical for young puppies in order to prevent aggressive and dangerous behavior as an adult.

Due to Anti-German sentiment in the United Kingdom during and after World War I (1914 - 1918), the dog became know as the Alsatian Wolf Dog throughout the commonwealth. In 1919, the English Kennel Club gave the breed an official breed registry name of Alsatian Wolf Dog. The Alsatian is derived from the "Alsace" name, a traditionally German-speaking French area on the west bank of the Rhine, where breeders were expanding the new breed population in the years just before WWI. This name is still used in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth. Only in 1977 did the British Kennel Club authorize the breed to be known again as the German Shepherd Dog.


The breed has a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence, and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. It is poised, but when the occasion demands, eager and alert; both fit and willing to serve in its capacity as a companion, watchdog, blind leader, herding dog, or guardian, whichever the circumstances may demand. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them.

The dog must not be timid, shrinking behind its master or handler; it should not be nervous, looking about or upward with anxious expression or showing nervous reactions, such as tucking of tail, to strange sounds or sights. Lack of confidence under any surroundings is not typical of good character. Any of the above deficiencies of character that indicate shyness must be penalized as a very serious faults, and any dog exhibiting pronounced indications of these must be excused from any dog show event.

It must be possible for a dog show judge to observe the teeth and to determine that both testicles are descended. Any dog that exhibits unprovoked aggression and attempts to bite any person, dog or other animal must be disqualified and removed from any dog show event.

The ideal dog is a working animal with an incorruptible character combined with body and gait suitable for the arduous work that constitutes its primary purpose.

Proper socialization as a puppy is one of the two key factors which determines what a dog's temperament will be as an adult. Ideally, a German Shepherd must be alert and fearless in defense of its family, but loving and non-aggressive within the home environment.


General Appearance – The first impression of a German Shepherd Dog is that of a strong, agile, well-muscled animal, alert, full of life, keen, intelligent, and composed. It is well balanced, with harmonious development of forequarter and hindquarter. The dog is longer than tall, deep-bodied, and presents an outline of smooth curves rather than angles. It looks substantial and not spindly, giving the impression, both at rest and in motion, of muscular fitness and nimbleness without any look of clumsiness or soft living. The ideal dog is stamped with a look of quality and nobility–difficult to define, but unmistakable when present. Secondary sex characteristics are strongly marked, and every animal gives a definite impression of masculinity or femininity, according to its sex.

Proportion – The Shepherd Dog is longer than tall, and of uniform proportion.

Gait – The Shepherd is a trotting dog with a smooth and flowing gait that is maintained with great strength and firmness of back. The shepherd moves powerfully, but easily, with such coordination and balance that the gait appears to the steady motion of a well-lubricated machine. Even at a walk the shepherd covers a great deal of ground with an economy of long stride on both hind legs and forelegs. In order to achieve ideal movement of this kind, there must be muscular development and ligamentation. The hindquarters deliver, through the back, a powerful forward thrust, which slightly lifts the whole animal and drives the body forward. Reaching far under, and passing the imprint left by the front foot, the back foot takes hold of the ground; then hock, stifle and upper thigh come into play and sweep back, the stroke of the hind leg finishing with the foot still close to the ground in a smooth follow-through. The feet travel close to the ground on both forward reach and backward push. The overreach of the hindquarter usually necessitates one hind foot passing outside and the other foot passing inside the track of the forefoot, and such action is not faulty unless the locomotion is crab-like with the dog's body sideways out of the normal straight line. Viewed from the front, the front legs function from shoulder joint to the pad in a straight line. Viewed from the rear, the hind legs function from the hip joint to the pad in a straight line.

Coat – The ideal dog has a weather-resistant double coat of medium length. The outer coat should be as dense as possible, hair straight, harsh and lying close to the body. The undercoat is short, thick and fine in texture. A slightly wavy outer coat, often of wiry texture, is permissible. The head and ears are covered with a smooth, somewhat softer and shorter hair while the hair covering the legs and paws is more harsh-textured. At the neck, the coat is slightly longer and heavier. A male may carry a thicker ruff than a female. The back of the legs has a slightly longer covering of hair and there is considerably more hair on the breeches and the underside of the tail. For the White Shepherd specialization, both somewhat shorter and longer coats are acceptable.

