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Lake Cherokee DDR German Shepards

Lake Cherokee DDR German Shepherds
The History of the Deutsches Demokratische Republik German Shepherd

In 1889, Captain Max von Stephanitz began the standardization of the German Shepherd Dog breed.  It all started at a dog show in Karlsruhe in western Germany.  A medium-sized yellow-and-gray wolf like dog caught his attention.  The dog was of the primal canine type, supple and powerful, and possessed endurance, steadiness, and intelligence. He was a working sheepherder, born with this ability, requiring no training other than direction and finish to become proficient at the task. This dog, Hektor Linksrhein, was purchased by von Stephanitz, renamed Horand von Grafrath, and became the first registered German Shepherd Dog (GSD).

Von Stephanitz founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, SV (German Shepherd Dog Club), becoming the first president, and in a short period oftime achieved the standardization of form and type in the breed. A standardwas developed based on mental stability and utility. The Captain's motto was "Utility and Intelligence."  To him beauty was secondary, and a dog was worthless if it lacked the intelligence, temperament, and structural efficiency that would make it a good servant of man.  A breed standard was developed as a blueprint dictating the exact function and relationship of every aspect of structure, gait, and inherent attitude.

As Germany became increasingly industrialized and the pastoral era declined, von Stephanitz realized the breed might also decline.  With the co-operation of police and working dog clubs, a set of specific tests was developed in tracking, formal obedience, and protection work.  This was the prototype of the present Schutzhund trials.  He persuaded the authorities to utilize the GSD in various branches of government service.   The first German Shepherd Dog exhibited in America was in 1907. Mira von Offingen, imported by Otto Gross, was shown by H. Dalrymple, of Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania in the open class at Newcastle and Philadelphia.

Max Von Stephanitz

Horand von Grafrath
Max Von Stephanitz

The first championships awarded the GSD was in 1913.  In 1913, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America was formed by Benjamin Throop and Anne Tracy, with 26 charter members.  The German Shepherd Dog Club of America's first specialty show was at Greenwich, Connecticut in 1915.  In 1917, when America entered World War I, all things German became taboo.  The American Kennel Club changed the name of the breed to the Shepherd Dog and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America became the Shepherd Dog Club of America.  In England, the name of the breed was changed to the Alsatian Wolf Dog after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine. The “Wolf Dog” tag was later to be dropped as it was felt that this would prejudice the breed.  In 1977, following numerous campaigns by breeders the name of the breed was changed back to the German Shepherd Dog by which it is known in the USA, Australia, and most other countries.

In 1914, the GSDs were suggested to the German Army for use as messengers, search and rescue, guards and ammunition carriers. 

At first, the German Army was very amused, but upon researching the already established use of the GSD by the various police and government agencies, changed their minds and took the offer seriously. During World War I, the GSDs demonstrated their ability to do just about anything, they would go anywhere, and their courage impressed not only the German soldier, but the English and American soldiers as well.

DDR German Shepherds at work

Helen Keller with her German Shepherd

With the end of WW I came a new appreciation for the breed. After the war, the soldiers brought home remarkable, sometimes unbelievable, stories of this wonderful dog they had seen on the battlefields. It was the GSD that was the first dog to be trained to guide blinded soldiers, leading to the establishment of the Seeing Eye Dog.

Towards the end of WW I, an American soldier entered a German bunker, and found two puppies whose mother was nowhere to be seen. This American soldier brought the two puppies home to America.

Unfortunately, one of the puppies died of pneumonia, but the other thrived and grew up to become one of the most beloved German Shepherd Dogs in the history of the breed, Rin Tin Tin.   This dog demonstrated all the traits that we humans wished we each possessed on the silent movie screens across America.   Rin Tin Tin also saved Warner Brothers from financial disaster.


