Get to Know the German Shepherd: A Dog Breed with Brains, Brawn, and Star Quality

How did a dog developed to herd sheep in Europe become America's best friend? Thank Hollywood.


Loyal, protective, and intelligent, the German Shepherd has rightfully earned its spot as one of the world’s favorite breeds. Employed as police dogs, military dogs, guide dogs, and herding dogs, they succeed at everything — but perhaps no job more so than family companion and lifelong partner.

Many people wrongly believe that German Shepherds are an ancient breed closely related to the wolf, because they appear so wolf-like. But, in fact, they’re a modern breed developed in the late 1800s.

Some bits about the German Shepherd

  • The German Shepherd has the distinction of being created by one person, Captain Max von Stephanitz of Germany. He based the breed on a dog named Horand van Grafrath, and registered Horand as the first Deutsche Schaferhunde (German Shepherd dog).

  • At first the breed was created to act as a herding dog — but not like most herding dogs we see today. The German Shepherd’s job was to keep immense flocks together in land that had no fences, acting as a sort of moving fence by constantly patrolling around the flock, keeping it together and, if needed, moving in one direction. The dogs also guarded the flock.
  • In the early 1900s, the need for controlling large flocks over unfenced lands dwindled. So Captain von Stephanitz reinvented the breed, focusing on the dog’s obedience and protectiveness. He then promoted them as police and military dogs, where they proved even more successful.

  • It was during World War I that the German Shepherd emerged a hero. He was simply the best military dog ever seen. Soldiers returning home sometimes brought back dogs or tales of dogs, spreading the German Shepherd throughout the world. The breed is known as the Alsatian in Britain.
  • The first canine movie star was a German Shepherd named Strongheart.
  • Strongheart’s fame was eclipsed by Rin Tin Tin. Found in a bombed-out kennel by an American soldier, Rinty (as his friends called him) became such a popular movie star that he is credited as the actor who saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.
  • Largely because of Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd became the most popular dog in America from 1925 to 1936.
  • Owners include Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy; sports stars George Foreman and Deion Sanders; actors Don Johnson, Burt Reynolds, Steven Seagal, Gene Hackman, Jim Belushi, Christina Applegate, Roseanne, Shannen Doherty, and Bela Lugosi; and entertainers Nick Lachey, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Amy Grant, Jimmy Page, Elton John, Bela Lugosi, 50 Cent and Garth Brooks.
  • The top-winning AKC show dog of any breed of all time is a female German Shepherd named Champion Altana’s Mystique.
  • A German Shepherd named Ch Covey Tucker Hill’s Manhattan (Hatter to his friends) won Best in Show at the Westminster dog show in 1987.
  • The German Shepherd is a member of the AKC Herding group. Until 1983 the dogs were in the AKC Working group until that group was split into Working and Herding.

  • Don’t confuse the German Shepherd with the Belgian Malinois, Belgian Sheepdog, or Belgian Tervuren. Although they share the same general body type, the German Shepherd is heavier boned and longer bodied than these other breeds.
  • The German Shepherd is currently the second most popular breed in America, behind the Labrador Retriever. The dog is gradually increasing in popularity, up from the No. 3 position a decade ago.

Do you own a German Shepherd? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Read more about German Shepherds:

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.

1 thought on “Get to Know the German Shepherd: A Dog Breed with Brains, Brawn, and Star Quality”

  1. Have had dogs all my life – most of them German Shepherds. They are (in my view) the most loyal and protective dog you can get without the need to train them in protection. Once a GSD claims you , he/she will risk their life for you should you ever find yourself in danger. They will also protect your whole family. They do need a firm handler (but never rough or angry!) and training is always beneficial. Without this, their intelligence can be put to use in ways that can lead to hostility (ie to friends/neighbors) and to destruction. Many GSDs end up unwanted because their owners couldn’t handle them. This is totally uncalled for if you do your research first or are a fairly novice owner. On the flip side, they love to play, accompany you everywhere (you may want to lock the bathroom door behind you) and have lots of stamina. By far my favourite breed!

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