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Where is the German Shepherd Headed?
Quo Vadis, Pastor Canem Germanus?
All right, for those of you who failed (or failed to take) high school Latin, that means, “Where is the German Shepherd Dog headed?” This year, 1999, is the 100th anniversary of the Schäferhund Verein (SV), the heart of all GSD clubs in the world, located in the motherland (used to be called “der Vaterland” by everyone until a crazy Austrian applied unsavory connotations to that term)of the breed.
What has happened to this noble dog in the ensuing century, especially in the United States?
Before the end of the previous century, several dog fanciers, but especially a cavalry master named Max von Stephanitz, organized what was to become the world’s largest dog breed association, with what became and remained the most populous and popular breed in most countries. Captain von Stephanitz had the advantage through his privileged office and service to have traveled over almost all of Europe and some of other countries, and the voracious seeker of canine knowledge collected photos and meticulously accurate reports from others who had gone further and seen more in the further reaches of the world.
He proved what I was later to learn, that one gains a fuller appreciation for a favorite breed when he delves into the depths of all breeds — indeed, even comparing the dog to other animals. This is why my college buddies heading for medical school took Comparative Anatomy; they weren’t going to operate on cats, but it helped them understand the human body and various systems better. Max built up a wealth of knowledge and shared much of it in his monumental work, which every dog owner should read, “The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture”.
They started with utility, and von Stephanitz kept stressing that concept. Even today, the president of the SV echoes him by re-stating it: The German Shepherd Dog is first and foremost a working dog! The founder said that the true mark of beauty was utility, preached that form follows function, and discarded any bitch that was not above all an ideal mother (from whelping through weaning).
Where did we go wrong, since today in America and some other countries that drifted away from friendly relations with Germany during WW-2, we find people using artificial insemination, heroic efforts to save the weakest whelps, and below-grade animals for breeding? Why are “we” in America, Canada, and to a lesser extent some in the UK, breeding dogs that are even disqualified under the world Standard because of size, dentition, coat, color, character, or general conformational defects?
The old argument that Americans are uniquely or especially of an independent mind is increasingly just so much baloney to this peripatetic and nearly geriatric observer! I am at least as “independent” as anyone, and I still feel there are bounds to license, and that there is good reason for consensus in such matters as breed type and judging.
The FCI has recently decided to break up the Akita breed into the Akita of country-of-origin, and the modified Akita, and the nomenclature are yet to be determined. When AKC slammed shut the studbook door almost as fast as it had been opened, because they didn’t like the JKC or Japanese breed clubs’ studbooks, all the gene pool contributors we had here were the ones that a few servicemen and travelers had brought over, and did not accurately reflect the breed as developed in Japan.
They did the same to the Shiba, until the JKC records were finally accepted. Isolationism may be OK in politics, but most of us who think do not want that applied to dogs. It may turn out that the FCI will someday soon require such a split in the GSD breed because of the tremendous differences (downplayed by the anything-goes crowd, but obvious to most people) between the American type and the International type.
Perhaps FCI or the World Union of GSD Clubs (WUSV) will require a different name be used for the breed in those countries that refuse to adhere to the Standard (such as the U.S.).
How is the American Shepherd different? In many ways, for most individual dogs, and imperceptibly for some others. But all over the rest of the world, the typical American-Canadian (and the Alsatian half of the UK) GSD looks strikingly different from its brothers, and fanciers around the globe do not even consider it the same breed.
Why do police forces and military in this country, and GSD buyers in the rest of the world studiously avoid buying American Shepherds? Why do four or five times the number of ads in Dog World (which reaches most of the pet buyers) mention schutzhund titles or use words like “import lines” or “working” or “character” than the number that aim at the American Shepherd market? Because the breed here is different. Ask John Q. Public, and he will tell you he doesn’t want one of those “slinky”, low, narrow-headed animals that wobble as if their hocks were about to fall off, and dart under the couch when the door opens for a stranger. There is no doubt that the market for this type of dog is shrinking, and for good reasons.
But in what specific ways are the dogs different, and how did the breed get that way? The picture that unfortunately comes to mind for most people may be something like the large, plush, GSDCA Grand Victor who, Capt. Arthur Haggerty once described in his report on Westminster, cowered behind his handler in the Group ring (which means he got Best of Breed!).
Or the picture may be that of a straight-fronted, long mid-piece, long-in-second-thigh animal that looks like it can eat peanuts out of a Coke bottle, as we say in the South. One thing that saved the American Shepherd from total oblivion in the minds of multi-breed judges and other observers was the elevation of Manhattan (“Hatter”) to the first GSD ever to win BIS at Westminster. Despite lacking somewhat in masculinity, and having horrible pasterns and a very short upper arm that made him run at you with legs in the shape of the letter “A”, there was a richly-pigmented, short-coupled, nicely-proportioned dog with a personality that could charm the pants off an old-maid schoolteacher.
