Posts Tagged ‘German shepherd dog’

Sagan German shepherd

If you were to ask the average person how to classify a German shepherd in terms of dog breed taxonomy, most would say it’s guard dog, putting it somewhere with the Rottweiler and the boxer. Others might think it’s a primitive breed and might classify it with the Siberian husky and the malamute.

Those with a bit more dog knowledge would p lace it with the Belgian and Dutch shepherds.

Indeed, if you were going to ask me where I’d classify German shepherds ten years ago, I would have placed them as the German variant of what became distilled from a German-Belgian-Dutch prick-eared, black-masked herding dog landrace.

DNA studies have changed quite a bit of our understanding of dog breeds and their origins. In the initial attempts to classify dog breeds using only mitochondrial DNA found that German shepherds clustered with the mastiff breeds.

However, more recent genome-wide analyses have revealed something rather unusual. German shepherds are not directly related to the Belgian herding dogs at all. Instead,  one study found that they they are most closely related to the Berger Picard, the Chinook, and the Peruvian and Mexican hairless dogs.

Initial studies of regional Italian herding dogs using microsatellites suggested a close relationship between those dogs and border collies.  However, more recent genome-wide analyses have placed the Italian herders much closer to the German shepherd dog. Indeed, the German shepherd is very closely related to Italian prick-eared herding types, such as the Lupo Italiano and the Cane Paratore. These Italian herders and the Berger Picard all fit in a single clade with the German shepherd.

These findings upturn our assumption that the Belgian and Dutch shepherds are that closely related to German shepherds– at least in the bulk of their DNA.

However, the initial genome-wide study that found a relationship between the Berger Picard and the GSD also found that there was some GSD in the various Belgian herders, including the Bouvier des Flandres.

That means that at some point in the development of those breeds, German shepherds or proto-German shepherds were crossed into them. Crossing German shepherds with the Malinois isn’t an uncommon practice in some working dog circles even now. Apparently, this practice was done more frequently when the breeds were not so defined as they are now.

And it should be noted that only tiny ancestry blocks from German shepherds into the Belgian breeds. The bulk of their DNA derives from very distinct dog stocks. The Belgian herding breeds are more closely related to British herders and Western sighthounds than they are to German shepherds.

These genome-wide studies have lots of interesting findings, including that xoloitzcuintli and Peruvian hairless dogs are almost entirely derived from European herding dogs and that their sister breed is the Catahoula. Because of this relationship to these Latin American dogs, the Catahoula is probably more derived from Iberian herding breeds than from French ones. It is likely that the hairless dogs of the New World are the originators of their hairless trait, but because it is conferred via a semi-dominant allele it was easily transferred onto a population that consists of dog of European origin.

The relationship between German shepherds and Italian herders is easily understood. German shepherds are heavily derived from Bavarian and Swabian sheepdogs, and Bavarian shepherds were often grazing their sheep in the Alps during the summer, as were the Italian shepherds. The dogs exchanged genes in those high country meadows, and their pups went onto found populations on both sides of the mountains.

This story fits the genomic data, but it make the Berger Picard a bit of an anomaly. Picardy is in the northeastern France, a long distance from the Alps. It would make more sense for this breed to be more closely related to the Belgian shepherds and the Bouvier, but it is not. The North European Plain is easier for dogs and their genes to flow across, but the Berger Picard is very close the German shepherd breeds and its Italian cousins.

I do not have a good answer for why this anomaly exists. I don’t know much about the Berger Picard or its history. Maybe it became a very rare breed and was interbred heavily with German shepherds, or maybe the region is very connected through markets to the Alps or Bavaria or Northern Italy.

Maybe someone can answer these questions for me.  It seems weird that the Berger Picard is so closely related to dogs that have origins in Southern and Central Europe rather than adjacent Belgium.

