Origin, History & Evolution Of The German Shepherd Blood Lines: 1899 to Now

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We’ve put together a timeline and general outline of the origin, history & evolution of the German Shepherd breed and bloodlines from creation in 1899/1901, to now.

The German Shepherd breed in particular has a rich and interesting history compared to a lot of other breeds.

We discuss:

  • how the breed founder selected the first dog for breeding
  • when the GSD was first officially registered
  • first exportation to America
  • introduction of the separate working and show lines in Germany
  • diversion and differences of the American and German show lines
  • introduction of the Czech working line
  • update and regulation of the American AKC and German/European SV breed standards
  • Where the breed is at in modern times – overall evolution between 1899 to now, and what breeding programs and breeders are currently doing

Let’s get into it…

Origin, History & Evolution Of The German Shepherd Lines: 1899 to Now

 

German Shepherd Breed Origins – 1899 to 1901

Max von Stephanitz, a German man, is credited with founding the German Shepherd herding dog breed.

Max was an ex German cavalry member, ex veterinary student, and ex member of a disbanded dog group who believed dog breeds should be standardised.

Max was passionate about dogs, and admired the native German herding sheepdogs at the time – but they were not standardised.

He couldn’t find the perfect dog, which to him, was a dog with intelligence, loyalty, a body structure for working, along with a focus on working ability.

He was looking for a dog with ideal physical and mental traits for working, that had a high level of obedience to it’s master. He believed appearance and show conformance should come second to this.

In 1899, Max saw a dog at a dog show that captivated him – not only was the dog visually attractive, but it possessed all the traits he was looking for in a working dog.

After purchasing the dog, and changing it’s name from Hektor Linksrhein to Horand von Grafrath, Max founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog – referred to as SV for short).

Using Horand as the stud, Max began systemised breeding, and the German Shepherd became officially registered as a breed in 1899.

It is interesting to note that although Horand was a stud, the German Shepherd was developed around the regional/native shepherd dogs in Germany – the Thuringian, the Wurttemberg sheep dog and the Swabian service dog.

You can read more about those regional shepherd dogs here.

 

First German Shepherd Exported to America – 1907

The first documented GSD was exported to Pennsylvania in the US in 1907.

Between 1907 and 1913, German Shepherds began winning top dog shows and competitions, and the first German Shepherd club was formed in America.

At this time, the difference in the appearances of the German and American based German Shepherds were not too significant.

 

WWI and WWII, German Shepherds Close To Dying Out In Germany, and Decrease In Popularity In America & Worldwide – 1914 to 1945

Germany and America both played key roles in both the World Wars.

On the German side, there was a lack of resources and food rationing in Germany during these times, particularly around WWII. This meant the breed was neglected to an extent, and came close to dying out.

In other parts of the world, the breed’s popularity died off, particularly in allied countries like America that were participating in the war.

Name association had a part to play in this – as allied countries wanted to disassociate themselves with anything bearing a German relation or name.

As an example, the dog and German Shepherd community in the UK started referring to German Shepherds as Alsatians, because of the negative connotations of using the German Shepherd name.

Many dog clubs also modified their names, and some their breed registers.

 

End Of WWII, East and West Germany, Birth of The Separate Working and Show Lines In Germany, Closed Government Regulated Breeding, Resurgence In Popularity of The Breed Worldwide – 1945

1945 signalled the end of WWII, and by 1949, East Germany (later known as the DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and West Germany were officially recognised as two separate states.

Politically, the states had different agendas, with East German being Soviet aligned and more a Marxist-Leninist socialist republic, while West Germany was a parliamentary democracy with a capitalist economic system.

What was left of the German Shepherd dog breed at this time was divided between East and West Germany.

Around this period of time, in 1945 which signalled the end of WWII, the German Shepherd breed regained popularity around the rest of the world, particularly in America.

This is when the American/Canadian show line of German Shepherds began to develop differences in their breeding – which made them noticeably different to the German lines – both in appearance, and other factors like health, working ability and temperament.

