Constructing the German Shepherd Dog

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The German Shepherd Dog, one of the most popular breeds of domestic animal, was created between the 1890s and World War I by a circle of enthusiasts in Imperial Germany. The GSD movement was a consciously nationalist program of blending herding breeds from Central Europe to create a single ideal embodying what the founders considered German virtues of intelligence, work, and loyalty. The leading breeder and still definitive breed historian, Max von Stephanitz, was a tireless organizer skilled in using the new German civil code and the rail and postal networks to increase membership of the Shepherd Dog Society (SV) and maintain unity when other breed associations had splintered. In the Great War, the GSD became the favorite breed of the Reichswehr. Defeat actually helped expand the breed's popularity thanks to German-born canine film stars like Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin. Beginning in the 1920s the breed became a global icon, which it remains. Ironically the Nazi regime pushed von Stephanitz out of his leadership role despite his ardent racism and support for eugenics. The breed's versatility has since made it a global brand, its ideological origins almost forgotten.
Constructing the German Shepherd Dog
Dogs read the world through their noses and write
their history in urine.
J. R. Ackerley
Human history and dog history have been inextricable for thou-
sands of years, but human meddling with canine natural selection has
been accelerating. Already in his 1997 book Imagined Worlds, the
physicist Freeman Dyson speculated that the electronic design of
organisms may be the dominant technology of the twenty-first cen-
tury and pointed to the ethical issues that would arise if a child could
order, through Computer-Assisted Selection/Computer-Assisted Re-
production (CAS/CAR), a dog with multicolored spots that crows like
a rooster. Dyson’s prediction envisions a dramatic departure from dog-
breeding practices of the past, but there are two continuities: dog
breeding, especially of this push-button variety, continues to raise
ethical questions; and the development of new varieties, together
with unforeseen political and technological changes, leads in the long
run to unintended positive and negative consequences.
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 pur-
poses. The values of breeders, the ambitions of organizational entre-
preneurs, 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.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Tenner
edward tenner u 91
The breed as we know it emerged from diverse and relatively
obscure provincial origins around the turn of the twentieth century.
While the archives of the dominant breed organization, the Verein für
deutsche Schäferhunde (SV) in Augsburg, do not appear to have been
used widely by outside scholars, and some important early publications
are rare even in Germany, the men and women who shaped the Ger-
man Shepherd Dog were proud of their work and left ample records.
(Many though not all punctilious fanciers refer either to German Shep-
herd Dogs or to Shepherds rather than to German Shepherds; “Dog”
is an official part of the breed’s name.)
The Shepherd was formed by a series of groups: working shep-
herds, elite dog fanciers and breeders, police officials, public and pri-
vate guide-dog organizations, filmmakers of the silent era, and a cadre
of amateur and professional organizers and journalists. “There are
wolves, dogs, and German Shepherd Dogs,” according to a breeders’
aphorism from the early twentieth century. Even today, many breed-
ers and handlers of other varieties believe the Shepherd fancy follows
its own rules. For example, Shepherd owners consider the diameter of
the standard American Kennel Club ring inadequate for displaying the
breed’s prized fluid trotting gait. And the numbers support the breed’s
popularity: between 1996 and 2016, the Shepherd moved from third
to second place in American Kennel Club registrations. It remains the
overwhelming choice of German police and military authorities, and
a Shepherd stars in the popular German-Austrian television detective
series Kommissar Rex. Indeed, in Germany the Shepherd has become
a ubiquitous living monument and export object, and the inspiration
for the ongoing manufacture of national dogs, not least the Canaan
Dog of Israel.
It is not only the fluid motion of the Shepherd that makes it
unusual but also its versatility as a working dog and its potential to
form strong bonds with men and women of the most diverse back-
grounds. Malcolm B. Willis, a geneticist and breeder and the leading
academic student of the Shepherd, has remarked, “They cannot track
as well as Bloodhounds or work sheep as superbly as Border Collies
or guard as aggressively as some Dobermanns but on all-round merit
92 u raritan
there is no equal to a well-trained German Shepherd.” The American
writer J. Allen Boone recalled his companion, the early Shepherd film
star Strongheart, for “goodness. . .loyalty. . .understanding. . .enthusi-
asm. . .fidelity. . .devotion. . . sincerity . . .nobility . . .affection. . . intel-
ligence. . . honesty,” and thanked him for teaching “new meanings of
happiness. . . of devotion. . .of honor. . .of individuality. . . of loyal-
ty. . . of sincerity. . .of life. . .of God.” J. R. Ackerley said of his unruly
bitch Tulip that “she repudiated the human race altogether— that is
the remainder of it. I could do with her whatever I wishedexcept
stop her barking at other people.” And the Princeton philosopher
George Pitcher wrote of the Shepherd that he and his housemate
adopted that she was “a mother figure. . . .[W]e felt as long as she was
there, we were in some inexplicable way, if not exactly safe from all
harm, then at least watched over.
Shepherds have become one of the most international of dogs,
favored not only in Europe and North America but in South America,
Australia, and South and East Asia. And while champion dogs have
changed hands for huge sums, Shepherds have, if only by force of num-
bers, resisted the socioeconomic stereotyping that marks some other
breeds. For example, they were the favorite of Geraldine Rockefeller
Dodge, the philanthropist, famous for her luxurious kennels and the
sumptuous Morris and Essex shows. (She was said to have welcomed
up to two dozen of her Shepherds to share her mansion and even her
bed.) But Ackerley’s Tulip was adopted, as his biographer revealed,
from the home of his working-class male lover serving a prison sen-
tence for burglary. And on a German trip in the late 199 0s, I saw a
beautiful Shepherd protecting a flock of street people in the Stuttgart
public gardens.