His almost human sense of “show-biz” made friends among people who had totally given up on the GSD as a real dog, worthy of any consideration in the show ring.
Meanwhile, the specialty judges were going merrily along the path to destruction, having neither any education in proper breed type or direction from the laissez-faire parent club as to what to look for or how to recognize it.
The ills that the founder warned against proliferated: “hyena dogs” with high fronts and sharply-sloping backs to a much-lower hindquarter, a stance that was too “backwards”, by which he meant the hocks were too far behind the torso for any useful work, and the spookiness that now indelibly marks the “American” branch of the breed. Proportions range all over the map, but mostly very low-stationed (short-legged) dogs, chests too deep (not supposed to be over half the withers height), and bodies so narrow they disappear when facing you head-on.
The kind I call Dick Tracy dogs — remember you would only see him in profile? Two-dimensional, that’s why! But these dogs, including the ones with pasterns so weak they look like they are running around with floppy socks too long for their feet, and knees that are actually below the hocks when posed with the metatarsus vertical, are winning.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to call them “American Shepherds”, since there are many good examples of the breed in this country. Maybe “AKC-Shepherd” may be a better tag to hang on them, and we can allow the better examples to be dual-registered in an organization that conforms to the breed Standard and the judging styles and decisions used around the globe. There are good American Shepherds, but they either get lost in the crowd, or look too different for judges to realize what stands before them, or (mostly) they stay home and guard the kids and property instead of wasting their owners’ money on shows.
Is there anywhere else for the international-style, more correct GSD to go? Yes, where the AKC wants to keep as a big secret, but there is another home for some, another breed club. The organization known as USA (which stands for United Schutzhund Clubs of America) got a big boost from AKC’s letters to clubs in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, telling people they would be in deep doo-doo if they held any events in which any biting or aggression was evidenced.
Before that, the GSDCA was beginning to hold schutzhund events at their National Specialty, then after one letter, held it across the street, and after the final letter dropped the idea and replaced it with a clever idea. By this time, personalities and politics prevented any further cooperation with USA, so the “working-dog” contingent that remained in GSDCA but didn’t like USA leadership formed their own committee, the WDA (official name: German Shepherd Dog Club of America - Working Dog Association), and soon had their own constitution and by-laws in order to present an “independent” face to the AKC. However, they are not recognized as a member club by the WUSV (the GSDCA is, having beat USA to the application to join back when only one club per country was eligible) nor by anybody else.
However, when talking to the SV and WUSV, the WDA puts on its “affiliate hat” and says “We are an integral part of the GSDCA”; when talking to or facing toward AKC, it waves its constitution and says, “No, don’t punish GSDCA, because we are a separate organization”. Makes one wonder what the meaning of “is” is! But it works, so what the hey! Meanwhile, the USA organization, a non-voting member of WUSV, holds its few breed shows with SV judges officiating, and continues numerous schutzhund trials around the country. It should be explained here for the uninitiated that schutzhund is a three-part sport (each of equal importance and number of points required) consisting of tracking, obedience, and protection, the last of these the most exciting to watch.
In the annual “Sieger Shows” of both USA and WDA, there is a mandatory character test for dogs over 24 months, which is an exercise from the protection routine of the schutzhund trial: a ‘bad guy” comes from behind a blind and threatens the dog’s handler with a stick, and the dog is supposed to vigorously and surely prevent him from attacking the team. Since this fits into the proscripted “aggression” of the AKC letters, such organizations are supposed to suffer loss of AKC privileges if they had any to begin with. So far, the ruse has worked for WDA, and we should all applaud their ability to dance around the Madison Avenue Mastodon.
The WDA and USA operate similarly in other respects, so there is someplace for the non-AKC-American Shepherd to go for training and competition in breed and performance. Trouble is, USA clubs are few and far between, and WDA clubs are worse, being more rare than a helping of Lebanese kibbe or steak tartare.
To top it off, it recently became a matter of general awareness that the USA “papers” were not worth anything on their own except for the particular dog itself. A USA-“registered” dog could not produce registrable offspring recognized as such by AKC or foreign countries, and if born in America, such dogs would need to have both parents registered with AKC in order for such recognition. The USA had merely been stamping their own number on the certified pedigree – owner’s papers supplied with an imported dog, and different numbers on the puppies’ pedigree papers.
No more nor less than the AKC’s selling of numbers, but at least the AKC numbers are accepted by other registries. WDA show entries can be registered with any AKC-recognized club, so most of their shows’ dogs are either SV or AKC or both. USA has recently rectified the problem for future offspring by admitting that all dogs born or producing here should be AKC-registered as well, just as required by FCI-member countries including Germany.