The evolution of herding breeds is complex. Apparently, having a dog with a wolf-like phenotype is useful for herding flocks. The Belgian shepherds apparently evolved their type independently of the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Italian prick-eared herders. Perhaps sheep just respect that look more, and it has some advantage in their management.

As we have seen, dogs can evolve very similar physical traits in parallel with each other, which is why we must always be careful when creating an umbrella classification for different breeds.

Just because they look alike and have similar functions does not mean they are that closely related.


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DSC00203 edit

The German shepherd staple is the ball on the rope.

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sagan all serious

Sagan being all serious in a sit-stay.

A lot of controversies exist about German shepherds. Opinions about them are often fixed and diametrically opposed to each other. I used to be of the camp that the dog had seen its better days.

Since I’ve gotten into the breed, I’ve discovered there are lots of good ones being bred, but the community is so divided about what a “good one” is.

When a breed has as many applications as this one, it’s going to diverge a bit in its talents, and the strains are going to vary. I’d argue there are 6.5 different strains of German shepherd, and if you like the traits of one strain, you might not like the types of another

6.5 strains are:

  1. West German working line
  2. West German showline
  3. East German working line
  4. Czech/Slovak working lines (from the former Czechoslovakia), which are usually just called Czech lines. However, a lot of these also come from Slovakia, and let’s not erase the Slovak people and their dogs from our discussion.
  5. American showline
  6. 5 Pet lines, including white, blue, and liver color-bred lines, which I think of as a subset of pet lines but are kind of a line of their own.

The first one of these I ever had was a Czech monster that could never be trusted around other dogs. For me, that’s the deal-breaker. You want to fight other dogs for no good reason, you get your walking papers. I don’t have time for a dog that does that. I live in a house with whippets, which are thin-skinned, short-haired, and have almost no body fat.  A German shepherd can put some nice holes in one of those, and not only that, we use whippets to condition our dogs.  The whippet gets a toy, and the German shepherds try to herd the whippet. If you use your teeth on a whippet, the whippet has permission to correct you, and the German shepherd that I want won’t use that correction as an excuse to off the long-legged speedster.

So this means that most of the bite-sport and protection lines of this dog I simply have no time for. Dog aggression in some of these lines are a feature and not a bug. For those of you who remember Anka, that’s why she left.

All the other dogs I have are American showlines or American showlines crossed with West German showlines, except for Sagan, who is a 100 percent SV conformation dog.

Sagan’s sire can do the full IPO 3 routine:

I like this type of West German showline.  It’s like you’ve taken the things I like about working lines and American show lines and sort of combined them. Sagan is as focused as the best West German working lines, but he’s got a nice off switch.

We are going to breed these dogs, and we’re doing what our mentors have been doing.  We are going to breed American showlines to West German showlines.  The really stable German dogs complement the temperaments of the really stable American ones. Our goals are not to breed dogs that necessarily have that “speed skater” body that does well at specialties. Our goals are to produce dogs with good bone, good minds, beautiful coats, and superb temperaments.

I like the movement on well-gaited and balanced American show lines. I like it more than the West German gait, which isn’t as ostentatious.  The American gait can lead to a hypertype, which is often called a “hockwalker,” and you can produce them if you breed for too much hypertype. The German dogs help correct this tendency, while also giving you good bone and coat and improving the tan pigment, which is really red in those lines. It is also a bit easier to avoid DM with the West German lines than American showlines, because the American lines I like are full of DM, but conscientious breeders are using dogs like Sagan to breed away from it.

Last night, I watched a video from Butch Cappel’s dog training channel on Youtube.  Cappel is breeding a working German shepherd that has no undercoat called the Western shepherd, which fits in better with the hot climate of Texas. I really enjoy his insights in dog training and the breed.

His main focus is on producing not a bite sport dog but a true protection dog that can be used to guard properties and personnel.  He and I have entirely different goats for a German shepherd, and that’s okay.  It’s a free country, and it’s a breed with lots of applications.