This versatile breed came into its own in only fifteen years,
between the establishment of the SV in 189 9 and the outbreak of the
First World War, though there were centuries of dog breeding by shep-
herds and at least one elite breed society before Rittmeister (Cavalry
Captain) Max von Stephanitz (1864–1936) and his associates began
their program. Von Stephanitz’s Der deutsche Schäferhund in Wort
und Bild, published by the SV itself, was issued in a 776-page sixth
edward tenner u 93
edition in 1921 and, known simply as Wor tbild, remains a standard
reference for the breed. By the outbreak of the First World War, both
the successes of the movement and its paradoxes were evident, and
they became even more so in the interwar years. Germany’s defeat
did more to spread the Shepherd internationally than the Reich’s rise
had ever done.
u u u
Little in the breed’s early history predicted its present ubiquity.
Well into the nineteenth century, working dogs in Germany were of
minor interest to genteel owners, who still used categories established
in the sixteenth century, when Dr. John Caius in England had dis-
tinguished “generous” dogs from “rustic” ones. Rustic dogs included
herding and guarding breeds, a not terribly interesting category nev-
ertheless superior to the “degenerate” breeds performing the most
menial tasks like turning spits in kitchens. A canine hierarchy was thus
mapped to the human social order, with hounds, setters, spaniels, and
other hunting breeds for men (and ornamental ones for women) at the
top and tinkers’ curs and turnspits beneath.
Considering the elite background of the SV’s founders, the breed’s
origins were distinctly humble. Shepherds in Europe, and especially
in the German principalities, were marginal men and thus unlikely
selectors of a future superbreed. While some communal shepherds
returned each evening, many lived outside the village and often had
to remain out of touch with it for weeks. They customarily skinned not
only dead sheep but also other animals and often intermarried with
skinners, forming a kind of extended caste. “Schäfer und Schinder sind
Geschwisterskinder” (These ones herd sheep, those ones skin, they’re
all kin) was a common rural proverb, reflecting a prejudice against
both groups. In the popular mind of early modern Central Europe,
shepherds were healers and weather prophets, but also could be sor-
cerers, according to the massive folklore dictionary Handwörterbuch
des deutschen Aberglaubens, published in the early twentieth century.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some of
this stigma was lifted, and German sheepherders enjoyed what later
seemed a golden age, improving their status and probably (though this
is hard to prove) allowing them to select stronger and healthier dogs
for breeding to their own stock. During the Enlightenment, German
princes and their improvement-minded officials began to import and
interbreed merino sheep— their lightweight fleece was the origi-
nal miracle fabricwith local varieties that produced coarser wool.
At least from 1800 to around 1860, the German sheep population
increased steadily: from 16.2 million at the turn of the century to 28
million in 1861. The number of herding dogs probably grew signifi-
cantly if not proportionately. But during the later nineteenth century,
sheep raising declined. For the formation of the German Shepherd
Dog, it may have been crucial that urban elite interest in the breed
was growing during the very decades when the sheep population was
plummeting — even while other livestock, such as horses, were gaining
in numbers.
Fig. 1. “Smooth Coated Shepherd Dog, ‘Thuringian Type,’”
from Max von Stephanitz, Der deutsche Schäferhund
in Wort und Bild (6th edition, 1921), p. 120
German pedigreed dog breeders followed many of the patterns
described by the historian Harriet Ritvo in her study of English animal
culture: orientation toward appearance, novelty, and fashion rather
than structural soundness or behavior. Indeed, German fanciers con-
sciously copied English practices and imported English and Scottish
breeds, partly out of dynastic attachments of the North German aris-
tocracy dating from Hanoverian days, but mainly because the English
were established masters of the dog show. E. von Otto, a veteran of
the early Shepherd movement, acknowledged in his 1925 book on the
breed, “Dog sport came to us from England, where it had already
been cultivated for about twenty years. . . .With the dog shows [of
the 1880s], accomplished English exhibition dogs arrived, whose pure-
bred appearance and balanced forms, pedigreed breeding and foreign
origin, together with their lively behavior in the ring, made a powerful
Fig. 2. “Smooth Coated Shepherd Dog, ‘Württemberg Type,’”
from Max von Stephanitz, Der deutsche Schäferhund
in Wort und Bild (6th edition, 1921), p. 121
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From their admiration of English dogs, German fanciers in the
late nineteenth century turned to local breeds. They do not seem to
have made as sharp a distinction between sporting and nonsporting
breeds, or between rural gentry and ambitious urban fanciers, as
Ritvo attributes to British breeders and owners. The classic dog of the
landed nobility was in fact a guarding rather than a hunting breed,
the Deutsche Doggeknown in England as the Great Dane even
before the rise of Germanophobia. A number of other indigenous dogs
seemed better candidates for development than the Shepherd. The
earliest society to promote a local breed was the Teckelgesellschaft
(Dachsund Society) of 1888, and this courageous but sometimes de-
structive badger hound became a popular companion in Germany and
abroad. Dog-breeding enthusiasm was high among the North German
nobility, but also in the lowest strata of the petty bourgeoisie; the tax
collector and policeman Louis Dobermann (1823–1894) of Apolda in
Thuringia was only one of a number of backyard breeders who scouted
the local dog fair for material. Dobermann’s colleagues and successors
made up a network, at first without formal organization or stud book,
that produced fearsomely aggressive terriers (pinscher) for a growing
In the 188 0s and early 1890s, then, German dog breeding
had three divisions: a trade in hunting dogs, Great Danes, and oth-
er rural breeds; an urban fancy devoted to English-style show dogs
(Luxushunde); and a socially mixed world of experiment with terriers
and other working breeds, serving city fanciers as well as policemen and
watchmen and aspiring to the luxury market. Shepherd dogs seem to
have been part of this third sector, and there were two main varieties,
according to von Stephanitz: the shepherd dogs of Thuringia (fig. 1)—
smallish, short-haired, gray, curling-tailed, prick-eared, and aggressive
or “sharp” (scharf); and the longer-haired, larger, often floppy-eared,
straight-tailed, more even-tempered Shepherd of Württemberg (fig.
