100 Years and More, of the German Shepherd Dog


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Revised December 2011.

Quo Vadis, Pastor Canem Germanus?

This article first appeared in the July 16,1999 issue of DogNews magazine; revised in 2012; reprinted with permission of the author, Fred Lanting.

All right, for those of you who failed (or failed to take) high school Latin, the title immediately above means, “Where is the German Shepherd Dog headed?” This article is an update of one that appeared in 1999, the 100th anniversary of the Schäferhund Verein (SV), which is the heart of all GSD clubs in the world, located in the breed’s motherland (used to be called “der Vaterland” by everyone until a crazy Austrian applied unsavory connotations to that term). What has happened to this noble dog in the ensuing century and more, especially in the United States?

Before the end of the previous century several dog fanciers, but especially a cavalry master named Max von Stephanitz, organized what was to become the world’s largest dog breed association, with what became and remained the most populous and popular breed in most countries. Captain von Stephanitz had the advantage through his privileged office and service to have traveled over almost all of Europe and some of other countries, and the voracious seeker of canine knowledge collected photos and meticulously accurate reports from others who had gone further and seen more in the further reaches of the world. He proved what I was later to learn, that one gains a fuller appreciation for a favorite breed when he delves into the depths of all breeds—indeed, even comparing the dog to other animals. This is why my college buddies heading for medical school took Comparative Anatomy; they weren’t going to operate on cats, but it helped them understand the human body and various systems better. Max built up a wealth of knowledge and shared much of it in his monumental work, which every dog owner should read, “The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture.”

They started with utility, and von Stephanitz kept stressing that concept. Even a full century later, the president of the SV echoed him by re-stating it: The German Shepherd Dog is first and foremost a working dog! The founder had said that the true mark of beauty was utility, preached that form follows function, and discarded any bitch that was not above all an ideal mother (from whelping through weaning). Where did we go wrong, since today in America and some other countries that drifted away from friendly relations with Germany during WW-2, we find people using artificial insemination, heroic efforts to save the weakest whelps, and below-grade animals for breeding? Why are “we” in America, Canada, and to a lesser extent some in the UK, breeding dogs that are even disqualified under the world Standard because of size, dentition, coat, color, character, or general conformational defects? The old argument that Americans are uniquely or especially of an independent mind is increasingly just so much baloney to this peripatetic and relatively geriatric observer! I am at least as “independent” as anyone, and I still feel there are bounds to license, and that there is good reason for consensus in such matters as breed type and judging.

The FCI some decades ago decided to break up the Akita breed into 1. the Akita of country-of-origin, and 2. the modified Akita, with nomenclature to distinguish between the two. When AKC long ago slammed shut the studbook door almost as fast as it had been opened because they didn’t like the JKC or Japanese breed clubs’ studbooks, all the gene pool contributors we had here were the ones that a few servicemen and travelers had brought over, and did not accurately reflect the breed as developed in Japan. They did the same to the Shiba, until the JKC records were finally accepted. Isolationism may be OK in politics, but most of us who think do not want that applied to dogs. It may turn out that the FCI will someday soon require such a split in the GSD breed because of the tremendous differences (downplayed by the anything-goes crowd, but obvious to most people) between the American type and the International type. Perhaps FCI or the World Union of GSD Clubs (WUSV) will require a different name be used for the breed in those countries that refuse to adhere to the Standard (such as the U.S.).

How is the American Shepherd different? In many ways, for most individual dogs, and imperceptibly for some others. But all over the rest of the world, the typical American-Canadian GSDs (and the “Alsatian” minority in the UK) look strikingly different from their brothers, and some fanciers around the globe do not even consider it the same breed. Why do police forces and military in this country, and GSD buyers in the rest of the world studiously avoid buying American Shepherds? Why do four or five times the number of ads in dog magazines (which reach most of the pet buyers) mention Schutzhund or IPO titles or use words like “import lines” or “working” or “character” than the number that aim at the American Shepherd market? Because the breed here is different. Ask John Q. Public, and he will tell you he doesn’t want one of those “slinky,” low, narrow-headed animals that wobble as if their hocks were about to fall off, and dart under the couch when the door opens for a stranger. There is no doubt that the market for this type of dog is shrinking, and for good reasons. At one recent National Specialty of the GSD Club of America, the Open Male class had fewer only seven dogs! Hardly what one thinks of when the term “Annual National Specialty” is used!

