History of the German Shepherd Breed

Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.

German Shepherds (also called Alsatian or abbreviated "GSD") as we know them today are a result of the breeding and standardization efforts of one man: Max von Stephanitz. In 1889, he spotted a yellow and gray dog at a dog show who looked like a wolf and had many of the same personality traits we associate with the wolf: fiercely loyal, intelligent, strong, and steadiness.

This dog was a working dog, bred to herd sheep and incredibly good at it. Von Stephanitz purchased this dog and through his breeding efforts, made him the grandfather of the modern day German shepherd.

A Fairly Young Breed

This is where German Shepherd history begins, at a dog show in the 19th century. Many of the most popular breeds have centuries of history and some breeds are so old that it’s impossible to know when they were first standardized. The same is just not true of German Shepherds. These dogs, bred for their looks as much as for their personalities, are one of the most versatile breeds, but they are also one of the most modern breeds.

The history of the German Shepherd is the history of the last century and a half. It’s impossible to go into detail about all of the events that make up the history of the breed, but here are some of the most basic breed history facts:

Hektor Linkshrein The First German Shepherd?

The first German Shepherd was named Hektor Linkshrein. This is the dog that von Stephanitz purchased at the dog show and the dog against which all German Shepherds of the time were compared. He did not look like the dogs that we see in shows today. He was yellow and dark gray, but he lacked the steeply sloping back, the saddle coloration markings, and the gait of the stereotypical breed of today. However, he is where the history of German Shepherd dogs begins.

Max von Stephanitz And Standardization

Max von Stephanitz founded the German Shepherd Dog Club. Along with picking out and standardizing the breed, he was the founder of the very first dog club for this breed in Germany. It was with this club that he created the standardization criteria, much of which is still being used to evaluate these dogs today, with some changes, both minor and major.

His focus was on mental acuity, rather than on a very specific color or body shape. He believed in utility and intelligence above all else, with beauty coming in at a distant second. A beautiful dog that isn’t useful and smart is useless, while a dog that doesn’t fit the breed shape and color standards, but has all the mental and personality traits necessary, would be considered a near-perfect specimen in his book. Today’s breeders would likely disagree.

Inbreeding German Shepherds

Inbreeding in the early days of the breed and throughout their history has resulted in a number of prominent health problems. One of the biggest issues facing German Shepherds today is the health defects that have been heavily bred into the breed in an attempt to standardize it. Problems like hip dysplasia are relatively common for these dogs, even if they have been ethically bred.

Fortunately for the breed, von Stephanitz realized that inbreeding was causing some serious problems and took steps to introduce non-related individuals into the breed. Throughout his life, if he ever says these inbreeding issues crop up in the stock, he would demand new, unrelated dogs be added to the gene pool. The same cannot be said of breeders throughout this breed’s history.

First German Shepherd In The U.S.A.

The first German Shepherd came to America in 1907. For about twenty years, this breed remained in Germany. Otto Gross and H. Dalrymple, however, transported the first dog overseas to present him at a dog show in Pennsylvania. In just six years’ time, these dogs would be participating in American dog shows and winning championships. In 1913, after the first German shepherd won a championship, a German Shepherd dog club was formed in America.

Word War I And Popularity

World War I decreased German Shepherd popularity. When America entered the First World War in 1917, the breed was suddenly far less desirable than they had been in the last four years. While current owners held on to their dogs, the name of the German Shepherd dog club in American was changed to the “Shepherd Dog Club.” Owners and breeders in England began calling this breed Alsatian, in an attempt to distance this dog’s connection to Germany.


Rin-Tin-Tin reestablished German Shepherd popularity in America and abroad. Throughout World War I, the German army, who already had extensive knowledge of the German Shepherd breed and how to use them for military purposes, had made good use of this breed.

American soldiers brought home not just stories of these regal dogs, but the dogs themselves. Rin-Tin-Tin, for example, was plucked from the battlefield by a soldier and brought back to America. The popularity of these dogs surged once again thanks to the movies that starred them directly after WWI.