2), still a major (though declining) sheep-raising area. (It is not clear
that these varieties were as distinct as von Stephanitz and other fanci-
ers thought: his photograph of the Thuringian shows a straight rather
edward tenner u 97
than a curling tail, and in the photograph of the Württemberg variety,
the coat does not appear long as described.)
Upper-class interest in the Shepherd began around 1882, when
one Jägermeister Freiherr von Knigge of Beyerode exhibited two dogs
at a show in Hanover. But there seems to have been no breed orga-
nization for the rest for the decade. Then in 1891 a group of fanciers
formed a club called “Phylax, Society for Breeding German Shepherd
Dogs and Spitzes,” which met for the first time in Berlin to consid-
er establishing breed standards and shows. Soon a stud book was
established, and in 1893 the first field trials were organized; Phylax
was devoted to the Thuringian type, but soon dog shows in south-
ern Germany introduced the Württemberg type. 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 move-
ments, and wild behavior, than it could ever perform working behind a
herd of sheep.” By 1897 both Phylaxes, the society and the dog, moved
from Berlin to Apolda. The society faded from notice, if it did not
formally dissolve, but breeders and journalists in the specialty press
continued to have high hopes for the Shepherd.
Thus by the late 1890s the German Shepherd Dog seemed to be
on its way to consolidation into Thuringian and Württemberg types.
But at this point a new group of fanciers and breeders appeared and
transformed a divided hobby into an organized national movement
with a coherent if inconsistently followed ideology.
u u u
We know comparatively little about the leaders of the SV, which
was incorporated on 22 April 189 9 with headquarters in Munich. The
founders came from the upper middle class: three sheep masters, two
factory owners, an architect, a mayor, a judge, and an innkeeper. While
there were no active military officers, a number of the leaders, espe-
cially Arthur Meyer of Stuttgart (the first secretary) and E. von Otto
(a sporting magazine publisher and writer), had served together in the
same Guards regiment. Meyer and von Stephanitz had been visiting
herding competitions all over Germanyalready a sign of widespread
interest— and resolved to start a new society upon finding a dog orig-
inally named Hektor Linksrhein at a national dog show in Karlsruhe
(fig. 3). Hektor, renamed Horand von Grafrath, was entered as the
first dog in the SV pedigree book. Von Stephanitz and his associates
singled out this dog not so much for appearance as for performance
and temperament: intelligence, strength, obedience, and loyalty, traits
that became the foundation of the German Shepherd Dog movement.
Max von Stephanitz’s family seems not to have been from the
old landed or military aristocracy. His father was a rich Dresden rent-
ier, a cultivated man who studied chemistry as a hobby. The family
owned no dog but traveled around Europe with a parrot before the
father’s death. As a gymnasium student with this cosmopolitan back-
ground, von Stephanitz had won a prize for a French oration he was
said to have delivered with native fluency. Wishing to become a gentle-
man farmer, he nevertheless entered the officer corps at his mother’s
Fig. 3. “Hektor Linksrhein, known as Horand von Grafrath, SZ1
[first in the breed register],” from Max von Stephanitz, Der deutsche
Schäferhund in Wort und Bild (6th edition, 1921), p. 131
edward tenner u 99
urging. He was at one time posted to the Veterinary College in Berlin,
though he took no degree, and his course of study there is not clear. As
a young officer he seems to have enjoyed the equestrian life with dogs
of various breeds, but while on maneuvers in the early 1890s he saw
a dog herding sheep apparently without direction and was fascinated,
though not to the point of buying one. In 1898 he was promoted to
captain but resigned from the service for personal reasons and soon
thereafter bought an estate in Grafrath, Upper Bavaria, a small town
only about an hour by rail from Munich.
Von Stephanitz was not a great breeder, nor an influential train-
er, nor an original contributor to the study of dog health or behavior.
This city youth turned horseman and then country squire blossomed
instead as a tireless publicist and proselytizer, and (within dog-breed-
ing circles) a master organizer and politician. The history of dog
breeding is fraught with internecine rivalry and division. For example,
dachshund fanciers were divided between urban and hunting factions,
and before amalgamation in 1921 there had been as many as three
rival Rottweiler societies. What makes the history of the German
Shepherd Dog different is the discipline and the regulated goals of
the breeders. Von Stephanitz created a uniform breed standard for the
Shepherd that allowed for a range of physical appearance while insist-
ing on working qualities such as herding, hunting, and guarding skills.
In the 1921 Wortbild, with memories of war and its intense
Anglophobia still vivid, von Stephanitz attacked the English dog fancy
and its violations of structural soundness and working character in not
only the bulldog, but also the Old English Sheepdog. Von Stephanitz
saw the originally slimmer working breed transformed by fanciers into
an unnatural, distorted creature, “a dancing ball of hair” that he did
not find lovable. In fact an important reason for the Shepherd’s early
popularity was the fashion for its British counterpart, the rough collie.
The collie had been bred for different terrain, without the Shepherd’s
crop-protecting behavior, but above all it had been selected for beauty
of form, with a slender head and rich coat that reduced its value for
herding and protection. With the patronage of Queen Victoria her-
self, the collie had transformed from a working dog to the ultimate
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luxury dog. In Edwardian England one collie sold for £1,500 at a time
when the best gun dogs fetched no more than 200 to 300 guineas. By
190 8 Germany had two rival collie clubs, and champions were worth
as much as 20,000 marks. In fact, the collie fancy apparently remained
sufficiently strong in Germany that the 1938 edition of the Meyers
Lexikon encyclopedia, after duly noting the Shepherd’s “pure German
descent and pure German breeding,” went on to acknowledge that
“[c]ollies are more elegant.”