Head – The head is noble, cleanly chiseled, strong without coarseness, but above all, not fine, and in proportion to the body. The head of the male is distinctly masculine, and that of the bitch, distinctly feminine. The muzzle is long and strong, with lips firmly fitted, and its top line is parallel to the top line of the skull. Seen from the front, the forehead is only moderately arched, and the skull slopes into the long, wedge-shaped muzzle without abrupt stop. Jaws are strongly developed. Ears are moderately pointed, in proportion to the skull, open toward the front, and carried erect when at attention, the ideal carriage being one in which the center lines of the ears, viewed from the front, are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground.

Body – The whole structure of the body gives an impression of depth and solidity without bulkiness. Chest Commences at the posternum and is well filled and carried well down between the legs. It is deep and capacious, never shallow, with ample room for lungs and heart, carried well forward, with the posternum showing ahead of the shoulder in profile.

Tail – The tail is bushy, with the last vertebra extended at least to the hock joint. It is set smoothly into the croup and low rather than high. At rest, the tail hangs in a slight curve like a saber. A slight hook–sometimes carried to one side is faulty only to the extent that it mars general appearance. When the dog is excited or in motion, the curve may be accentuated and the tail raised, but it should never curl forward beyond the vertical line. Tails too short, or with clumpy ends due to ankylosis, are serious faults.

Color - There are several different color-marking patterns. For conformation-line dogs, the "saddle" marking is probably the most well-known. This consists of a large black patch on the upper and mid back, extending partway down the dog's sides. The other popular marking is called "bi-color", and consists of a dog that is all one color (typically black) save for differently-colored paws and lower legs, and sometimes a swath on the belly.

Variant sizes and coats

Some groups or breeders have focused on breed specializations that are outside the official breed standards recognized by some national or international kennel clubs.

The Berger Blanc Suisse or White Swiss Shepherd (specialization of the White German Shepherd Dog) is recognized by the FCI or Federation Cynologique Internationale (English, World Canine Federation). The North American UKC or United Kennel Club, recognizes both the White German Shepherd Dog and its specialization the White Shepherd Dog. The American Kennel Club registers White German Shepherd Dogs in its GSD breed registration business but does not allow white GSDs in its conformation dog show ring.

Dogs with the long-haired coat variation look somewhat like the (Tervuren) Belgian Shepherd Dog type of Long coats can come in two variations, both with an undercoat and without. Kennel club treatment of long-haired German Shepherds varies. It is considered a fault under American Kennel Club and FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale, i.e. International Canine Federation) standards. Under other standards, such as Germany Langhaar-Schaeferhunde-Verband and the United Kingdom,[2] long-haired German Shepherds are actively bred, registered, and shown, and specialized long-haired breeders exist. There is also a variation known as 'long-stock-haired German Shephard'; stock hair isn't registered directly as a fault and such dogs are able to participate.

The Shiloh Shepherd was bred by Tina M. Barber of Shiloh Shepherds Kennel. The King Shepherd is a larger variation of the German Shepherd.


Shepherding was a common way of life for thousands of years all across Europe, including the countryside that is today called Germany. Over countless centuries shepherds used dogs to herd their sheep throughout the day, and guard them against wolf and bear predators at night. The Roman writer Columella in the 1st century A.D. published a 35-volume essay on agriculture entitled, “The Agricultural Arts” that stated, unequivocally, the dogs that guard the sheep are white in color. The Pyrenean Mountain Sheepdog is a direct decedent of these ancient sheep dogs. Earlier in history, the Roman historian and writer, Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 B.C.), described the guardians of the flocks as being invariably white in color. He also writes that, in his opinion, the shepherds preferred white dogs in order to be able to distinguish them from the wolves that usually attacked in the half-light of dawn or dusk.

Many descendants of the ancient shepherd's white dogs were present on 19th century German farms. In addition to the somewhat larger white guard and herding dog varieties, several varieties of medium-sized shepherding dogs were also in use on German farms. These medium-sized shepherd dogs were especially fast and agile and were particularly well suited to moving and guiding sheep herds across the countryside. Herding dogs across Germany had coat colors of brown, grey, grizzled and white, for example; the medium-sized Spitz was known to have white coats, and the larger [Schafpudel] of Germany was always white. Herding dogs from the German highland Thuringia region had upright ears, the general body size and shape of the modern German Shepherd and had either a grey-wolf or white color coat. It is, therefore, a fact that the modern German Shepherd Dog presents all of the coat colors of the breed’s founding ancestors, including white.

