Breeds 101: The German Shepherd

The German Shepherd is curious, obedient and intelligent, and excels in a wide variety of work-related fields.

The German Shepherd is a medium-large dog, as females stand around 22-24 inches at the withers (shoulders) and males 24-26 inches at the withers. Females weigh around 50-70 pounds, while males typically weigh around 65-90 pounds.

Their fur is primarily a mixture of black and tan, and their coat is in two layers.

As a larger breed, they have a shorter life expectancy, of around 7-10 years.

According to the American Kennel Club‘s Breed Standard, the first impression of an Ideal German Shepherd should be “that of a strong, agile, well-muscled animal, alert and full of life.”

Furthermore, the ideal dog “is stamped with a look of quality and nobility, difficult to define, but unmistakable when present.”

In AKC dog shows, the breed is classified into the Herding Group, which makes sense, as its ancestors were working dogs.

Around 1891, an organization called the Phylax Society came into being, with the goal of creating the ideal German dog by standardizing a national breed. This didn’t happen, as members argued too much over which desirable qualities to promote, leading to the organization’s disbanding three years later.

One of the former members of the Phylax Society was Max von Stephanitz, a career military man who had studied at the Veterinary College of Berlin. At a dog show in 1899, Stephanitz saw an animal he was so struck by that he purchased it on the spot, as it had all the qualities he believed a working dog should possess.

This ideal dog was called “Horand von Grafath” and became the first German Shepherd, as Stephanitz developed the breed from his line. They were first recognized by The Kennel Club of England in 1919.

Because of understandable uneasiness with the breed following World War I, they are also known in England and Ireland as the “Alsatian,” named after the northeast French region of Alsace, which borders Germany.

German Shepherds were the original guide dogs in the 1920s, but it was quickly discovered that the task suited Labs and Golden Retrievers better.

So instead Alsatians became police dogs and joined the military, searching for explosives, narcotics or land mines.

Because of the heavy inbreeding in the formation of the breed, German Shepherds can suffer from a variety of genetic health problems, including blood disorders and skeletal problems.

Temperament-wise, they are extremely intelligent and curious. They are fairly slow to warm up to strangers, and may become overly protective of their family/territory, which, when coupled with their size and jaw strength (slightly stronger than a Pit Bull) explains why they occasionally are involved in attack incidents.

Silent film star Rin Tin Tin was Warner Bros. Pictures’ top attraction during the 1920s, and another popular onscreen member of the breed was Roy Rogers’ dog Bullet the Wonder Dog, who appeared regularly in The Roy Rogers Show and a handful of Rogers’ films.

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