Aware and resentful of the collie’s prestige among German dog
lovers, Von Stephanitz and his circle were constructing an alternative
dog suitable for elite male owners and reflecting the values of bour-
geois men who espoused hierarchical and military values. They were
countering the prestige of all things British on the Continent. The SV
were socially engineering their project with relatively new technolo-
gy: publications with halftone photographs providing more accurate
impressions of conformation, and railroad shipments of crated dogs for
breeding (in place of local and regional exchanges by shepherds and
others). SV activities seem to have had no special cachet outside the
dog world and were a subculture even within it. Whether or not von
Stephanitz profited financially from his leadership or writing, there is
no doubt about his passion for the breed he helped shape, attracted
as he was to the Shepherd for its potential to respond to training with
intelligence and spirit.
u u u
Despite its idiosyncrasies and the singularity of its founder, the
SV was also swept up in several broad historical developments charac-
teristic of its epoch. We can look at its activities in three ways: as the
elite cooptation of a craft product; as the cartelization of biological
production; and as standardization (Germans had become the lead-
ers of the international standards movement by the 1920s). And all of
these were put into the service of nationalization, the definition of the
Shepherd as the all-German dog to the exclusion of previously plausi-
ble candidates with older organizations promoting them.
edward tenner u 101
Throughout the nineteenth century, European and North
American elites had been searching out craft knowledge, record-
ing it, and adapting it to the emerging industrial economy. Max von
Stephanitz was no scientist, much less a Darwin, but Wor tbi ld shows
evidence of the same wide-ranging reading and ceaseless correspon-
dence, as well as an interest in the experiences of all sections of society
with animals.
Tending sheep demands strength and skill, including veterinary
first aid, assistance at lambing, and recognition of the animals’ many
diseases. The dog is not only an essential working partner but the only
immediate defender against predators and thieves. Von Stephanitz
did not live among shepherds or apparently show any interest in the
economic problems of sheep raising. The selections shepherds had
made, and their methods for commanding dogs, on the other hand,
fascinated him and other Shepherd fanciers. Observing the dogs and
shepherds at work had engaged him with the breed. Working shep-
herds had disregarded looks and bred dogs for structure, stamina, and
intelligence“good, capable dogs” that reflected “a purposeful selec-
tion”— but could not continue as stewards of the breed, at least in
those areas where sheep raising had declined most sharply.
The survival of herding skills, if only on a small scale, was essen-
tial to von Stephanitz’s definition of the Shepherd as a working dog. A
Shepherd must be able to work sheep. Thus a number of Schafmeister
(head shepherds on large estates) were among the original founders of
the SV. Field trials were prestigious events within the organization, and
shepherds were encouraged to join with half-rate dues. But for all his
engagement with pastoral life, von Stephanitz and his associates were
not promoting a country idyll. Businessmen and professionals were
more represented than agriculturists on the SV board. In its tenth year
the SV’s board included (besides von Stephanitz and another retired
Prussian cavalry officer): owners of a Magdeburg dog-biscuit factory
and a Stuttgart printing plant, a teacher in Hannoversch Münden, an
art dealer (Kunstanstaltsbesitzer) in Gross Steinheim am Main, and a
businessman (Kaufmann) from Greiz in Thuringia. And their efforts
102 u raritan
to define and stabilize the breed corresponded to a major movement
in Germany and other industrial societies of the time, namely, the for-
mation of cartels to divide markets and control output. Significantly,
the umbrella organization of breed clubs for hunting and working dogs
was incorporated in 1908 as the Kartell der Rassezuchtvereine und
allgemeinen Verbände, later the Deutsches Kartell für Hundewesen.
The Reichsgericht having ruled in 1897 that the formation of cartels
generally did not infringe on freedom of commerce, the name “cartel”
had evidently become fashionable.
Neither the SV nor the Kartell could, of course, monopolize the
reproductive capacity of dogs, purebred or otherwise, but the ability to
define and enforce standards for registration in a dominant breed club
can bring profit as well as prestige. What colors and coat textures are
acceptable? How serious a fault is a missing tooth? And should a dog
be disallowed if it resisted inspection of its mouth, as some breeds rou-
tinely did? Even for a “working” dog, conformation goes beyond health
and fitness to aesthetic questions and almost arbitrary systems of signs.
Just as human athletes advance and retreat in competition when tech-
nology changes to reward finesse on one hand or power on the other,
so conformations of dogs can move in and out of favor. While kennels
were very small, the high price of breeding-quality dogs and the cost
of maintaining them made standards of vital concern.
Within six months of the SV’s incorporation, in September 1899,
the organization’s general assembly in Frankfurt approved a breed
standard that Arthur Meyer and von Stephanitz had prepared. The
SV’s attempt to define a high performance standard an athletic,
self-confident herding and protective dog that could also be a reli-
able housedog tolerant of children’s sometimes rough playwas a
challenging goal that required constant guidance. It would also be a
trial-and-error process until there were large numbers of dogs that
could breed true. In 1901 the breeder Max Hesdörffer attributed the
high prices of attractive specimens in part to the fact that “even dogs of
outstanding value yield a substantial percentage of defective progeny.”
