The German shepherd is descended from the best herding dogs found in Germany. As a result, the progenitors of today's German shepherd were found in a variety of colors: white, sable, tan and black, solid black, and brindle. The coat type also varied from short- to longhaired, and there were even wirehaired dogs. Some dogs' ears stood erect; other dogs' ears may have flopped over. Some shepherd dogs held their tails low; others had tails curling over their backs.
Centuries ago, it didn't matter what the shepherd looked like, as long as he had the instincts and drive to perform his herding job. Of course, the German shepherd varied from other herding breeds. He was not only asked to “tend” the sheep but also protect them from wolves, bears, and enterprising humans.
The shepherd's job as a “tender” involved keeping large flocks of sheep (sometimes more than 100 animals) contained on the owner's grazing land. Tending differs from other forms of herding. The dog essentially circles the flock to keep it contained and moves the flock forward as the sheepherder might direct. With few, if any, fences erected in Germany before the end of the nineteenth century, herding dogs with tending capabilities were critically important.
Though the ancestors of the German shepherd are often referred to as “German shepherds,” the purebred form of this dog you recognize today did not evolve until the late 1800s.
In the barnyard, the German shepherds were called upon to help with small groups of sheep, separating and holding them as needed for medical attention, sheering, and other procedures. Once these chores were completed, the shepherd was often directed to gather the sheep and move them down narrow roads or through towns toward the market. The early canine shepherds of Germany truly were a versatile breed, performing chores that several specialized herding breeds (and livestock guardian breeds) were used for in other countries.
But the shepherd's position as sheep tender would not last forever. As the world changed, so did this breed. Near the end of the nineteenth century, when fences were erected and rail travel became an efficient way to transport livestock, herding dogs were no longer needed in great numbers. Though some breeds of herding dogs vanished, Germans recognized that, in addition to its extraordinary herding abilities, the German shepherd had great potential to do other kinds of work.
At this time, there were three different types of shepherds that appeared in Germany, each associated with a different region. Shepherds from Wurttemberg appeared in a variety of colors and had beautiful tails that were carried lower, as opposed to curling over the dogs' backs. Shepherds from the Thuringia region did not appear in the variety of colors that the Wurttemberg dogs did; rather, they were predominantly wolf gray. The Thuringia shepherds were distinctive because they had consistently erect, well-placed ears. The third group of shepherds, from Swabia, was mostly noted for its herding characteristics, which translated into ability to navigate difficult terrain. This shepherd had great agility, endurance, strength, and speed.
Herding breeds were sometimes considered for positions as police and military dogs during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Germany, one of the favored breeds for this work was the smooth collie.
Max von Stephanitz — now often referred to as the father of the German shepherd breed — worked with other breeders to develop a purebred dog with the best qualities from the three German shepherd varieties. In just ten years, from 1889 to 1899, von Stephanitz and Germany's shepherd breeders were able to create a true purebred — one that appeared primarily within the set breed standards without any extreme variations.
In 1899, von Stephanitz founded the Verein Fur Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), Germany's German shepherd club. That same year, the SV approved a breed standard, and the world's oldest German shepherd registry was opened.