But in what specific ways are the American dogs different, and how did the breed get that way? The picture that unfortunately comes to mind for most people may be something like the large, plush, GSDCA Grand Victor who, Capt. Arthur Haggerty once described in his report on Westminster, cowered behind his handler in the Group ring (which means he had already been awarded Best of Breed!). Or the picture may be that of a straight-fronted, long mid-piece, long-in-second-thigh animal that looks like it can eat peanuts out of a Coke bottle, as we say in the South. One thing that temporarily saved the American Shepherd from total oblivion in the minds of multi-breed judges and other observers was the elevation of Manhattan (“Hatter”) to the first GSD ever to win BIS at Westminster. Despite lacking somewhat in masculinity, and having horrible pasterns and a very short upper arm that made him run at you with legs in the shape of the letter “A,” there was a richly-pigmented, short-coupled, nicely-proportioned dog with a personality that could charm the pants off an old-maid schoolteacher. His almost human sense of “show-biz” made friends among people who had totally given up on the GSD as worthy of any consideration in the show ring. Of course, he never was put up against any German dogs of quality, and earned his early fame by winning at miniscule-entry shows in the boondocks. By then, judges were afraid to buck the trend and put any other dog over this one and his famous handler.

Meanwhile, GSDCA-AKC specialty judges were going merrily along the path to destruction, having neither any education in proper breed type or direction from the laissez-faire parent club as to what to look for or how to recognize it. The ills that the founder warned against proliferated: “hyena dogs” with high, vertical fronts and sharply-sloping backs to a much-lower hindquarter, a stance that was too “backwards,” by which he meant the hocks were too far behind the torso for any useful work, and the spookiness that now indelibly marks the “American” branch of the breed. Proportions range all over the map, but mostly very low-stationed (short-legged) dogs, chests too deep (not supposed to be over half the withers height), and bodies so narrow they disappear when facing you head-on. The kind I call Dick Tracy dogs—remember you would only see him in profile? Two-dimensional, that’s why! But these dogs, including the ones with pasterns so weak they look like they are running around with floppy socks too long for their feet, and knees that are actually below the hocks when posed with the metatarsus vertical, were winning. And still are. But now there are no normal dogs to compare them with, in 99.9% of the shows in the Western Hemisphere north of Mexico.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to call them “American Shepherds,” since there are many good examples of the breed in this country—just not in the AKC show rings. Maybe “AKC-Shepherd” may be a better tag to hang on them, and we can allow the better examples to be dual-registered in an organization that conforms to the breed Standard and the judging styles and decisions used around the globe. There are a few good American-bloodline Shepherds, but they either get lost in the crowd, or look too different for judges to realize what stands before them, or (mostly) they stay home and guard the kids and property, the way the imports and German-line dogs do, instead of wasting their owners’ money on shows.

Is there anywhere else for the international-style, more correct GSD to go? Yes, where the AKC has wanted to keep as a big secret, but there is another home for some, another breed club. The organization known as USA or UScA (which stands for United Schutzhund Clubs of America) got a big boost from AKC’s letters to clubs in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, telling people they would be in deep doo-doo if they held any events in which any biting or aggression was evidenced. Before that, the GSDCA was beginning to hold Schutzhund events at their National Specialty, then after one complaint letter, held it across the street, and after the final letter dropped the idea and replaced it with a clever idea. By this time, personalities and politics prevented any further cooperation with USA, so the “working-dog” contingent that remained in GSDCA but didn’t like USA leadership formed their own committee, the WDA (official name: German Shepherd Dog Club of America — Working Dog Association), and soon had their own constitution and by-laws in order to present an “independent” face to the AKC. However, they are not recognized as a full-member club by the WUSV, the world union of GSD clubs. The GSDCA is a member, having beat USA to the application to join, back when only one club per country was eligible.