In practice the breed standard was not used to exclude dogs
from the pedigree book. To the contrary, as von Stephanitz wrote
edward tenner u 103
in 1921, the SV was unique among the purebred dog clubs in open-
ing the stud book to as many dogs and bitches as possible, relying
on breeders’ and owners’ own characterizations. Other association
leaders sought exclusiveness. The SV instead fostered the competitive
pursuit of breed standards by laying down a broad foundation stock
(to use a phrase of breeders) for skillful selection and matching. And
von Stephanitz encouraged members of “all occupations and sections
of society (Snde): from princes of royal blood to the small cultivator
or simple artisan and worker, united by love for our dog and the striv-
ing to advance its cause.” Like many another late-nineteenth-century
enthusiast, von Stephanitz became a cultural entrepreneur, turning
what had been an avocation into a symbol of national moral renewal.
In practice, the growing price of a purebred Shepherd, the costs of
upkeep, and the need for exercise space and time made his constit-
uency a bourgeois one. And von Stephanitz’s cavalry rank and use of
military metaphors undoubtedly appealed to his relatively prosperous
Crucial for the SV’s project were the energy and firmness of von
Stephanitz and his patriarchal direction of the breed. His prompt,
detailed, and often humorous replies to questions encouraged still
more correspondence. In 1906 he personally logged over 9,000 let-
ters and cards at a cost of about 550 marks; by 1908 fully 17,000 let-
ters at a cost of 1,148 marks. What makes these figures all the more
remarkable is the still-small membership of the SV in these years: only
900 in 1906 and 1,540 in 19 08. Von Stephanitz was counseling and
recruiting Shepherd owners and breeders as well as advising members
and organizing shows and field trials. He also was developing his skills
in print with the handsomely illustrated introduction to the breed in
1901 that was the first edition of Wortbild. Through the early 1920s
the SV depended less on its formal organization than on his personal
influence on breeding and judging.
Yet institutional growth did become increasingly important. The
Civil Code and Reich Association Law of 1896 enabled the SV to begin
construction of a national network of local chapters operating under its
model bylaws, admitting only paid-up SV members, and having their
104 u raritan
own arbitration boards. Between the local group (Ortsgruppe) and
the headquarters was another level, the league (Verband), composed
of local groups and assisting the weaker ones as well as servicing mem-
bers with no local group of their ownand especially keeping peace
within the local groups. There were detailed procedures for expul-
sion and for appeals of local group decisions. The bylaws encouraged
establishment of many small groups of as few as four or five nearby
members who could meet regularly and recruit others; the SV offered
prizes for the most successful group and individual. There was even a
calendar listing responsibilities of local officers, including submission
of the annual report by 3 January of the new year. Above all, “The
local groups are all children of the great mother SV,” and the SV’s
three-tiered structure was designed to cure their “children’s diseases.”
As a network for promoting the breed, the SV was not seces-
sion-proof, butand perhaps von Stephanitz’s military training was
an inspirationit threw up multiple obstacles to the factionalism
that had prevailed among other breed clubs. Its rapid growth also let
it provide services that in turn increased its attractiveness, especial-
ly owner’s liability coverage that the SV had negotiated with a large
insurance firm and access to legal counsel retained by the SV, not to
mention advice from von Stephanitz as well as from neighbors in one
of the local groups.
Von Stephanitz’s boldest and most fateful stroke was his promo-
tion of police and military use of the Shepherd. In November 1901
he published a pamphlet recommending the dog for protection and
tracking and circulated it to every police office in Germany, empha-
sizing the dog’s intelligence, strength, trainability, and tenacity. The
German army initially remained cool to the military potential of dogs
and in any case preferred Airedale terriers, just as the civilian German
fancy had fallen in love with collies.
From the 1880s until 1914, German police forces were not nec-
essarily as professional as those in England or France, but at least in
Prussia they were growing in size and powers in response to a per-
ceived (though probably imagined) increase in crime. Perhaps without
edward tenner u 105
realizing it, Max von Stephanitz had chosen a part of Bavaria where
village communities closed ranks behind local lads’ poaching of moun-
tain and forest game while in turn dreading the growing ruthless,
commercialized theft of their own sheep. Part of the “essence” of the
German Shepherd Dog, then, was the protection of the owner, his
family, and his property; photographs in SV publications proclaimed
the Shepherd ’s gentleness toward children. Not that a Shepherd should
be easygoing and approachable. On the contrary, von Stephanitz sus-
pected promiscuous friendliness as a threat to the dog’s bond with the
owner. In the bitter aftermath of the First World War, von Stephanitz
denounced animals that had been allowed to make friends even in the
owner’s circle, and urged owners to have their acquaintances strike
and shove away young dogs that persist in approaching them, lest they
become “xenophilic [fremdenfreundlich] rather than loyal to their
master, like our mistaken enthusiasts who place world brotherhood
ahead of love of country and service to the homeland.” Such canine
pacifists did not deserve to be called German Shepherd Dogs.
If a Shepherd was always prepared for defense even in herding
trials it had to protect the shepherd from a stick-wielding “criminal”—
it needed education in the use of force. Fortunately for the SV, police
were already using dogs in patrol work. In Berlin, rampant specula-
tion, climbing rents, and the construction of massive working-class
tenements seemed to endanger public order. By the early years of the
twentieth century, Prussia had a mixed system of state-directed and
municipal police forces, steadily increasing in numbers and cost and in
practice beginning to merge into a single system. The police were also
coming under increasing military influence, often recruited from for-
mer noncommissioned officers accustomed to administering military
discipline and crowned not with the former top hat or English helmet
but with the spiked Pickelhaube of glazed pressed leather. There was
actually little evidence for the existence of a substantial criminal class,
and criminal convictions were in fact declining in Prussia in the ear-
ly years of the SV. The political scientist Albrecht Funk believes the
expansion of policing responded more to the fears of the bourgeoisie
106 u raritan
than to observable criminality. Yet the expanding police believed they
were fighting a war with a burgeoning underworld, and this context
helps explain the rising interest in police dogs.