In this video, he has a discussion with a gentleman who has been breeding working line dogs, and I don’t know what it is, but every working line person wants to crap on American dogs. He also says that show people only care about the conformation of the dog, which is not at all been my experience with the show dogs in the breed. Yes, there is a lot of money in showing these dogs, but everyone wants to produce a dog that is a sound mover with a sound temperament. It’s just not that easy.

What he says about the sloping back causing hip dysplasia is wrong.  What causes hip dysplasia is the formation of the hip joint, not the turn of stifle, which produces the rear angulation that causes the back to slope. A well-bred and balanced American show dog has a lot of power in its read. Quest can jump way over my head from a sitting position. He has the rear angulation, and his hips have been OFA prelimmed as good. 

He also seems to have missed that a lot of East German dogs, at least when they were first brought over here, were hip dysplasia city. They bred these dogs to be really large and intimidating, but they weren’t paying attention to how the joints were forming.

Further, my dogs fit my criteria for temperament. Quest has a good, solid temperament. You can turn him out with other males. If you tell him to leave a bitch season alone, he won’t even look at her.

However, if he feels that we’re in danger, he does have the protective side.  A few weeks ago, I was walking him on-leash in the neighborhood, and a Labrador with a bad attitude started staring me down from her lawn. I have known this dog for years. She has a screw loose, but she’s a wuss.

Quest didn’t do a damned thing but stare back at her. When she approached with aggressive intent, Quest roared, broke his heel position, and got between me and the Labrador. I was honestly not expecting that. The Labrador wasn’t expecting it either, and he went back to her house.

If some criminal wanted to do something to one of us, I’m sure he’d do much the same thing, and honestly, that’s all I need for deterrent.

If you need a dog for actual protection work, don’t get an American dog. I won’t argue with you on that. If want a family dog and a stock dog, they are pretty good at both, though. They are not harder to train than the working lines, though they can be a little harder to housebreak.  An American dog often isn’t fully housebroken until its 8 or 9 months old, but the other lines tend to get it way faster.

However, there are working line dogs and there are “working line” dogs. Because there is so much hysteria about “sloping backs” over here, there is a bit of a marketing con going on in the US. People will buy working lines because they are true to Stephanitz’s vision and are straight-backed, and there are plenty of unscrupulous people breeding them, often with no testing for ability or health.

And that’s where you get your dogs with nightmare temperaments.  Not all of these dogs are super aggressive, but a lot of them have to be almost abused to have any kind of impulse control. They can’t stop screaming when they are excited, and the level of dog aggression they have rival that of an Akita or pit bull.

Yes, there are dog aggressive showlines, and I know of lots of working line GSD that are good with other dogs.  But the showlines are easier to teach impulse control.

Plus, I’ll be dead honest with you. I don’t care about protection sports or breeding police, military, or protection sports. I might consider doing some lower level stuff, but it’s not that interesting to me.

I am more interested in stockdog stuff and AKC obedience. So wouldn’t I be better off with a border collie?

No. I tried those, and I cannot form a good working relationship with one.  They are smart, but they way more into their work than they are into you. A German shepherd says, “What can I do for you today, beloved master?” A border collie says “Let me work, bald monkey! Can’t stop working! Can’t stop working! Don’t make me quit!”

I am also interested in producing a dog that fits into modern society and can be a great pet with the kids. The dog snobs of the world don’t much like this concept, which is why in some dog circles, you’re not a real dog person until you get your first KNPV Malinois.

I think there is a place for a German shepherd as an active pet. It’s one you can do things with. It will like your kids. It will roar bark when someone come sneaking around your property. It will play with your other dogs.

If you want a dog that is good for personal defense or want to do bite sports, absolutely get the dog that fits your needs. But make sure you get it from someone who knows what they are doing and not someone who is selling you dark sables with level backs.