However, when talking to the SV and WUSV, the WDA put on its “affiliate hat” and said “We are an integral part of the GSDCA”; but when talking to or facing toward AKC, it waved its constitution and says, “No, don’t punish GSDCA, because we are a separate organization.” Made one wonder what the meaning of “is” was! But it works. Meanwhile, the UScA organization, a non-voting member of WUSV, holds its few breed shows with SV judges officiating, and continues numerous Schutzhund trials around the country. It should be explained here for the uninitiated that Schutzhund is a three-part sport (each of equal importance and number of points required) consisting of tracking, obedience, and protection, the last of these the most exciting to watch. In the annual “Sieger Shows” of both USA and WDA, there is a mandatory character test for dogs over 24 months, which is an exercise excerpted from the protection routine of the Schutzhund trial: a ‘bad guy” comes from behind a blind and threatens the dog’s handler with a stick, and the dog is supposed to vigorously and surely prevent him from attacking the team. Since this fit into the proscripted “aggression” of AKC’s late-1990s rules, such organizations were supposed to suffer loss of AKC privileges if they had any to begin with. For a while, the ruse worked for WDA, and real dog sports people all applauded their ability to dance around the Madison Avenue Mastodon. Since those days, AKC has done an about-turn (having seen the loss of show entries from those they thereby insulted).

The WDA and UScA operate similarly in many respects, so there is someplace for the non-AKC American Shepherd to go for training and competition in breed and performance. Trouble is, USA clubs and shows were few and far between, and WDA clubs are worse, being more rare than a restaurant serving Lebanese kibbe or steak tartare. To top it off, by year-2000 it suddenly became a matter of general awareness that the USA “papers” were not worth anything on their own except for the particular dog itself. A UScA-“registered” dog could not produce registrable offspring recognized as such by AKC or foreign countries, and if born in America, such dogs would need to have both parents registered with AKC in order for such recognition. The USA had merely been stamping their own number on the certified pedigree - owner’s papers supplied with an imported dog, and different numbers on the puppies’ pedigree papers. No more nor less than the AKC’s selling of numbers, but at least the AKC numbers are accepted by other registries. WDA show entries could be registered with any AKC-recognized club, so most of their shows’ dogs are either SV or AKC or both. UScA later rectified the problem by admitting that all dogs born or producing here should be AKC-registered as well, just as required by FCI-member countries including Germany. But many a dog owner and breeder suddenly were faced with the fact that they couldn’t sell their pups as “registered” anywhere except in the non-registry UScA.

While it rightly belongs to subject matter in a separate article, I must mention this before hearing a roar of disapproval about “German toplines.” During the couple of decades before the present administration of the SV and WUSV, so much emphasis was placed on powerful drives in the rear, that the outline of the West German dogs (and therefore in much of the world buying them) had too many “boomerang” or “banana backs.” This resulted not only from “the push for push,” but also from the attempt to get the appearance of a long croup. Thankfully, this trend has been slowed and has been in the long process of reverting to the more normal topline without sacrificing strength, power, and the long croup needed for both. If you still have a hang-up over the overline, at least consider its functional purpose in comparison with much worse problems in a trotting breed, such as short legs, heavy bodies, upright/short upper arms, and steep/short croups. Judges, please don’t put up a question-mark temperament over a comma-shaped topline. The problem of cowhocks and sloppy hock action has yet to be corrected in the German-line dogs, because nearly all the normal-hocks breeding dogs had disappeared during the Martin brothers’ era.

In the UK, primarily England, there are also two camps: the “Alsatian” and the “Germanic” styles. The former, now thankfully in the minority, is mostly shorter on leg, very heavy in torso, and soft in coat and temperament. They derive philosophically (their nick-name) and via heritage from some WW-1-era dogs of light color and smaller gene pool than found elsewhere in the world. Isolation because of quarantine was added to prejudice against all things related to the Kaiser at first and Hitler’s Germany to a much greater extent later. It wasn’t until much later (late 1950s and early 1960s) that good German dogs were brought in, and the rift began. The international type, though initially smaller in numbers, is now the predominant style in the UK. At Crufts, the super-large show in England, the GSD judge choice alternates between “Germanic” and “Alsatian” preference: every other year the “other” camp got their shot. Then, in 2011, The Kennel Club (UK) decided to stop giving GSDs championships (Challenge Cerificates) because they did not like the toplines and other features. As of 2012, there is a move for GSD fanciers to break away from The KC and run their own registry.

