The German Shepherd Dog
Many breeds of dog become popular because they have one or two distinct characteristics that people admire and appreciate. But what perhaps sets the German Shepherd apart from other popular breeds is the unique constellation of attributes that these dogs possess. Loyal, loving, tranquil, intelligent, athletic, eager to learn, cheerful, serious, strong, handsome, dignified – these adjectives can all legitimately be used to define the personality of the highly respected and beloved German Shepherd (GSD).
The Basic Facts
Also known as the Alsatian, the German Shepherd is a mid-to-large sized dog, generally reaching 75 – 80 lbs. while measuring 24 inches end to end when fully grown. They can live for up to 16 years, and come in three different varieties: rough-coated, long-rough coated and long-haired. They are known for their black and tan color, which varies in proportion and pattern somewhat from dog to dog. Other colors include black and white (more silvery), all white and like Johnny Cash they can also come all in black.
Despite their extraordinary popularity, the German Shepherd is actually a rather young breed. Herding dogs in the German provinces of Wurtemberg, Thuringia and Bavaria were interbred in the attempt to produce a super working dog and the first German Shepherd to emerge from this experiment was registered by one Max von Stephanitz in Germany in 1899. The official arrival of the German Shepherd in America came in 1907, but it was really World War I and its aftermath that was responsible for the breed becoming a popular fixture on these distant shores. GSDs are indeed essentially a working dog and the German Army made use of them for military purposes during the Great War. American soldiers discovered the many virtues of this dog during their time on the European continent and many of them brought German Shepherds back with them when they returned home at the end of the conflict.
A Star is Born
While many German Shepherds arrived in the United States at the end of the War, it was one canine migrant in particular that was destined to have the greatest effect on the breed’s fortunes in this country. In September 1918, US forces in France came across the remains of a German war dog kennel that had been destroyed in a bombing raid. The only survivors were one fortunate German Shepherd female and her five newborn puppies. All were adopted by American soldiers, including two puppies who were taken in by a corporal named Lee Duncan. Duncan trained the two young German Shepherds, who he named Nanette and Rin Tin Tin, based on the model set by the German Army and both dogs served with distinction until the end of the War.
Lee Duncan took Rin Tin Tin and Nanette with him back to Los Angeles after the war, but unfortunately Nanette became ill and soon passed away. While performing at a dog show in 1922, Rin Tin Tin was spotted by a motion picture photographer who filmed the trained German Shepherd in action and later sold his recording to a motion picture studio for $350. Duncan then became obsessed with getting Rin Tin Tin into moving pictures, and it was a chance meeting on the street with a film crew shooting on location that led to the dog being included in a Warner Brothers film called Man from Hells River. The movie turned into a hit, and a star was born.
Rin Tin Tin became one of the world’s most famous movie stars, delighting audiences with tricks and derring-do in 26 films before passing away in 1932. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin received over 10,000 fan letters a year – although those who knew him best claimed that fame never went to his head. Rin Tin Tin IV and V starred in their own television show in the 1950s and Rin Tin Tin XI, born in 2009, is performing in shows still today. There is no doubt that the fame and success of Rin Tin Tin, in his original incarnation, was a big reason why German Shepherds rose in popularity so quickly after their arrival on the shores of America.
German Shepherd Heroes
German Shepherds, because of their trainability, intelligence, and protective instincts, have achieved great success as police dogs, guard dogs and as Seeing Eye dogs for the blind. Bravery and reliability in the face of trouble, danger and conflict are what attracted the military to the breed originally, and these same traits have allowed German Shepherds to thrive in various protective roles. At the same time, these dogs have also become popular household pets, as their intelligence and down-to-earth nature make them ideal companions for people who respect a dog that combines a sense of dignity with unwavering loyalty.
There have been a number of German Shepherds who have gained recognition for performing remarkable and even heroic deeds, all in the name of protecting or saving human beings in distress or danger.
Some of the famous and accomplished German Shepherds from history include:
- Britt – this US Army dog served admirably in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan detecting hidden weapons caches and bombs with an almost supernatural efficiency. Britt received nine awards for achievement and bravery, and when he passed away in 2008 he was given a military funeral with full honors before being buried at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.
- Hustler – this Alberta dog saved his owner’s life in 1992 by courageously fighting off coyotes attempting to attack her while she lay helpless following a horse riding accident.
- Nellie – in 1994, this Ontario Shepherd traveled three kilometers to his home to fetch help for his owner, Ken Emerson, who was trapped beneath an overturned tractor.
- Pascha – this highly-accomplished rescue dog helped save lives at many diverse locations including Oklahoma City following the bombing of the Federal Building; Kobe, Japan following a devastating earthquake and later in Panama City, Florida after Hurricane Opal.
- New Jersey Task Force One – this team of rescue dogs tirelessly searched through the debris of the wrecked World Trade Center on 9/11, relentlessly searching for survivors despite suffering burned and cut paws and other injuries and hardships.
The Perfect Dog for You?
Whether sniffing out hidden caches of drugs as police dogs, protecting businesses as fearless guard dogs, safely guiding sightless people through the streets of traffic-infested cities or simply providing outstanding companionship as treasured household pets, German Shepherds have earned their place as one of the most popular breeds of dogs. If you are looking for an animal companion that will delight you with his or her affectionate nature while surprising you every day with amazing feats of intelligence, then you might want to strongly consider getting a German Shepherd.