And the same goes for any of these lines. Don’t get any showline dog unless you see the health testing on the parents or have an idea of what their temperaments are like. A lot of these American dogs are really afraid of things, and it’s one reason to do the outcross to the German showlines.  I’d rather not breed to a dog that is afraid of its own shadow, just because it’s a showline.

Anya, Quest’s late breeder and our dearest friend in the breed, once said, “Good dogs exist in all lines of this breed.”

I think we need to have this attitude rather than this attitude that give you permission to crap on other strains because they aren’t what you are looking for. I am impressed by really well-trained protection and bite sport dogs. I am also impressed by dogs that can do the full tending HGH test with a massive flock of sheep. And I am also impressed by the American dog that seems to float as it trots around the ring.

People need to relax a bit. Drop your insecurities. These dogs are awesome because they can bred and trained to fit what you need.

I don’t feel threatened by the existence of working line GSD. I don’t know why they feel so threatened by the existence of the show dogs. Indeed, much of our misunderstandings come from not asking and not listening, and it seems that so much of the subcultures around this breed is about not wanting to know anything about what the other people do or why they do it.

I suppose I liked eventually learning that the show dogs were not crippled freaks, and I have since come to embrace them.

It means that I had to eat a lot of crow.

It tastes better than you think.


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sagan focus

That puppy coat is gone, and we now have tarantula legs and what looks like a saddle marking on the back.

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This is Sagan as a baby back in West Virginia.

sagan baby ii

sagan baby



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It is unusual to find professional historians who have published research on dog breed histories.  I have written about Edmund Russell’s Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200–1900, which is an environmental history of the greyhound and the British sighthound cultures. But I have found very few other researchers who have looked carefully at other breeds.

I did discover that a very good scholarly article has been published about German shepherds. Edward Tenner has published his remarkable piece in Raritan. It is entitled “Constructing the German Shepherd Dog,” and it follows the story of how the breed was developed and then promoted internationally.

Tenner posits his work on this thesis: 

Dog breeding has been largely the province of enthusiasts rather than geneticists or animal behaviorists, and therefore motivated less by animal health and fitness. Dogs are often unwitting bearers of cultural meaning; they can serve democratic, aristocratic, and fascistic purposes. The values of breeders, the ambitions of organizational entrepreneurs, the strategies of military and police officials, the whims of socialites, and even the genres of media producers play a part. One of the most striking results of these interactions is the German Shepherd Dog, whose early career as a breed was entangled with German nationalism and biological racism but who has since become, both as a working and a household dog, one of the world’s most popular and ironically cosmopolitan companion animals.

The story begins with the German Empire in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.  The German nation is new, constructed from ancient regions that had maintained a certain amount of autonomy for centuries. Germany was at the cusp of becoming a major player on the world stage.  At the time, the British Empire was the main power, but the Germans were interested in taking British ideas and making them work in Germany.

The new German nationalism adopted the memes of breed improvement the British, but then turned them onto the native breeds of Germany. The collie had been renowned for  its service as a sheepdog and then utilitarian working animal and family pet.

Sheep husbandry in Germany had a very different history from the British Isles.  In German culture, shepherds had been seen as the itinerant vagabonds of agriculture. They were landless and mobile, always moving their flocks to better grazing. This status changed a bit, when various German prince imported merinos to improve their wool-stock, and for much of the nineteenth century, shepherds achieved higher status in the society. 

However, the newly unified German Empire saw a great decline in wool production in the final decades of the nineteenth century.  Germany had produced many good sheepdogs, but if they were to be preserved in the way the collie had been, drastic measures were going to be taken.

Tenner posits that the German dog fancy had three basic contingents:  one that was focused on promoting Great Danes and hunting dogs, another that was interested in promoting English style urban show dogs, and one that was a “socially mixed experiment” that was about improving working breeds for the police and for the pet market. German shepherds obviously derive from the final faction.