Across the regional landscape of 19th century German farms, Shepherds bred a wide variety of dogs to herd their sheep with no uniformity of size, color, or shape, except for what was common for their particular region. The only real interest was that herding dogs be physically and mentally sound so they could work tirelessly, competently and faithfully along side the shepherd. This was the landscape seen by Max Von Stephanitz, the recognized father of the modern German Shepherd Dog breed, in the 1880s. Founding of the Modern German Shepherd Dog Breed in Germany

As a young cavalry officer, Stephanitz’s military duties often required him to travel across the German countryside. It was common for travelers like Stephanitz to board with rural families along the way. At that time most rural German farms had at least a few head of sheep and a herding dog or two to tend them. Stephanitz became fascinated with the German herding dogs and their working capabilities. He admired all the hard working dogs, but observed some dogs had a special look and bearing about them that he especially admired.

Eventually Stephanitz became inspired with the idea that Germany should have a national herding dog that combined the work ethic of the most accomplished herding dogs with that special look and bearing he so admired. Stephanitz envisioned a German shepherding dog who was extremely intelligent, could reason and be a working companion to man. Further, the dog must be quick on his feet and well coordinated, protective, noble in appearance and bearing, trustworthy in character, physically sound in joint and muscle, and be born with an innate desire to please and obey the shepherd master. This is the German Shepherd dog that we know and love today. By 1891 Stephanitz started selecting the best herding dogs from across the German countryside for his breeding program, but Stephanitz was not alone in his passion to develop a national German Shepherding Dog.

The Phylax Society, active primarily between the years 1891-1894, was an organization of German shepherding dog fanciers that in many ways formed the foundations for the German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany. The Phylax Society documented shepherding dogs of varying sizes, types and colors, including white, to have been in all areas of Germany during the late 1800’s.

Like Stephanitz, Phylax Society members were actively engaged in uniting the various sizes, types and colors of German shepherding dogs to produce a standard shepherding dog for Germany. Their focus was more on body shape and color rather than on actual utilitarian herding skills. Stephanitz corresponded with Phylax Society members and attended dog shows organized by the Society, thus adding to Stephanitz’s already knowledge of bloodlines.

The Phylax Society provides an essential prolog to the modern German Shepherd story, both white and colored. The society ultimately did not long survive because its focus was on form rather than utility and the club had no strong central figure to organize and manage Society affairs. The Phylax Society essentially evolved into the German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany, under Stephanitz's leadership, as most former Phylax Society members later joined with Stephanitz.

Breed Founder Stephanitz Finds the First German Shepherd Dog

Stephanitz had been endeavoring to develop his ideal German Shepherd dog in his own breeding kennel throughout the 1890’s when one of the largest all breed dog shows to date took place in the Rhineland town of Karlesruhe on April 3, 1899. Stephanitz, accompany by his friend Artur Meyer, attended the Karlesruhe Exhibition in his continuing search for shepherding dogs that could be added to his breeding program. Among the many shepherding dogs brought to the exhibition from a number of different German agricultural areas, Stephanitz saw his absolute ideal shepherd dog in the body of Hektor (Linksrhein) von Sparwasser, born the 1st of January 1895 along with litter brother, Luchs von Sparwasser.

The breeder of Hektor and Luchs was Herr Friedrich Sparwasser of Frankfort who had been breeding herding dogs from the German highland Thuringia region for over 20 years. Stephanitz at once recognized Hektor as his ideal German Shepherd Dog that he had been striving to develop in his own ten year long breeding program. Stephanitz bought Hektor on the spot and renamed the dog Horand von Grafrath. (Hektor is sometimes referenced as Hektor Linksrhein with Linksrhein referring to the Rhine region of his kennel. Frankfort is close to the Rhine river on the Rhine’s Main tributary and is considered to be in the Rhine region.) Horand is the first entry in the German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany or Der Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, or SV, Stud Book as “Horand von Grafrath, SZ-1

Friedrich Sparwasser is known to have been breeding both white and wolf (sable) colored herding dogs of the same body conformation in his Frankfort kennel from the 1870's. The German Thuringia Highland herding dogs in Sparwasser's kennel had upright ears and a general body description that resembles modern German Shepherd Dogs. Sparwasser's white coat dogs are documented as showing in several German dog shows from 1882 through at least 1899. Horand’s and Luchs’ maternal grandsire was a white-coat German herding dog named Greif von Sparwasser, whelped in Friedrich Sparwasser's Frankfort kennel in 1879. George Horowitz, renowned English Judge, German Shepherd (Alsatian) columnist, author and historian documents the background of Hektor a.k.a. Horand von Grafrath) in his 1923 book, The Alsatian Wolf-Dog[3]. In his book Horowitz documents that Greif von Sparwasser was presented at the 1882 and 1887 Hanover Dog Shows. Horowitz also documents Greif's white progeny entered in shows in succeeding years. M. B. Willis also covers this period in his book "The German Shepherd, Its History, Development and Genetics" written in 1977[4].