Indeed, police officials throughout Europe were beginning to
work with dogs in the early twentieth century. While dogs had long
been used to help guard warehouses and prisons, dog patrols on public
streets were still unusual. The Dobermann Pinscher may have originat-
ed in small-town police circles, but in Thuringia it was employed in the
countryside as Gendarmhund. In the city of Ghent, Belgium, where
modern police dog training seems to have begun with local shepherd
dogs in the late 1890s, exercises focused on sniffing out “vagabonds,
and well into the 1920s patrols were only at night. Illustrations both in
von Stephanitz’s works and in specialized manuals for police dog han-
dlers place the dogs not in dense city working-class districts or in the
passenger railroad stations where they often are used in contemporary
Germany, but in the countryside, or rather in the rural outskirts of cit-
ies where a solo officer might feel threatened by ambush and whence
reinforcements could not be readily summoned. Manuals have almost
nothing to say about the use of dogs for crowd control. On the oth-
er hand, Wor tbild 6 (1921) features Shepherds climbing trees after
suspects, fording rivers, barking at the door of a (gypsy?) wagon, and
helping a game official pick a contraband rabbit from an elderly peas-
ant woman’s capacious basket on a forest patha parody of Little Red
Riding Hood, in which the wolf turns in Grandma for a biscuit (fig. 4).
Before von Stephanitz, early “urban” police-dog use in Germany
began not in the great capitals but in smaller cities and towns, as lit-
erally pet projects of energetic police directors like the autocratic Dr.
Otto Gerland of Hildesheim, who introduced twelve “herding” dogs
in 1896. Little is known of their background, training, or effective-
ness, but they seem to have been used mainly for night patrols in out-
er districts. Von Stephanitz’s breakthrough sometime after 1901 was
in Berlin, where the Prussian Interior Ministry established a central
dog-training school in Grünheide. By 1908, the SV was spending about
4,000 marks of its 56,000-mark budget on police training (outside of
competitions), plus another 2,000 marks in member contributions.
That year, 208 of the 339 police dogs competing nationally were
Shepherds, and the 1909 SV stud book reported proudly that they had
swept the prizes.
The protective and police training of dogs became a form of
canine theater, in which “criminals,” “aggravators,” and “decoys”
(names have varied with the nationality and time period of the train-
er) simulate attacks and provocations. As an American trainer wrote in
1926, “Contrary to accepted belief, the shepherd is not an aggressive
dog. He is not so ready to attack. In fact, the shepherd will not do
this unless he has been put through a thorough course of training.
Protective role-playing, which began well before the popularity of the
Shepherd but which cannot yet be documented, reached maturity with
Konrad Most (author of a 1910 manual that introduced modern ideas
of systematic behavior reinforcement) and other German military and
police trainers, who came to work extensively with Shepherds. It had
Fig. 4. “Gamekeeper’s Assistant: 1. Suspicious. [left] 2. Caught
Out! [right],” from Max von Stephanitz, Der deutsche Schäferhund
in Wort und Bild (6th edition, 1921), pp. 336–37
108 u raritan
set routines, such as conditioning dogs to refuse food from strangers
by rubbing their noses with tobacco after they had taken a treat from a
decoybait and switch, so to speak. An initially unsure animal could
often become a fearless companion, trainers believed, after gaining
good habits and confidence through these simulations.
Just as the structure and appearance of the Shepherd was being
standardized, so were systems of training with the formation of police
dog societies— initially using a variety of breeds. The SV helped dif-
fuse their methods to its civilian members. Methods and equipment
were both codified. There was a widely adopted set of commands and
corresponding behaviors as building blocks for more complex train-
ing. A dog learned first to guard a hat and coat, and then a prison-
er. (Clothes often did make the man in the utility-dog world; Belgian
police dogs were literally schooled to obey the wearer of a uniform, not
an individual officer-handler as is customary now.) A small industry
began to supply police and civilian trainers with odd-looking sport-
ing goods. Special wooden dumbbells (Bringsel) helped teach retriev-
ing. An adjustable hurdle of boards that could be built up gradually
helped train dogs to scale nine-foot walls, and collars with internal
barbssupposedly dull but still nasty lookingtook over where a
verbal Pfui failed. And most strikingly, there were thickly padded
suits with oversized sleeves, hot and not always completely bite-proof,
that von Stephanitz believed could, if too heavy, encourage dogs to
attack fiercely in practice while hesitating in pursuit of a real suspect
not wearing the familiar coat. (SV appears to have left decisions on
equipment and methods to individual owners and trainers.) Despite
the SV’s efforts, many officials and members of the public remained
skeptical of the value of dogs for routine police work.
While some experts with experience of many breeds believed
like E. von Otto that “[t]he future [in police work] belongs to the
Dobermann,” officials were impressed by the tireless work of von
Stephanitz’s rank and file. The police at first mixed breeds to avoid
inflating prices, but the Shepherds had a plus: equally courageous
and intelligent dogs, especially Airedales, did not always take train-
ing equally seriously. By 1914, the Kriminalpolizei kennel, apparently
edward tenner u 109
personal rather than official, of Police Commissioner Friedrich Decker
of Wiesbaden had already produced one of the most celebrated blood-
lines. The shepherd’s dog was turning into the police dog.
u u u
Yet the transformation was halting and fitful. While von
Stephanitz believed that protection fulfilled the essence (Wesen) of
the Shepherd, success in “man-work” (as opposed to the tracking that
was also taught) did not entirely improve the breed’s working quali-
ties. For example, a dog in police or military service must not be gun-
shy; since panicking at loud noises may result from highly sensitive
hearing, it is possible that some dogs adept at perceiving (for exam-
ple) distant shepherds’ whistles were eliminated from the gene pool.