German Shepherd Puppy Mills

Puppy mills rise in popularity along with these dogs. One of the darker sides of the history of German Shepherds are the puppy mills that were set up to quickly breed German Shepherds to meet the rising demand in America and around the world. These dogs were quickly inbred, with no concern given to personality traits or health. These “low-quality” dogs resulted in yet another plummet in popularity.

Fortunate Fields

Fortunate Fields Kennels restores the breed. It was breeders in Switzerland, in the Fortunate Fields Kennels, that restored the German Shepherd dog after puppy mills in America made it difficult to find good breeding stock for these dogs.

Klodo von Boxberg The Start Of A Stereotype?

Klodo von Boxberg changes the German Shepherd game. Klodo von Boxberg was the first dog that looked like the stereotypical German Shepherd today. He had the sloped back, the large head, the saddle coloration, and the short loin. Many of his sons and daughters were used to breed throughout America and his coloration and body style became the new standard in this country.

World War II

After WWII, the breed in Germany and America diverges significantly. We see the emergence of different types of German Shepherds. While the breed was already diverging before the war, after the war, American breeders largely began breeding their dogs for coloration and body style, while Germans continued to breed theirs for personality first, followed by coloration.

Regulated Breeding

The 1980s brought stricter regulations for dogs on both sides of the pond. German Shepherd dog history has not changed very much since the 1980s. It was at this time that new regulations were introduced that required all dogs of breeding stock to be registered and there were stricter punishments put in place for puppy mills and other unethical breeding practices.

Of course, this has not completely eradicated unethical breeding, but it has significantly reduced the number of sick or “low quality” dogs that are produced.

© 2015 Sam Shepards

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on July 18, 2020:


Nice, to hear, enjoy your times with your German Shepherd. Times with my dogs were the most playful and free moments of my life. I don't own one at this moment. I've had 3 over the past 25 years with soem overlap, but now I don't have enough time, which means I'm gone over 10 hours a day and often overnight in the city for work. I don't want my dog to wait for me all day, to get out and then wait again when I sleep. The German Shepherd dog breed enjoys activity and play which I can't provide right now.

Ben walton on July 14, 2020:

Great article. Im on my 4th GSD now (Otto) first boy and he's great. Before having him i read so much about how males are dominant etc but he's very laid back but full of life when he's out.

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on May 30, 2019:


We've had 3 (although they overlap), because 60% of the time we had 2. We had our first when I was 11 years old. I agree with you on loyalty and they are friends for life. Our last one died 7 months ago, now because of work and travel this is the first time in nearly 25 years I don't have a German Shepherd anymore. I believe this will change next year or the year after.

Steve on May 27, 2019:

We're on our 3rd GS, once you've had one you can't live without. They are a breed that needs work but the payback in loyalty and companionship is exceptional. Can't imagine life without a GS.

Valerie on December 12, 2018:

I had 2 GSDs. One was East German (DDR) and one American bred. They were the greatest dogs! It’s too hard on me to care for them as I am disabled, but I’d love to have another some day if that ever works out for me. My dogs were Kasch & Toby. I just lost Kasch last March at age 11. I really miss him.

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on October 24, 2015:

Thank you for the message. We've had 3 german shepherds. Our most recent one is now 7 years old. It will be difficult to decide to have another one after this one, because we want to travel the world more in the future.

Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on August 17, 2015:

Nice intro to the breed. I'm looking to get a gsd now:)

How many types of German Shepherd are there?

While the medium and longhair varieties are the only recognized length of coat for purebred German Shepherds, the color of said coat can be varied. Not all will be allowed in competition, with some color variations being considered to be faults affecting their scoring. In terms of coat color, there are the following different types of German Shepherd:

  1. Saddle coat German Shepherd Dog
  2. Black German Shepherd Dog
  3. Sable German Shepherd Dog
  4. Panda German Shepherd Dog
  5. White German Shepherd Dog

It should be noted that not all types of German Shepherds are accepted by all breed associations such as the FCI (known as the World Canine Organization in English). Similarly, there are dogs which look very similar to the German Shepherd, but are not considered part of the breed. We will discuss these breeds further below.

