Why German Shepherds Have Had Their Day

Susan Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.”

Los Angeles

SUCCESS can be a drag. You yearn for it, strive for it, and then, when it finally arrives, it sets off repercussions you never anticipated that sometimes undo that success.

Take the German shepherd. Originally bred to the exacting standards of a German cavalry officer, it became one of the 20th century’s most popular working breeds. But in recent years that popularity, and the overbreeding that came with it, has driven the German shepherd into eclipse: even the police in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who had relied on the dogs for years, recently announced they were replacing them with Belgian Malinois, because the less-popular Malinois were hardier and more reliable.

But there is good news about this bad news, if you are a lover of the breed, because less visibility, especially in inspiring roles as public servants, is likely to mean less demand for the dogs. That means less reason to produce too many puppies, which is the best thing that can happen to any purebred dogs.

German shepherds have existed for only a little more than 100 years. The breed was developed in the late 1800s by Max von Stephanitz, who dreamed of standardizing the motley array of German farm dogs into a single model that would be sturdy, smart and companionable.

Von Stephanitz might have been lost to history as just another German soldier messing around with dogs in his backyard, except that he managed to start breeding wonderful puppies. Even so, German shepherds might have ended up as a niche breed, alongside Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers and Entlebucher mountain dogs, except that von Stephanitz began giving the best of his litters to local police forces, where the dogs triumphed: they were athletic, attentive and intelligent, everything von Stephanitz had promised.

A breed club soon formed and, in just a few years, it had 60,000 members in Germany. After American G.I.s returned home from World War I raving about this extraordinary new breed, German shepherds became the most sought-after dog in this country, too.

The best and the worst thing happened next. Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd puppy brought home from the war by a lonesome American soldier named Lee Duncan, became an international movie star. Now German shepherds weren’t only admired for their intelligence and Olympian athleticism. They acquired the aura of magic, the glittering charisma of a celebrity.

But dogs are not brands. Unlike Prada backpacks or Jimmy Choo shoes, demand for a certain breed can’t be relieved by merely ramping up production. Unscrupulous kennel owners and pet shops start producing puppies as fast as they can, even when the genetic mixes they’re creating aren’t healthy. Responsible American breeders soon noticed the dogs were showing an alarming rate of hip and eye problems, and they asked experts from Germany to tour kennels here and make recommendations for sorting out the genetic mess.

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One Response to “Why German Shepherds Have Had Their Day”

  • Chris Roman says:

    While i agree somewhat with this article and being the proud owner of two GSD’s i can forsee that whichever breed steps in as a “replacement” breed will also suffer the same breeding fate as every other breed that we as humans find popular and have to have. Responsible popularity through education is a possible solution.

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