Header image  
About Dogs  
line decor
  HOME  ::  A-Z of Dogs   ::  
line decor

The Alsatian (aka German Shepherd)


The Alsatian (also known as German Shepherd, GSD, and Deutscher Schäferhund) is a large-sized breed of dog that originated in Germany. In the great scheme of things they are a relatively new breed of dog, their origins date to 1899. As part of the Herding group, the Alsatian is a working dog developed originally for herding sheep. Because of their strength, intelligence and abilities in obedience training they are often employed in police and military roles, in forces around the world. Due to their loyal and protective nature the Alsatian is one of the most popular breeds.


In Europe, during the 1800s, attempts were being made to standardize breeds. The dogs were bred to preserve traits that assisted in their job of herding sheep and protecting flocks from predators. In Germany this was practiced within local communities, where shepherds selected and bred dogs that they believed had traits necessary for herding sheep, such as intelligence, strength, and keen senses of smell. The results were dogs that were able to perform admirably in their task, but that differed significantly, both in appearance and ability, from one locality to another.

To combat these differences, the Phylax Society was formed in 1891 with the intention of creating standardised dog breeds in Germany. The society disbanded after only three years due to an ongoing, internal conflict regarding the traits that the society should promote; some members believed dogs should be bred solely for working purposes, while others believed dogs should be bred also for appearance. While unsuccessful in their goal, the Phylax Society had inspired people to pursue standardising dog breeds independently.

Max von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry captain and former student of the Berlin Veterinary College, was one such ex-member. He believed strongly that dogs should be bred for working.

In 1899, Von Stephanitz was attending a dog show when he was shown a dog named Hektor Linksrhein. Hektor was the product of many generations of selective breeding and completely fulfilled what Von Stephanitz believed a working dog should be. He was pleased with the strength of the dog and was so taken by the animal's intelligence and loyalty, that he purchased it immediately. After purchasing the dog he changed its name to Horand von Grafrath and Von Stephanitz founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog). Horand was declared to be the first German Shepherd Dog and was the first dog added to the society's breed register.

Horand became the centre-point of the society's breeding programs and was bred with dogs belonging to other society members that displayed desirable traits. Although fathering many pups, Horand's most successful was Hektor von Schwaben. Hektor was inbred with another of Horand's offspring and produced Beowulf, who later fathered a total of eighty-four pups, mostly through being inbred with Hektor's other offspring. Beowulf's progeny also were inbred and it is from these pups that all Alsatians draw a genetic link. It is believed the society accomplished its goal mostly due to Von Stephanitz's strong, uncompromising leadership and he is therefore credited with being the creator of the Alsatian.


When the UK Kennel Club first accepted registrations for the breed in 1919, fifty-four dogs were registered, and by 1926 this number had grown to over 8,000. The breed first gained international recognition at the decline of World War I after returning soldiers spoke highly of the breed, and animal actors Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart popularised the breed further. The first Alsatian registered in the United States was Queen of Switzerland; however, her offspring suffered from defects as the result of poor breeding, which caused the breed to suffer a decline in popularity during the late 1920s. Popularity increased again after the Alsatian, Sieger Pfeffer von Bern, became the 1937 and 1938 Grand Victor in American Kennel club dog shows, only to suffer another decline at the conclusion of World War II, due to anti-German sentiment of the time.


The breed was named Deutscher Schäferhund by Von Stephanitz, literally translating to "German Shepherd Dog". The breed was so named due its original purpose of assisting shepherds in herding and protecting sheep. At the time, all other herding dogs in Germany were referred to by this name; they thus became known as Altdeutsche Schäferhunde or Old German Shepherd Dogs. Shepherds were first exported to Britain in 1908, and the UK Kennel Club began to recognise the breed in 1919.

The direct translation of the name was adopted for use in the official breed registry; however, at the conclusion of World War I, it was believed that the inclusion of the word "German" would harm the breed's popularity, due to the anti-German sentiment of the era. The breed was officially renamed by the UK Kennel Club to "Alsatian Wolf Dog" which was also adopted by many other international kennel clubs. Eventually, the appendage "wolf dog" was dropped, but the name Alsatian remained for five decades, until 1977, when successful campaigns by dog enthusiasts pressured the British kennel clubs to allow the breed to be registered again as German Shepherd Dogs.

Modern breed

The modern Alsatian is criticised for straying away from von Stephanitz's original ideology for the breed: that Alsatians should be bred primarily as working dogs, and that breeding should be strictly controlled to eliminate defects quickly. Critics believe that careless breeding promoted disease and other defects. Under the breeding programs overseen by von Stephanitz, defects were quickly bred out; however, in modern times without regulation on breeding, genetic problems such as colour-paling, hip dysplasia, monorchidism, weakness of temperament, and missing teeth are common, as well as bent or folded ears which never fully turn up when reaching adulthood.


