Description & History

The ancestors of the breed were used primarily for shepherding and as guard dogs.

Today's German Shepherds were developed from a dog that was purchased in 1899 by a German cavalry officer, Captain Max von Stephanitz.

He had a high regard for the qualities found in the various types of German sheepdogs and wanted to embody these characteristics in one specific breed.

When developing the German Shepherd, von Stephanitz was looking to the future. He was fully aware that the role of the working shepherd dog was on the decline and if the breed were to survive in the twentieth century, it would have to adjust to other types of work.

Captain von Stephanitz proved that, with special training, the versatility of the shepherd dog could be used in other ways. During the First World War this was demonstrated by the successful work they did with the German army. They were used for sentry and guard duty, and for carrying messages. They also laid communication cables - snipers made it impossible for men to carry out this task, especially when crossing open country, so dogs with drums of cable strapped to their bodies did the job for them. These brave dogs became known as "Wire Dogs".

Germany was the first country to train guide dogs for the blind. The training began in 1917 to help war veterans and was further developed later to aid civilians. German Shepherds and another German breed, the Dobermann, appear to be the only breeds that were used at this time.

Various organisations to help the blind have been established since the First World War. In Germany, Guide Dogs for the Civilian Blind was founded in 1923. In 1924 The Seeing Eye was established in the United States and in 1934 the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was founded in Great Britain.

Between the two World Wars these dogs were still being trained for the army and police, although other ways of utilising the breed were developing. Showing and obedience competitions were becoming popular and the introduction of working trials helped retain and improve the breed's qualities.

In the Second World War the breed served with the armed forces in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Their duties included patrolling, tracking, sentry and guard duty and detecting mines.

Since the war the training of these highly intelligent dogs has continued. Although they are now employed in peacetime a lot of their work is undertaken in very difficult conditions. They are are used by police forces for crowd control and for drug detection. They play an important role with the armed forces and with civilian rescue teams at times of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and avalanches. On a lighter side, they participate in obedience and field trials which they enjoy thoroughly.

The German Shepherd was well established in the United States before the First World War but did not arrive in the British Isles in any substantial numbers until the 1920's. In 1977 the British Kennel Club agreed that the breed should change its name from Alsatian to German Shepherd Dog, the name by which it is known in other countries.

Rosamund Walters.

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