Length: Medium
Characteristics: Double coat
Colors: Most colors, other than white, are permissible
Overall Grooming Needs: Moderate

AKC Classification: Herding
UKC Classification: Herding Dog

To prevent over-guarding and aggressive behavior, German shepherd dogs should have socialization and obedience training at a young age.

German shepherd dogs reach a maximum of about 25 inches in height, and they weigh up to about 95 pounds (41 kilograms).

He is a well-proportioned dog. The head is broad and tapers handsomely to a sharp muzzle. The ears are rather large and stand erect. The back is level and muscular, and the tail is bushy and curves downward. The coat is thick and rough and may be black, tan, black and tan or gray. The coat should be harsh and of medium length however, long-coated individuals occur often.

The breed lives about 10-12 years.


German shepherd dogs get along well with children and other pets if raised with them, but in keeping with their guarding instincts, they tend to be leery of strangers.

The breed is considered to be smart and easy to train.

Some poorly bred German shepherd dogs can be high-strung and nervous. Coupled with poor socialization and inadequate training, over guarding and aggressive behavior are risks.

Living With:

Because German shepherd dogs are large and powerful and have strong guarding instincts, great care should be taken to purchase German shepherds from reputable breeders. Poorly bred dogs are more likely to be nervous.

To prevent over guarding and aggressive behavior, German shepherd dogs should be carefully socialized from a young age and be obedience trained. They should be with the family and continually exposed under supervision to people and other pets around the neighborhood they should not be confined to a kennel or backyard either alone or with other dogs.

German shepherd dogs are active and like to have something to do. They need ample exercise daily otherwise, they can get into mischief or become high-strung.

The dog sheds heavily about twice yearly, and the rest of the time sheds a lesser amount continually. To control shedding and keep the coat nice, brush at least a few times a week.


German shepherd dogs are, as their name implies, a breed that originated in Germany. They were developed beginning in the late 1800s by crossing various herding breeds. The breed was subjected to stringent selection and it progressed quickly. In the United Kingdom, the dogs are known as Alsatians because fanciers of the breed there wanted to protect the dog from anti-German sentiments after World War I.

German shepherd dogs were introduced in the United States by soldiers returning home from World War I. The breed caught the public eye because of movie stars Strongheart and later, Rin Tin Tin. By World War II German shepherd dogs were the military breed of choice. The first guide dogs were German shepherd dogs. Today, they are one of the most popular dogs in America. In 1999, German shepherd dogs were third on the American Kennel Club's list of the Top 50 Breeds.

The German shepherd dog is a herding breed known for its courage, loyalty and guarding instincts. This breed makes an excellent guard dog, police dog, military dog, guide dog for the blind and search and rescue dog. For many families, the German shepherd is also a treasured family pet.

How to Care for German Shepherds


The German Shepherd is very athletic and does best with regular and vigorous exercise. He can been trained to do just about everything, and performing work or engaging in sports and activities with people is what he is all about. As adaptable as he is, the GSD is not a dog who can sit inside all day waiting for the occasional outing. He must be stimulated both physically and mentally to reach his full potential.


The German Shepherd Dog has a dense undercoat and requires regular brushing to keep it under control. He is a seasonally heavy shedder. The GSD should not be bathed frequently because it depletes the skin and coat of essential oils. Otherwise, the coat serves its protective and insulating purposes and takes care of itself.

Life Span

The average life span of a German Shepherd Dog is 10 to 14 years.


German Shepherd Dogs are a very obedient breed, and thrive with training. Used for years as service dogs, they also excel in sports, such as competitive obedience, herding, agility, flyball, and many others. GSDs are quick learners who don’t bore easily, although they do appreciate a quick-thinking trainer who will keep them challenged.

Characteristics of the King Shepherd

Affection Level High
Friendliness High
Kid-Friendliness High
Pet-Friendliness High
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level High
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark High
Amount of Shedding High

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