“Sharpness” or “gameness” also has drawbacks. The ideal of trainers
became and in many cases remains an edged weapon, or an elite com-
mando, eager to attack yet always under control. But despite over sixty
years of systematic research, the genetics of canine aggression are still
imperfectly understood. Even today, other guarding dogs of various
breeds sometimes savage the sheep they are supposed to be protect-
ing, for example. Shepherds could tolerate rough play by children, yet
unintentional human signals could trigger apparently unprovoked bit-
ing, especially among shy dogs biting out of fear. And sharpness also
complicated canine reproduction; sharp bitches were known to fight
with stud dogs.
Further, the popularity of the breed was testing the coherence of
von Stephanitz’s program. Already in 19 01 Max Hesdörffer was apply-
ing the dread term Luxushund—and still worse, applying it favorably.
Many buyers without the patience, open space, or ability to train a
Shepherd still fell in love with the breed. The SV, thriving on expand-
ing dues and registration fees, had no way to exclude them. It did reject
commercial dog dealers but equally could not weed out avaricious
“amateur” breeders. Selection for appearance, the bane of the rough
collie, was apparent in the Shepherd. A later study concluded from
records of show-ring and working championships that the breed had
split into showing and (much smaller) working lines as early as 1909.
110 u raritan
The First World War delayed but also amplified both the tri-
umph and the crisis of von Stephanitz’s program. The army command,
unlike the police, had been skeptical about the combat value of dogs.
It was the front-line troops of belligerent nations who began using
them in sentry and patrol work. When the Eighth Army command
began to supply trained watchdogs in response to troop demand in
November 1914, the SV took the lead in supplying them, and Konrad
Most became head of the program. Changing military technology
turned the army dog from the crude attack weapon that it had been
for centuries to a skilled partner, for example in communication lines
and leading medics to wounded soldiers. In Oldenburg, beginning
in 1916, under the patronage of the Grand Duke, dogs (especially
Shepherds) were trained as guides for blinded troops. The army, with
thousands of dogs donated and lent by SV members, established dog
schools and field kennels. In all, Germans provided twenty thousand
dogs for military service; Shepherds replaced Airedales as Germany’s
preferred military breed.
The German loss of the war, and the ensuing political and eco-
nomic turmoil, advanced rather than curbed both German and for-
eign interest in the Shepherd. Domestically it was a rallying point for
nationalism, which began to take anti-Semitic and racist (völkisch)
form in the postwar editions of Wor tbild. It was plausible that so many
links with the despised Hun would have stigmatized the breed after
the rise of wartime Germanophobia and the fall of the Emperor. But
the consequences of Germany’s decline were more complicated. As
more recently in post-Soviet Russia, guard dogs were both responses
to crime and objects of speculation bred in commercial kennels. Often
captured, retrained, and beloved by British and American troops,
Shepherds found new popularity as “Alsatian wolf dogs” in England
and as “police dogs” and “shepherd dogs” in the United States. German
hyperinflation promoted exports of champion stock. The SV, temper-
ing chauvinism with pragmatism, began to market English-language
translations of Wor tbild and other materials. Geraldine Dodge
began her long career of Shepherd breeding on her two-thousand-
acre estate Giralda Farms in Madison, New Jersey, where Max von
edward tenner u 111
Stephanitz appeared as a judge at the 1930 Morris and Essex show.
Von Stephanitz’s anti-Semitism (he believed Jews had a hereditary
aversion to dogs and kept them only for profit and ostentation) and
eugenics (he thought dog breeding should teach Germans the value
of selecting the fittest) might have had many sympathetic American
readers in the 1920s, but not his belief that only Germans could pur-
sue an activity like dog breeding and training for its own sake rather
than for gain or prestige.
Decisive in the 1920s was the unexpected match between bio-
logical and mechanical-optical technology: the trained dog as film
star. First Strongheart, a German police-trained dog with the orig-
inal name of Etzel von Oeringen, and then Rin Tin Tin were able
to thrill silent-era audiences with virtuoso athleticism combined
with the appearance of human intelligence and judgment, often in a
law-enforcement rolethe result of native ability and loving educa-
tion. “From a crouching position,” wrote J. Allen Boone, Strongheart
“could leap over the head of a man six feet tall, and do it with what
seemed to be effortless ease.” Before retraining by Larry Trimble,
Strongheart had “marched like a soldier” and “had no sense of fun,
no joy, no affection,” after having been made “a four-legged ‘dread-
nought.’” Winning Strongheart’s confidence, Trimble made him into
a consummate canine actor who could feign the fiercest aggression
on screen without actual injuries, while remaining his owner’s loyal
companion. The original Rin Tin Tin was also a German military dog,
adopted from a field kennel in France as a puppy by the American Sgt.
Lee Duncan in 1918 and trained, according to Duncan, with tech-
niques he had learned from an English-speaking German prisoner of
war. The feats of these dogs made them some of the best paid film
stars of the time; they also gave the breed a worldwide fame of which
even von Stephanitz had never dared to dream. And overseas success
amplified German attention, as Rin Tin Tin became the most pop-
ular film actor in Berlin after 1926. On a more sinister note, as the
American historian of Japan Aaron Skabelund has documented, the
Shepherd was becoming the favorite combat dog of Japanese imperi-
alism in Asia, in preference to indigenous Japanese breeds.