Rin-Tin-Tin German Shepherd

Rin-Tin-Tin German Shephed

Another GSD appeared on the screens, Strongheart, who demonstrated that thebest within each of us could take form in reality.   Soon, Americans were demanding Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart to be there for their families. America was in love with the GSD and it almost became the kiss of death to the GSD breed. The demand for as many GSD puppies as could be produced overwhelmed the German breeders.   There were some breeders who loved the GSD as much as any German breeder, and then there were the others who thought they had found their pot of gold.   Thousands of puppies were placedon the market and were sold.   Problems in temperament, medical problems,and fraud developed.   Then the Crash and the Great Depression of 1928 hit the world.   Many of these dogs, and others as well, were turned out into the streets to fend for themselves and interbreed without control.

Strongheart German Shepherd

World War II became a part of the GSDs history as well.   The GSD was widely utilized during World War II, employed by Allied and Axis forces, as mine detectors, sentinels, and messengers. In America, Dogs for Defense was formed, providing thousands of dogs to the army.  The GSD demonstrated its ability with the Red Cross, in locating wounded soldiers.   The GSDs were heralded by soldiers of all sides of the battles and at the end of the war another upsurge of popularity hit the breed.

German Shepherd, Adolf Hitler

Allied forces with their German Shephed Dogs

The political climate which ensued after WW II, the Cold War, would have a tremendous influence on the GSD.

Before the Cold War, Germany was one nation. As World War II came to an end, Nazi Germany was divided by the allied forces of France, Great Britain, The Soviet Union, and the United States of America. The close proximity of occupying forces, and their different political beliefs, began to strain relations, and as the Cold War began, the Soviet Union decided to close its borders. This eventually led to Germany splitting into East and West Germany.

With its borders closed East Germany became isolated from the outside world. The Communist government controlled trade, communications, travel, and most aspects of life.

German Map, After WWII

These factors would have a major impact on the GSD. The state sponsored breeding kennels now operated internally, maintaining and strengthening the strict standards of the breed, without any outside influence.

In October of 1949, East Germany officially became the Deutsches Demokratische Republik (DDR). Not long after, the government decided to seize control of the German Shepherd pedigree registration and Financial Administration offices.

Seeing the potential of the GSD as a military dog, the East German government began work on breeding the ultimate GSD.   Tough criteria and extensive testing was put in place to ensure that only the best examples ofthe breed were acceptable.

Only the very best were considered true DDR German Shepherds.   They were bred for strong bones to handle the great distances they would be expected to patrol.  They were constantly exposed to the harshest weather conditions, to build stamina, a genetic resistance to disease, and ability to function in the worst of weather conditions.

The DDR GSD was bred for straight lines with a strong back.  An intimidating presence was required in the GSD, with an unusually large and bold head.

Supreme intelligence in the GSD was a requirement.  Large erect ears, to augment hearing sensitivity were desirable. Broad shouldered and deep chested, the DDR GSD was a sight to behold.  Finally a dark coat was preferred to camouflage the dog during night military exercises.   One can only imagine what one of these DDR GSD specimens must have looked like if you were on the receiving end of a handler controlled charge.  A scene out of the opening of the movie “Gladiator” comes to mind.

Strict standards also ensured that animals with any signs of Hip Dysplasia, a genetic weakness of the GSD, would not be used for breeding.   When a Dam gave birth, she would have to appear with her whole litter for an extensive physical inspection.   Teeth, ear set, temperament, coat and overall appearance would be judged. Only the “Best of the Best” could be used for further breeding.

German Shepherd Training

The working abilities skills tests which included tracking, balance beams, scaling a straight wall (instead of an incline wall) were stricter and more physically demanding.

The East German national breeding program, as ruthless as it was at times, succeeded. The DDR GSD ultimately exhibited a distinctive look that became different from the traditional GSD. Just as Nazi Germany had strived to create a “Super Race” with their ideology, so had East Germany work on accomplishing this with their national dog.

