Intelligent, agile, and spirited, the German Shepherd is the ultimate service dog. There’s a lot underneath that thick coat of fur you might not know.
1. Germans standardized the breed (of course).
In 1889, breeder Max von Stephanitz noticed a wolf-like dog with yellow and black markings at a dog show in western Germany. Impressed by the pooch’s intelligence and discipline, the breeder purchased the dog and changed its name from Hektor Linksrhein to Horand von Grafrath. Von Stephanitz then started the German Shepherd Dog Club and set up guidelines for the breed’s standard. His motto for the breed was “utility and intelligence”; good looks came second.
2. They work like dogs.
As Germany became more industrialized, von Stephanitz realized that the need for his dogs might decline. To maintain their relevance, he worked with police and other service workers to secure a place for the dogs in the working force. Since they had been bred to be highly intelligent and athletic, they were easy to train and were tireless workers. Thanks to von Stephanitz’s help, the diligent canines found work as messengers and guards.
3. World War I brought German Shepherds out West.
During the war, Germans used the dogs for a number of purposes. Mercy dogs brought first aid to wounded soldiers after the battle and would stay near mortally injured soldiers to keep them company as they passed away. Others delivered messages or worked as guard dogs.
Americans were so impressed with these pooches that they brought some home. The United States was captivated with the breed’s appearance, and they soon became wildly popular.
4. America loves them.
According to the American Kennel Club, German Shepherds were the second most popular dog breed in the country in 2014. The breed also ranked number one in major cities like Miami and Nashville.
5. They really are smart.
German Shepherds are known for their intelligence, and with good reason: They’re considered the third smartest breed of dog. To be placed in the top tier of intelligence, breeds must understand a new command after only five repetitions and follow the first command given to them 95 percent of the time.
6. The dogs went through a temporary name change.
After the World Wars, Americans and many Europeans were a little leery of anything German. As a result, a dog called a “German Shepherd” didn’t seem very appealing. To combat this bias, the American Kennel Club simply called them shepherd dogs, and the English called them Alsatian wolf dogs. That moniker was used until 1977, but it was used for so long in Europe that some people still refer to them as Alsatians to this day.
7. Some can be affected by dwarfism.
Emilia Terzon, Vice
Although rare, some German Shepherds can have pituitary dwarfism, and as a result, the dogs are puppy-like forever, keeping their puppy fur and staying small in stature. While this condition makes them look like adorable teddy bears, it comes with a whole slew of health problems.
8. A play once featured six German Shepherds as actors.
In the mid-’80s, Dutch director Whim Schipper developed a play that starred six German Shepherds. The dogs were sent to drama lessons in Amsterdam and given treats as motivation to act. Called Going to the Dogs, the play featured a traditional family plot: The daughter brings home a new boyfriend, and love, jealousy, and parental worries come into play. Unsurprisingly, the play was a flop—even the theater’s manager left early.
9. Rin Tin Tin was the breed’s biggest star.
Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd rescued from the WWI battlefield. His savior, an American soldier named Duncan Lee, trained the dog to work in silent films. The dog became a star whose draw was so enormous that Warner Bros. would release a Rin Tin Tin movie whenever it was having financial problems.
It’s rumored that Rin Tin Tin was actually voted the best actor of the first Academy Awards in 1929. Susan Orlean, the author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend suggest that the dog was passed over for Emil Jannings simply because he was human. “In terms of popularity, Rin Tin Tin didn’t have a peer,” Orlean told The Guardian. “He was a huge star around the world. […] I can’t imagine that Emil Jannings was opening films, but Rin Tin Tin certainly did.”
10. The dogs have a solid hold on YouTube as well.
Besides the silver screen, you can also find the dogs on your computer screen: Searching “German Shepherd” on YouTube returned a little more than half a million results. Here’s a personal favorite of 14 German Shepherds frolicking with a little girl.