 

East German Working Line German Shepherds

The government took control of the German Shepherd breeding program in East Germany, and breeding was closed from outside influence and heavily regulated until the German border opened in 1989, and Germany was unified in 1990.

The East German government had one goal only in mind with their breeding program – to create dogs that were perfect physically (in body structure, athletically and free of health problems) and mentally (had to have a hard edge working ability) for working with the East German military.

The East German working bloodline was renowned for their athletic capability, mental and physical stamina.

They had to pass tests like scaling 1.5 meters and 1.8 meters straight walls, have close to perfect health, and maintain focus throughout long days and nights of patrolling, tracking, attacking and other military and squadron work.

A general profile of an East/DDR German Shepherd would have been:

  • dark pigmentation/saddle/coat – mostly black or sable with tinges of tan on the feet or on the legs or in the face/around the ears,
  • a large blocky head, and thicker paws
  • thick chests
  • hard edge working temperament, very athletic, intelligent and great stamina
  • thick bone structure  – more muscle and less fat than show lines
  • straighter backs and straighter bodies than any of the other lines
  • generally had to be aggressive

 

West German Working Line German Shepherds

West German working line GSDs are probably the most balanced of the lines between appearance, temperament and working ability, and are said to be the closest representation to the original German Shepherd bred by creator Max von Stephanitz.

They were bred to have a strong working drive and ability, but also a stable temperament both in the working field and away from it.

They do just as well in working and sports fields as they do as a companion and family pet.

Their bodies were bred to have more of a working structure than the West German show lines.

General Profile:

  • Balance between working drive and ability, and temperament
  • Coats and saddle colors are somewhere between West german show lines and East German working lines i.e. they are black and red or black and tan, but possess more black than West German Show lines
  • Angle of back and hindquarters is similar to West German show lines
  • More working drive and edge, and athleticism than West German show lines
  • Less hard edge and more stable temperament away from work than East German working lines

 

West German Show Line German Shepherds

West German working line GSDs are probably the most balanced of the lines between appearance, temperament and working ability, and are said to be the closest representation to the original German Shepherd bred by creator Max von Stephanitz.

They were bred to have a strong working drive and ability, but also a stable temperament both in the working field and away from it.

They do just as well in working and sports fields as they do as a companion and family pet.

Their bodies were bred to have more of a working structure than the West German show lines.

A general profile of an East/DDR German Shepherd would have been:

  • Balance between working drive and ability, and temperament
  • Coats and saddle colors are somewhere between West german show lines and East German working lines i.e. they are black and red or black and tan, but possess more black than West German Show lines
  • Angle of back and hindquarters is similar to West German show lines
  • More working drive and edge, and athleticism than West German show lines
  • Less hard edge and more stable temperament away from work than East German working lines

 

Czech Border Patrol, and Czech Working Lines – 1955

In 1955/56, the Kennel z Pohranicni Straze was formed to breed dogs for Czechoslovakian Army’s Pohranicni Straze (Border Patrol).

Dogs were obtained from former East Germany, as well as dogs from Czechoslovakia that showed a strong working ability.

They were used mainly for communist border patrol and to apprehend people trying to cross the border illegally.

The focus of the program was to strengthen the bones, maintain the dark pigmentation, maintain strong nerves and maintain a willingness to work in tracking, obedience and defence work.

These days the Czech working lines are still used by the Czech police, but are also available to dog owners as either working dogs that can compete for titles in events like IPO/Scutzhund, and also pets.

A general profile of the Czech working lines would have been:

  • dark pigmentation/saddle/coat – 60 to 70% black or sable with 30 to 40% tan/red
  • a large blocky head, and thicker paws
  • thick chests
  • hard edge working temperament, very athletic, intelligent and great stamina
  • thick bone structure  – more muscle and less fat than show lines
  • straighter backs like the East German working lines
  • More geared towards agility and protection for patrolling the border than East German lines

 

 

End Of Closed Regulated Breeding in East Germany – 1989/1990

The German border opened in 1989, and Germany was unified in 1990.

This meant Government regulated closed breeding came to an end, particularly in East Germany.