A close-up of an Alsatian's face showing the long muzzle, black nose and brown, medium-sized eyes

Alsatians generally grow to between 55 and 65 centimetres (22 and 26 in) at the withers and weigh between 22 and 40 kilograms (49 and 88 lb). According to Kennel Club standards the ideal height is 63 centimetres (25 in). They have a domed forehead, a long square-cut muzzle and a black nose. The jaws are strong, with a scissor-like bite. The eyes are medium-sized and brown with a lively, intelligent, and self-assured look. The ears are large and stand erect, open at the front and parallel, but they often are pulled back during movement. They have a long neck, which is raised when excited and lowered when moving at a fast pace. The tail is bushy and reaches to the hock.

Alsatians can be a variety of colours, the most common of which are the tan/black and red/black varieties. Both varieties have black masks and saddles. Rarer variations include the sable, all-black, all-white, liver and blue varieties. The all-black variety is acceptable; however, the blue and liver are considered to be serious faults and the all-white is grounds for instant disqualification in some standards. This is because the white coat is more visible, making the dog a poor guard dog, and harder to see in conditions such as snow or when herding sheep.

Alsatians sport a double coat. The outer coat, which is shed all year round, is close and dense with a thick undercoat. The coat is accepted in two variants; medium and long. The long-hair gene is recessive, making the long-hair variety rarer. Treatment of the long-hair variation differs across standards; they are accepted under the German and UK Kennel Clubs but are considered a fault in the American Kennel Club.


Alsatians were bred specifically for their intelligence, a trait for which they are now renowned. They are considered to be the third most intelligent breed of dog, behind Border Collies and Poodles. In the book The Intelligence of Dogs, author Stanley Coren ranked the breed third for intelligence. He found that they had the ability to learn simple tasks after only five repetitions and obeyed the first command given 95% of the time. Coupled with their strength, this trait makes the breed desirable as police, guard, and search and rescue dogs, as they are able to quickly learn various tasks and interpret instructions better than other large breeds.


Alsatians have a reputation for aggression and have been banned in some jurisdictions in the United States as a result. In the US Alsatians are responsible for more random bitings than any other breed, and have a known tendency to attack smaller breeds of dogs. Reports have found that statistically Alsatians are the breed third most likely to attack a person. Another report found that Alsatians accounted for almost half of the dog bites that required medical attention. These claims have been refuted on the basis that Alsatians represent a higher proportion of the population than other breeds. However, reports indicate that Shepherds are over-represented even when the statistics take into account the difference in population.

Alsatians are highly active dogs, and described in breed standards as self-assured. The breed is marked by a willingness to learn and an eagerness to have a purpose. Shepherds have a loyal nature and bond well with people they know. However, they can become over-protective of their family and territory, especially if not socialized correctly. An aloof personality makes them approachable, but not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers. Alsatians are highly obedient and not easily distracted, but due to their strong self-will must be trained by "a firm hand".


Many common ailments in Alsatians are a result of the inbreeding required early in the breed's creation. One such common issue is hip and elbow dysplasia which may lead to the dog experiencing pain in later life, and may cause arthritis. Due to the large and open nature of their ears, Shepherds also are prone to ear infections. Alsatians, like all large bodied dogs, are prone to bloat.

The average lifespan of a German Shepherd is 7 - 10 years, which is normal for a dog of their size. Also according to a study done by R.M. Clemmons, DVM PhD, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Florida, Degenerative Myelopathy, or DM is a neurological disease that occurs with enough regularity specifically in the the breed to suggest the disease is one that is genetically predisposed in German Shepherd Dogs. Additionally, German Shepherd Dogs have a higher than normal incidence of Von Willebrand Disease, a common inherited bleeding disorder.

Use as working dogs

German Shepherds are a very popular selection for use as working dogs. They are especially well known for their police work, being used for tracking criminals, patrolling troubled areas, and detection and holding of suspects. Additionally thousands of German Shepherds have been used by the military: Usually trained for scout duty, they are used to warn soldiers to the presence of enemies or of booby traps or other hazards. German Shepherds have even been trained by military groups to parachute from aircraft.

The German Shepherd Dog is one of the most widely-used breeds in a wide variety of scent-work roles. These include search and rescue, cadaver searching, narcotics detection, explosives detection, accelerant detection, and mine detection dog, amongst others. They are suited for these lines of work because of their keen sense of smell and their ability to work regardless of distractions. Urban Search and Rescue Task Force dogs worked to uncover survivors at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 attacks

In popular culture

German Shepherds have featured in a range of media. Strongheart the German Shepherd was one of the earliest canine film stars and was followed by Rin Tin Tin, who is now acclaimed as being the most famous Alsatian. Both are credited with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Alsatians have played central parts in a number of recent films, including K-9 (which featured a real police-dog, Koton), The Hills Have Eyes and I am Legend. Blondi, Adolf Hitler's Alsatian, has featured in a number of documentaries and films about the dictator, such as Downfall. The Austrian police drama series Inspector Rex centres around a highly intelligent Alsatian.

Batman's dog Ace the Bat-Hound appeared in the Batman comic books, initially in 1955, through 1964. Between 1964 and 1977, his appearances were sporadic. Nevertheless, Ren Hoek from The Ren and Stimpy Show is also a mix of this breed. Charlie B Barkin from All Dogs Go to Heaven is also recognized as this breed.

Sources: Wiki