Where is the GSD going, and what kind of body is carrying it there? Anybody in the US and Canada who has any interest in seeing what the breed can offer in the way of uniformity, soundness, consensus-type adherence, and proven character owes it to himself to look outside the AKC yard to the greener grass of the WDA and USA Sieger Shows, to actually see that body structure, that style, that truer-to-type dog. There are far more AKC shows to go to, but you’ll have to look longer and harder, because the tendency is for “American Shepherds” to keep going to shows until they win enough points, no matter how undeserving they are. Judges who pick the truly normal, closer-to-Standard dog may get fewer assignments, but what you see in their rings will be fewer of the extreme caricatures, and more of the right picture of the dog of the future.
A supposed difficulty for GSD fanciers is that the WUSV had announced that membership can and might be denied clubs that do not accept and cause judges to abide by the world Standard. Despite warnings, the GSDCAmerica ignored the edict. And time proved that the SV-WUSV warning had no teeth, as they did not lower the boom on countries and clubs that practically ignore the SV Standard. AKC is another big stumbling block to those who want dogs in North America to conform to the world Standard, because while they say that the Standards are the property of the breed clubs, AKC really doesn’t mean it—they want to keep control over these themselves. So any supposed deadline by the WUSV is made doubly violated when AKC must be appeased by the GSDCA. The original warning from Germany said that if GSDCA refuses to go along with the rest of the world, as in the past, it could lose WUSV membership. That would put an end to WDA legitimacy, with the privilege of holding SV-recognized breed shows, with SV judges. If all that had happened, UScA will move into the voting-member chair, and some more desertions from GSDCA would have occurred. UScA has already surpassed GSDCA in true active membership. Their members really have to want to join, while a great proportion of GSDCA folks became members only to get the magazine or because they feel they are supposed to belong because they own a GSD.

My predictions or answers to the question of “quo vadis?” are that the WDA and USA will eventually get their differences straightened out, the GSDCA will have at least a 60-40 chance of losing or dropping WUSV membership, and the breed itself will have a respectably large enough chance of being split and renamed. The AKC-type extreme dog will continue, but owned by a smaller group of show-only and win-at-any-cost people who breed to and “put up” each others’ dogs, blithely going down their own slippery path. If registration is not disrupted, there will continue to be some cross-over, but it will all be AKC-American Shepherd bitches going to international/German studs, almost never German-style bitches going to American Shepherd studs.

Just as in any futurist’s prognostications, this view can change considerably in reaction to a change of heart or decisions on the part of one or a few key people. AKC’s position re Schutzhund has changed, despite strong statements in the beginning that it never would. The presidents of the WUSV so far have decided to let the American (and other non-European) clubs retain membership, and just de facto ignore the transgression instead of requiring GSDCA to march in proper Teutonic time. And if the courts do get involved with the name of the breed, they may find “German Shepherd Dog” to be non-copyright protected. (SV had threatened action at one time if a club used the breed’s name without kow-towing toward Augsburg.) But one thing is almost certain: there will continue in America a high-profile (although insignificant on the world scale) coterie of canines with a wide variety of type, all called GSD but actually identified by the label that one long-time pro handler had given them, “Pretenders.”

Fred Lanting The Total German Shepherd Dog Canine Hip Dysplasia and Other Orthopedic Problems Conflict: Life, Love and War

Fred Lanting Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge, has judged numerous countries’ Sieger Shows and Landesgruppen events, and has many years experience as one of only two SV breed judges in the US. He presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD and Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. He conducts annual non-profit sightseeing tours of Europe, centered on the Sieger Show (biggest breed show in the world) and BSP.

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Canine Hip Dysplasia and Other Orthopedic Problems
It covers all joints plus many bone disorders and includes genetics, diagnostic methods, treatment options, and the role that environment plays. This highly-acclaimed book is a comprehensive (nearly 600 pages!), amply illustrated, annotated, monumental work that is suitable as a coffee-table book, reference work for breeders and vets, as well as a study adjunct for veterinary students, for the dog trainer and the general dog owner of any breed.

The Total German Shepherd Dog
This is the expanded and enlarged second edition, a “must” for every true GSD lover. It is an excellent alternative to the “genetic history” by Willis, but less technical and therefore suitable for the novice, yet very detailed to be indispensable for the reputable GSD breeder. Chapters include not only such topics as: History and Origins, Modern Bloodlines, The Standard, etc., but also topics of great value to owners of any other breed, such as Anatomy, Nutrition, Health and First Aid, Parasites and Immunity, Basics of Genetics, Reproduction, Whelping, The First Three Weeks, Four to Twelve Weeks, and a Trouble-shooting Guide.

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