Greif von Sparwasser was mated with sable/wolf colored female Lotte von Sparwasser who whelped a litter that included a sable/wolf colored female named Lene von Sparwasser, later registered SZ-156. Both Greiff and Lotta had the distinctive 'up right' ears and a similar body conformation that we see in the modern German Shepherd Dog breed. In Lene's mating to dog Kastor (Rüde) von Hanau SZ-153 she whelped a litter that included the wolf colored Hektor (a.k.a. Horand von Grafrath SZ-1) and his wolf colored litter brother Luchs, SZ-155. Friedrich Sparwasser obviously had both white and sable/wolf colored herding dogs of the same body conformation in his kennel and he was pairing white and colored dogs in his breeding program.

Stephanitz writes in his book.[5], "Horand embodied for the enthusiasts of that time the fulfillment of their fondest dreams. He was big for that period, between 24" and 24 1/2", even for the present day a good medium size, with powerful frame, beautiful lines, and a nobly formed head. Clean and sinewy in build, the entire dog was one live wire. His character was on a par with his exterior qualities; marvelous in his obedient fidelity to his master, and above all else, the straightforward nature of a gentleman with a boundless zest for living. Although untrained in puppy hood, nevertheless obedient to the slightest nod when at this master's side; but when left to himself, the maddest rascal, the wildest ruffian and incorrigible provoker of strife. Never idle, always on the go; well disposed to harmless people, but no cringer, mad about children and always in love. What could not have been the accomplishments of such a dog if we, at that time, had only had military or police service training? His faults were the failings of his upbringing, never of his stock. He suffered from a superfluity of unemployed energy, for he was in Heaven when someone was occupied with him and was then the most tractable of dog."

On April 22, 1899, less than a month after Stephanitz purchased Hektor, who he renamed Horand von Grafrath, Stephanitz founded the German Shepherd Dog Club of Germany or Der Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, the SV, as he wrote the first entry into the new SV Stud Book – “Horand von Grafrath, SZ 1.” Thus, Horand (a.k.a. Hektor) was documented as the foundation of the German Shepherd Dog breed. Membership of the SV German Shepherd Dog Club grew quickly and soon many breeders were using Horand’s progeny, as well as Horand’s litter brother Luchs and his progeny, to expand the German Shepherd Dog breed population.

Horand was line-bred and inbred with his own offspring in the expansion and refinement of the new breed after 1899. Horand was bred to 35 different dams, including his own daughters, producing 53 litters, of which, 140 progeny were registered with the SV. Horand’s litter brother Luchs was also widely bred in the same way in the expansion of the modern German Shepherd breed. Further, Horand’s offspring was inbred with Luchs' offspring, which further concentrated the DNA of these dogs and their immediate ancestors.

By 1923 Stephanitz's still growing club membership numbered over 57,000 enthusiasts who grouped into factions of herdsmen, commercial breeders, and show dog devotees. Many commercial and show oriented breeders, who were less passionate about the dog's working characteristics, particularly wanted the breed to have a full wolf appearance. This, in part, is a carry over from the old Phylax Society members who joined with Stephanitz on the founding of his club in 1899. Winfred Strickland writes in her (1988 revised edition) book, “The German Shepherd Today,” that the old Phylax Society, "was based solely on its members common interest in breeding (herding) dogs to resemble wolves, presumably hoping to cash in on their high market value."


  1. AKC Registration Data
  2. United Kingdom Kennel Club
  3. Horowitz, George (1927). The Alsation Wolf-Dog: Its origin, history, and working capabilities 2nd ed.. Manchester: Our Dogs Publ. Co.. 
  4. Willis, Malcolm (1977). The German Shepherd Dog, Its History, Development, and Genetics. New York: ARCO Pub. Co. ISBN 9780668040778. 
  5. Stephanitz, V. (1994). The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture. Wheat Ridge, CO: Hoflin Pub Ltd. ISBN 9789993280057. 


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