112 u raritan
On the other hand, the rise of Hitler, an SV member and one of
many Shepherd owners in public life at the time, helped bring a sad
end to von Stephanitz’s career. For all his bigotry, völkisch sympathies,
anti-Semitism, and anti-feminism, von Stephanitz appears to have
worked cordially with distinguished Jewish breeders and trainers like
his admirer Ernest Loeb, who emigrated and became “Mr. German
Shepherd” in the American Kennel Club, and the Vienna police
department’s animal behavior expert Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, who
contributed her own skills to the Jewish self-defense force Haganah
in Palestine. The founder was so identified with the Shepherd that
he resisted the National Socialist government’s plans to merge the
SV into an umbrella domestic animal organization including poultry
and rabbit fanciers. (Von Stephanitz despised chickens, “which almost
invite persecution with their cackling and impertinent forwardness
and foolishness, with their brainless running about and fluttering.” A
chicken breeder became the new head of the SV.) He was removed
from the chairmanship in 1934 and died in 1936.
In the Second World War, German dogs, including tens of thou-
sands of Shepherds, were systematically requisitioned using dog-tax
registrations, and many champions died. Yet the breed recovered and
remained equally popular in the Federal Republic and the German
Democratic Republic. Reunification added tens of thousands of mem-
bers to the SV and incidentally dispelled the image of the Wall dogs
as fearsome killers; most had been untrained, love-starved decoys,
“harmless embodiments of their own myth,” in the words of the jour-
nalist Peter Schneider in his 1990 essay on dogs and Germans. But as
George Foreman discovered in 1974 when the Shepherd accompany-
ing him to Kinshasa, Zaire, for his fight with Mohammed Ali awak-
ened memories of the hated Belgian-era police dogs in the populace,
legend, history, and biology are inseparable parts of the Shepherd
u u u
The rise of the German Shepherd Dog shows the power of
biological modification through social engineering. With a limited
edward tenner u 113
scientific background but endless energy and a talent for publicity and
organization, Max von Stephanitz constructed a coalition around new
breeding and training methods building on centuries of folk selection
and training. As a publicist, von Stephanitz deftly linked agrarian tra-
ditions, military concepts of authority, and bourgeois concerns for the
protection of property, all in an organization claiming to transcend
social class. Police officials, journalists, equipment manufacturers,
and thousands of owners joined a community combining competi-
tive sport, small business, and socializing. Face-to-face groups and a
national organization complemented each other. The prestige of the
Prussian cavalry reinforced von Stephanitz’s fatherly guidance. (And
patriarchal he was. The Shepherd, he wrote, “always submits with a
sure sense to the most powerful one in the house, the commander, and
that is the man.” He continued that when he used to summon his chil-
dren indoors, his dog Audifax would go outside on its own, round up
the little ones from the garden, and shepherd them “like a lamb dog,
cautiously but relentlessly,” inside.) A relative latecomer, the Shepherd
rapidly displaced other hunting and working breeds to become the
de facto German national dog. In 2014 it still ranked first by a wide
margin in German purebred-puppy registration.
Von Stephanitz’s success shows thatcontrary to some analyses
of civil societyauthoritarianism and private civic initiatives can go
hand in hand. The SV was effective in part because the breed standard
was fixed (except as modified from time to time by von Stephanitz),
and open opposition to the SV as a kind of breeding cartel led to dis-
senters’ exclusion from prestigious showing and breeding opportuni-
ties. The SV’s efforts meshed with those of other societies for police
dogs, medic dogs, and working dogs, and this network in turn coop-
erated with Prussian administrators and others. Wilhelmine Germany
thus had a vigorous associational life that, in the SV’s case, could glad-
ly furnish the growing police establishment with new instruments of
social control. And like other associations, the SV itself appears to
have been a target of the National Socialist Party in the later 1920s
and early 1930s, when both rank-and-file party members and activists
recruited and organized in ostensibly unpolitical political groups. The
114 u raritan
political scientist Sheri Berman believes that this Nazi strategy accel-
erated bourgeois flight from mainstream politics and the end of the
Weimar Republic.
While von Stephanitz’s nationalism has been discredited and the
Shepherd today is as close to a truly international animal as any breed,
one warning of the Captain has continued to be valid: commercial-
ly motivated dog breeding endangers the health and genetic sound-
ness of animals. Breeding, whether for conformation or temperament,
requires such careful planning and has such high costs that it cannot
maintain standards while becoming a profitable business. Because
temperament is so crucial, yet so genetically complex, dog breeding
and even puppy-mill operations are still a craft industry in comparison
to the industrialized world of hybrid corn and chickens. Reports of hip
dysplasia and allegedly defective intelligence have been increasing.
Almost twenty years after Freeman Dysons prophecies, the promise
of dogs genetically engineered for temperament as well as health has
still not been realized. In fact, the organic agriculture movement has
so stigmatized technological intervention that puppies conceived by
artificial insemination are ineligible for registration in Germany.
It is not completely accurate to say, as the writer Susan Orlean
recently argued in a New York Times op-ed essay, that the breed is in
decline. In an age of mass customization, the attraction of standards
has faded, or, rather, there are many more to choose from. For exam-
ple, law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States pre-
fer 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 comple-
mentary purebred lines— the Golden Shepherd, the Shepadoodle, the
Shug, and the Shollie. Many owners prefer to call themselves “parents”
rather than “masters” of their dogs. Animal behaviorists have rejected
edward tenner u 115
the aversive training techniques popularized by Konrad Most and von
Stephanitz. (One prominent midcentury expert, William Koehler,
even advocated a form of waterboarding in extreme cases.) Canine
behaviorists, following ethologists of wolves, have rejected the idea of
fixed alpha dogs in a pack— as well as training strategies, including
so-called Alpha Roll wrestling, for asserting human dominance.
The Shepherd’s success is paradoxical. It was, as the wildlife bi-
ologist 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 modifi-
cations, if adopted widely, will bring.
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