While it rightly belongs to subject matter in a separate article, I must mention this before hearing a roar of disapproval about “German toplines”. During the couple of decades before the present administration of the SV and WUSV, so much emphasis was placed on powerful drives in the rear, that the outline of the West German dogs (and therefore in much of the world buying them) had too many “boomerang” or “banana backs”. This resulted not only from “the push for push”, but also from the attempt to get the appearance of a long croup.
Thankfully, this trend has been stopped and is in process of reverting to the more normal topline without sacrificing strength, power, and the long croup needed for both. If you still have a hang-up over the overline, at least consider its functional purpose in comparison with much worse problems in a trotting breed, such as short legs, heavy bodies, upright/short upper arms, and steep/short croups. Judges, please don’t put up a question-mark temperament over a comma-shaped topline.
In the UK, primarily England, there are also two camps: the “Alsatian” and the “Germanic” styles. The former is mostly shorter on leg, very heavy in torso, and soft in coat and temperament. They derive philosophically (their nick-name) and via heritage from some WW-1-era dogs of light color and smaller gene pool than found elsewhere in the world. Isolation because of quarantine was added to prejudice against all things related to the Kaiser at first and Hitler’s Germany to a much greater extent later.
It wasn’t until much later (late 1950s and early 1960s) that good German dogs were brought in, and the rift began. The international type, though initially smaller in numbers, is now the predominant style in the UK. At Crufts, the super-large show in England, the GSD judge choice alternates between “Germanic” and “Alsatian” preference: every other year the “other” camp gets their shot.
Where is the GSD going, and what kind of body is carrying it there? Anybody who has any interest in seeing what the breed can offer in the way of uniformity, soundness, consensus-type adherence, and proven character owes it to himself to look outside the AKC yard to the greener grass of the WDA and USA Sieger Shows, to actually see that body, that style, that truer-to-type dog.
There are far more AKC shows to go to, but you’ll have to look longer and harder, because the tendency is for American Shepherds to keep going to shows until they win enough points, no matter how undeserving they are. Judges who pick the truly normal, closer-to-Standard dog may get fewer assignments, but what you see in their rings will be fewer of the extreme caricatures, and more of the right picture of the dog of the future.
A big current difficulty for GSD fanciers is that the WUSV has announced that membership can and might be denied clubs that do not accept and cause judges to abide by the world Standard. Despite warnings a couple of years ago, the GSDCA is only now sluggishly beginning to take the edict seriously. AKC is a big stumbling block because while they say that the Standards are the property of the breed clubs, they really don’t mean it, and want to keep control over these themselves. So any deadline is made doubly violated when AKC must be appeased by the GSDCA.
If GSDCA refuses to go along with the rest of the world, as it has in the past, it could lose WUSV membership. That would put an end to the masquerade of WDA legitimacy, and that group would probably lose the privilege of holding recognized breed shows, and probably would be unable to get SV judges anymore.
If all this happens, USA will move into the voting-member chair, and some more desertions from GSDCA will occur. USA has already long since surpassed GSDCA in membership; USA people are practically all active and really have to want to join, while a great proportion of GSDCA folks are members only to get the magazine or because they feel they are supposed to belong because they own a GSD.
My predictions or answers to the question of “quo vadis?” are that the WDA and USA will eventually get their differences straightened out, the GSDCA will have at least a 60-40 chance of losing or dropping WUSV membership, and the breed itself will have a respectably large enough chance of being split and renamed.
The AKC-type extreme dog will continue, but owned by a smaller group of show-only and win-at-any-cost people who breed to and “put up” each others’ dogs, blithely going down their own slippery path. If registration is not disrupted, there will continue to be some cross-over, but it will all be AKC-American Shepherd bitches going to international/German studs, almost never German-style bitches going to American Shepherd studs.
Just as in any futurist’s prognostications, this view can change considerably in reaction to a change of heart or decisions on the part of one or a few key people. Jim Crowley as late as February said that AKC’s position re schutzhund has not changed and that any violations would be investigated, but they’ve known all along about the GSDCA-WDA, so they will probably continue to dance the Clintonesque around that bush of thorns. The president of the WUSV may soften and decide to let the American club retain its membership and just de facto ignore its presence instead of requiring GSDCA to march in proper Teutonic time. And if the courts do get involved with the name of the breed, they may find “German Shepherd Dog” to be non-copyright protected.
But one thing is almost certain: there will continue in America a high-profile (although insignificant on the world scale) coterie of canines with a wide variety of type, all called GSD but actually identified by the label that one long-time pro handler has called them, “Pretenders”.
Author of “The Total German Shepherd Dog” (Hoflin, 1999) Fred Lanting is one of only two SV breed judges in North and Central America, and has observed and judged the breed during many international lecture tours. He also wrote “Canine Hip Dysplasia”. One of his slide lectures is “100 Years of the GSD: Evolution of Types”. He can be contacted at Mr.GSD@juno.com
See more info at German Shepherds and GSD pictures