Unfortunately this meant many of the East German DDR dogs that were bred particularly for war were sold, put to sleep, and many abandoned.

A few private breeders continued the regulated breeding of this bloodline – but, this line is becoming increasingly rare, at least close their original form.

 

Updated Breeding Regulations & Updates To The Breed Standards – 1970’s to 1990’s

The 1970’s saw updates to both the American AKC German Shepherd breeding standard, and the European SV German Shepherd breeding standard.

The AKC German Shepherd Breed Standard was approved in 1978, and reformatted 1994. 

There were revisions to the SV framework in 1976, with further revisions and catalogued measures in 1991, 1997 and 2008.

The standards are written similarly. However the interpretations are different.

German showlines are bred for show conformance, but must pass health (hip and elbow certification), temperament and working ability (usually have to have a herding or IPO/Schutzhund title) tests.

The only real requirement for American showlines has been that both parents are purebreds registered with the AKC.

This has led to what some will tell you is the rise of ‘backyard breeders’ in the US – and as such, major health issues like hip and elbow dysplasia, and a varying temperaments. 

American show lines can have working ability, but an increasing number don’t.

Appearance wise – the American show lines have the most angled backs of all the bloodlines, and have an extremely angulated hindquarter.

In fact, if you look at the top line of the German Shepherd between 1899 and now – it has completely changed – particularly with the American German Shepherds.

They are also lighter pigments than the German bloodlines – being black and tan, or black and cream, compared to the black and red of the German show line, or the dark pigments of the East and West working lines.

A general profile of the American show line German Shepherds might be:

  • Mostly black and tan saddles/coats
  • Most angled backs overall of all the lines
  • Most angulation/drop in the hindquarters of all the lines
  • Slightly taller and longer than German lines
  • Head is more defined/narrow than German working lines
  • Heavier in weight with lighter bone structure than German lines
  • Less of a working drive and ability than working lines
  • Less athleticism than working lines

 

What Is Going On With German Shepherds In The 21st Century?

In the modern day, there are three real clear lines of German Shepherds:

  • American lines
  • German lines
  • Czech lines

There’s fewer regulated and professional breeders left who have knowledge of dog breeding and understand the history of the German Shepherd lines, plus dog genetics.

It’s interesting to note that some of the breeding programs for specific lines are even outright saying they are breeding dogs with slightly different focuses than the original lines.

The German and Czech breeding seems to be much better regulated than the American breeding – which really only places and emphasis on dogs with a show conforming body and movements (in particular a ‘flying gait’).

It’s also important to point out the difference between a knowledgeable German Shepherd breeder, and a backyard breeder (BYB).

Knowledgeable and ethical breeders are more likely to breed from a particular bloodline and ensure the dog meets health and temperament standards.

Backyard breeders are in it mainly for the money, and puppies from backyard breeders are a high chance to have hip and elbow dysplasia, other health problems, or serious temperament issues.

It’s important to note that an increasing number of German Shepherds are being admitted to shelters and rescue organisations, and unfortunately this means increasing number of German Shepherds are euthanised daily.

For prospective German Shepherd owners, you might want to strongly consider adopting, and if going through a breeder, stick to ethical, responsible and knowledgeable breeders that provide documentation on their experience and proof of good health (x rays, hip/elbow certifications) and temperaments of the parents and puppies.

You can check out some guides on breeders and adopting German Shepherds here:

 

Summary

The German Shepherd breed has evolved significantly from 1899 to now – with the diversification of the bloodlines, and the overall appearance of each bloodline differing from not only the 1899 GSDs, but from each other.

Find black and white pictures of both the first German Shepherds in 1899 and the original German Shepherds from each bloodline, and you can see for yourself.

 

Further Resources

North American and Canadian Show Line German Shepherds

West German Show Line German Shepherds

West German Working Line German Shepherds

East German/DDR Working Line German Shepherds

Czech Working Line German Shepherds

AKC Breed Standard

SV Breed Standard

Evolution of The German Shepherd Over The Years

How Breeding Has Changed The German Shepherd Breed

History of the Czech and East German Lines

 

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