Great Danes were considered the first dogs of new German Empire. Bismarck kept at least one with him at all times, and virtually all aristocrats were either keeping them or breeding them.  The breed had its origins in the hunting boar and brown bear, but by that late date, they were mostly being promoted as estate guardians in much the same way mastiffs were in England. In the early days of the German dog fancy, the native sheepdogs were an after thought.  Eyes were strongly drawn to the Doggen.

However, by those final decades of the nineteenth century, the German nation had gone crazy with collies, and it had also found itself in a naval cold war-style competition with the British Empire.  Airedales started to become seen as useful police and military working dogs, and the nation began to feel that it could best the British with its native dogs.  And these nationalist fanciers looked towards the sheepdogs for that answer.

The beginnings of the standardization of German sheepdogs focused heavily upon those that possessed a wolf-like phenotype.  The various regional German sheepdogs have traits that point to some ancestry with poodles, schnauzers, and even Australian shepherds. However, prick-eared dogs were found in several areas of the country, and because the ancient German culture had historically held wolves as totemic animals, there was a desire to focus on this type of dog.

Initially, two basic strains came to the fore. 

One was the Thuringian sheepdog. Thuringia, in east-central Germany, had a declining wool industry, and out of work sheepdogs were easily procured.  These dogs were most often sable, but occasionally, they came in white.  These dogs were mostly bred for their looks, and it was not unusual for these dogs to be bred with wolves.

Tenner writes of one dog named Phylax that was a wolfdog:

In an 1895 contest, a judge described the society’s prize animal, Phylax von Eulau, as a ‘seductively beautiful, purely wolf-colored, high-stepping, short-backed, very large wolf mix (Wolfsbastard), which would do ten times more credit to a menagerie with its wild facial expression, hard movement, and wild behavior, than it could ever perform working behind a herd of sheep.’

The fact that many Thuringian sheepdog breeders were crossing these dogs with wolves suggests that a large portion were not really all that interested in producing a sheepdog. They were into producing a late nineteenth century version of the German wolf totem.

Phylax the wolfdog had been exhibited as part of an organization called the Phylax Society. It was founded to turn the German sheepdogs into a useful working dog. This society, founded in 1891, was full of internecine conflicts that it eventually dissipated by 1897.   

In 1898, a German cavalry captain named Max von Stephanitz retired his post and devoted the rest of his life to dog breeding.  He had seen what happened to the Phylax society, and he decided to create another organization that would eventually go on to standardize the German shepherd dog. His organization, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), still exists today.

Stephanitz was a German nationalist. He was an anti-Semite. He was a scientific racist.  He was all the things you would imagine a former German military officer from the nineteenth century to be like. 

He also knew a lot about scientific animal breeding. He had been stationed at the Veterinary College in Berlin, and because horses were such a vital part of military operations, it would make sense that units of cavalry would be stationed at veterinary schools.  Veterinary medicine was mostly concerned with horses in those days, because horses were the main form of transport for a huge part of society. 

So when Stephanitz retired and bought an estate near Grafrath in Bavaria, he had ideas about what selective breeding could produce.

He also settled in area with active sheep production, and there were still plenty of working sheepdogs in Bavaria and Württemberg. It was here that another variety of wolf-like sheepdog could be found. It was larger and longer-haired. It possessed a more docile nature, and it came in the black-and-tan variants and recessive black. 

The origin of the German shepherd dog as we know it today came from breeding a few Thuringian sheepdogs, most notably Hektor Linksrhein/Horand von Grafrath, to the Württemberg dogs. There was extensive inbreeding to refine the type. However, the SV was open to people of all economic stations, and the registry would take in any dog that was useful.  So unlike other breed societies, which generally included only the most wealthy in society,  the development of the German shepherd dog as a bred became a popular activity rather than an elite one.

Stephanitz was of the view that this sheepdog should be promoted as a working dog, but with sheepdog work declining all over Germany, he began to promote it to police departments as working police dog. His constant promotion eventually succeeded, but he had a very hard time getting the German army to forsake its Airedales, which they eventually did. 

