They say you can’t help whom you fall in love with – or when. Surely American soldier Lee Duncan must have had needed to refer to this adage from time to time when he brought home one of the loves of his life from a WWI battlefield. Only, in his case, it was not a leggy blonde, but a beautiful and intelligent German Shepherd who went on to become one of the world’s most famous screen actors. His dog, Rinty, who is better known as Rin Tin Tin, continued to win hearts and did wonders for the breed’s popularity in the States, as well as the UK. His on-screen antics may have even won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929; only the Academy felt that the award should go to a human.
The Rin Tin Tin franchise is still popular today, reaching an entirely new audience. And, of course the breed still remains one of the most recognisable and best loved dogs of all time. But, German Shepherds are so much more than Rin Tin Tin.
Alsatians, Erm… German Shepherds
German Shepherds were bred for work, specifically as sheep dogs, in Germany. And, for much of their lives they have been referred to as German Shepherds. Unlike many other location based names in the world, like Belgian Waffles and Turkish Coffee – the German part of the name doesn’t get dropped, even when you are in Germany. In its homeland, these dogs are still referred to as Deutscher Schäferhund.
As far as breeds go, German Shepherd Dogs (GSD) are fairly new to the scene with the breed first being recognised in 1899. Then along came Rin Tin Tin, followed shortly thereafter by a worldwide negativity about Germany and all things bearing its stamp. So, for several years, German Shepherds were known in the UK as Alsatian Wolf Dogs. It was an attempt to release any stigmas that may have been attached to the breed though the inclusion of the word wolf may have done more harm than good. Still, the name (without the wolf appendage) stuck for several years until campaigners worked in 1977 to revert to the original name. However, official records still maintained the Alsatian part of the name (albeit in brackets) until it was officially dropped in 2010.
Anyone who keeps an Alsatian, erm, German Shepherd as a family pet, will tell you that it quite simply doesn’t matter what you call them, as long as you call them to you as often as possible.
Names aside, German Shepherds are popular dogs. According to Wikipedia, they are the 4th most common dog in the UK, and they take home 2nd prize on the other side of the Atlantic. Despite naming issues and their relatively short history, people seem to love these canines.
In 1919, the UK Kennel began accepting German Shepherd registrations (that was one year after Lee Duncan fell in love with ‘ol Rinty). Fifty four dogs were entered on the log in that year. Within 7 years, that number had swelled to over 8 000. That is impressive, regardless of the other factors that may have prohibited registrations in 1919.
Today, there are German Shepherd website forums, not to mention the Tumblr and Pinterest boards dedicated to all things GSD. If you are so inclined, you can sign up for daily German Shepherd photos to come to your inbox.
There are on the ground rescue foundations dedicated to the breed. And, even in the show dog world, debate continues about factors that may adversely affect the long term health of the breed. In short, German Shepherds are not just popular with breed owners; large segments of the population are concerned about their health and well being.
German Shepherds as Work Dogs
With a profession as part of their name, it is not difficult to remember that German Shepherds were initially bred to work. As intelligent dogs, they were used to help around the farm. It stands to reason that many of their traits were developed to help keep sheep in line – and protect them from predators. Unless you live on a farm, those days probably seem terrifically far away, but German Shepherds are still used as work dogs across the world. They are particularly adept at security work. They are typically regarded as alert and eager to work (which is the first part of the battle, even when it comes to employing people). This is coupled with their keen sense of smell.
German Shepherds are a natural and positive choice for police work. Far from simple drug sniffing (which, of course, they are uncommonly adept at doing), they are also used on search and rescue missions, as well as cadaver searching. They have also been known to sniff out landmines, and even parachute from helicopters into war zones. It is not just their sense of smell that sets them apart; it is their ability to focus on work regardless of the other distractions happening around them. As security dogs, they are excellent scouts, and can appear frightening to those who oppose them (not to mention the sheer force they carry with them).
Family Pets and Domestic Life
German Shepherds are loyal and involved canines. They like to be part of the family, and part of the action. But, they are also quite capable of retiring to a corner when they’re not needed (or when they’ve managed to exhaust themselves). Even though they have been bred as work dogs, they do not necessarily need an occupation; they can simply relax and enjoy family life. Unlike their predecessors and the reputation of the breed as a whole, there are many individual dogs that will gladly sacrifice work for a simple life. Others, however, are prone to making up their own jobs if they don’t have one handed to them. This can include anything from guarding the front door to rearranging shoes in your closet.
There does seem to be some negative stereotypes about German Shepherds and their ability to handle life with small children. It must be noted that no breed is 100% recommended, as it is all in the way they are raised, and introduced to family life. German Shepherds are no different, even considering their size. Indeed, German Shepherds are typically more patient than other large breed dogs are known to be, and extremely friendly with their families. It all has to do with the way they are handled, trained and included from the day they enter your home.
Obviously considered a large breed, German working dog, and they require daily care according to these traits. German Shepherds are typically highly active and will keep themselves busy for most of the day, so they require feeding at least twice a day. Only the weight and activity level of any particular dog will tell you just how much they need at meal time – and just how many treats you can get away with.
With the descriptors of large and working, it should be no surprise that German Shepherds need plenty of exercise. Ideally, they will have access to a large garden that enables them to run around for long stretches, rather than waiting for walks. When this is not possible, they will need long, frequent walks. Without a daily physical outlet, German Shepherds will become restless, and possibly agitated.
German Shepherds also require a fair amount of grooming. With long hair and thick coats, they need frequent brushing, although they may require a little less brushing during certain seasons. If you notice that their teeth or nails require extra treatment, it is usually best to trust this job to a professional groomer who is skilled at cleaning or clipping (and who has assistants to help when needed).
Most large breed dogs of this size have an average lifespan of 10-11 years. German Shepherds are no different. They may live longer, though they may develop a number of ailments in later years. Often these relate to hip and elbow dysplasia. They may also be prone to degenerative myelopathy, which is a neurological disease, the test for which is easily done through a cheek swab. As with any pet, owners should ensure their animals receive annual checkups and veterinary attention when they seem unwell. Most domestic vets in the UK will have plenty of experience with the breed and will know what to look for when it comes to examining your best friend.
One thing is certain; whether you bring home a German Shepherd film star, or just a pup from a local rescue center, these dogs are easy to love – and they return it even more easily. So, why not fall in love today?