By 1914, the Kriminalpolizei line had been established in Wiesbaden, and the dog began to be thought of as a police dog. Though some experts thought the Doberman pinscher was going to be the police dog of the future, the SV just had more people that were dedicated to the task. 

And when World War I began, the Germans saw how useful military dogs were for the British that they began to use German shepherds as their sentry and patrol dogs.  So they went from being a type of dog that was only known in a few German regions 1899 to becoming celebrated war dogs by 1915.

During the war, Americans and the British came to know these dogs, as did the Russians. The advent of silent film created the American film stars known as Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin.

Demand for these dogs became feverish in America in the 1920s, and the poverty-stricken Germans sold thousands of these dogs to willing American buyers. Geraldine Dodge became a major promoter of the breed, and she even had Stephanitz come to judge the breed at her Morris and Essex show in 1930.

Stephanitz believed Jews had an inherent aversion to dogs, unlike the Germanic man, who has an inherited affinity for them. He didn’t forbid Jews from owning his dogs, but he thought the only reason a Jew would ever be in purebred dogs is to make money. The Nazi didn’t much care for his leadership of the SV, and they drove him from the organization. They merged it with a National Socialist animal breeding organization, and the SV itself was given over to a chicken breeder.

He had done so much to promote his dogs, though, that when the Second World War came, they fought on all sides of the conflict. The British Empire, the Americans, and the Soviets all fought with German shepherds against the Axis Powers and their dogs.

The irony of all this entire story is that this breed was created with nationalist aims, but it wound up becoming the most important working breed of dog for the twentieth century. 

Tenner writes:

The Shepherd’s success is paradoxical. It was, as the wildlife biologist Glenn Radde has pointed out, the embodiment of modernity vis-à-vis the Great Danes of the landed nobility, yet it soon became a hallowed tradition. Originally bred for working qualities, it attracted some enthusiasts more concerned about appearance than health and soundness. Inspired in part by ethnocentrism and racism, it appealed across borders and ethnic lines as few other breeds have. Volunteered by their owners for German victory, Shepherds were spread by the stunning defeat of the Treaty of Versailles. Most of all, the triumph of the German Shepherd Dog shows how much of our everyday world depends on unpredictable interactions between the unforeseen and the unintentional. We can only speculate about what genetic modifications, if adopted widely, will bring.

This is the story of a plowshare being turned into a sword, but Tenner points out that the sword is being refashioned into a plowshare:

In an age of mass customization, the attraction of standards has faded, or, rather, there are many more to choose from. For example, law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States prefer Belgian Malinois to Shepherds for their allegedly keener sense of smell and sharper temperament. Some Shepherd owners and trainers pay premiums for dogs bred to the more traditional standards of the former German Democratic Republic and pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. Yet friendliness toward strangers and other dogs, a taboo for von Stephanitz and the Nazi regime, is now seen more positively by many owners with families. And this trend in turn has encouraged so-called designer dogs with parents from what the buyers hope are two complementary purebred lines — the Golden Shepherd, the Shepadoodle, the Shug, and the Shollie.

So yes, law enforcement and the military still use the German shepherd, but it is now being brought more and more into civilian life as a family dog. This will still be a working breed, but it will be more adaptable, as it always has been, to the various new tasks that lie before it.

The Malinois and the Dutch shepherd might be the more impressive police and military dog, but the German shepherd will have the edge when it comes to adaptability for new tasks. The task of family guard dog and general homestead dog are ones that it will serve with the highest distinction.

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sagan soulful

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This is the most amazing dog I’ve ever worked with.

sagan down stayHe’s seven months old and already takes direction like an adult.

I’d like him to live to be 25. Is that possible?


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Sagan and Quest

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

–AKC breed standard for the German shepherd dog.


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good boy

The May sun really brings out that German red coloration. He’s not as dark red as some of them are.

He has the perfect German shepherd temperament. Trainable, smart, very affectionate, and very stable.

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