Border Patrol Dogs

DDR German Shepherd Border Patrol Dogs In 1946, the Soviet Union formed the Grenzschutz Polizei, the Border Police.  Responsibilities included guarding the East German border.  During the first year 3,000 soldiers had been drafted into the unit.

By the early 1950s, West Germany was rapidly becoming a postwar industrial powerhouse.  The Communist domain languished economically. It began to leak skilled workers. 

DDR German Shepherd Border Patrol Dogs
The main border between East and West Germany was sealed. However, because of its four-power status, Berlin remained open. East Germans seeking a better life could still leave for West Berlin and, from there, fly to West Germany. Of 17 million East Germans, 2.2 million fled westward between 1949 and 1961, most via the Berlin "escape hatch."  By mid-1961, this exodus threatened the Communist state's very existence.  Hence, the Berlin Wall.
Building the Berlin Wall

Shortly before midnight on Aug. 12, 1961, thousands of East German workers, guarded by troops, began to construct concrete-block and wood barriers and barbed wire fences blocking boulevards, parks, streets, and alleys in the heart of the city of Berlin, as well as the perimeter adjoining the surrounding Communist state of East Germany.

By dawn on August 13, the labor gangs' work was done. Berlin had been physically divided into a western, capitalist part, connected to democratic West Germany by a handful of transit highways and air routes, and an eastern, impoverished, Communist section whose citizens were now effectively imprisoned.  This "Berlin Wall" survived for 28 years, 2 months, and 26 days.

Snaking for almost a hundred miles around West Berlin, the Wall became the Cold War's most potent symbol.  It began 50 yards deep on the East Berlin side, with a high wall greeting potential escapers.  Next came an alarmed fence, then dog-runs patrolled by specially trained DDR GSDs.  Towers stood every hundred yards, manned by guards with orders to shoot on sight. At the edge of West Berlin stood a final "marker" barrier (the part tourists wrongly assumed to be "the Berlin Wall").

DDR German Shepherd Patrol Dogs

Responsible now for patrolling the Berlin Wall, the Border Police accelerated its DDR GSD breeding program.  In 1974, the original Grenzschultz Polizei became the Grenztruppen, or border troops.  Approximately 100-160 DDR GSDs were assigned to each Grenztruppen battalion.

The Diensthundefuehrer (Dog Team Leader) was in charge of the overall care and training for the border patrol dogs and their handlers. The Diensthundefuehrer had to have basic veterinary skills be proficient in dog


The Grenztruppen would police minefields, border fences, checkpoints, and watch towers.   Hundreds of large dog pens, several miles long, were set up throughout the East German border, including the Berlin Wall. More than 5,000 dogs were used just to patrol the Berlin Wall.  Dogs were sometimes leashed to a suspended line, within these dog runs, to patrol a strategic area. It was a common part of their training regimen to feed them only once every ten days to keep them lean, aggressive, and ferocious.

DDR German Shepherd Patrol Dogs

DDR German Shepherd Guard Dog

German Shepherd Dogs at work

Their keen intelligence made them far more versatile than merely a security dog. They were also worked as trackers and attack dogs.  The Grenztruppen even created a specialized unit of DDR GSDs to track deserters in all types of terrain.


German Shepherd Dogs at work

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

In August 1989, Hungary removed their physical border defenses with Austria.   This began a chain reaction that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

On June 13th, 1990 the East German military began dismantling the Wall.  Free passage between East and West Germany had already been permitted for several months.  The Grenztruppen were officially disbanded on July 1st,1990.

As the German unification process continued, many of the DDR GSDs dogs were sold, abandoned, or euthanized.  Thankfully, a small handful of breeders realizing that years of strict East German breeding had produced a magnificent animal that was now distinct and different from the typical Western GSD, have helped preserved the lineage of this incredible dog.

Renowned for their intelligence, structure, courage, loyalty, temperament, natural defense drive, tracking, and working abilities, the DDR German Shepherd Dog is now coveted by both professionals and German  Shepherd aficionados all over the world as truly the “Best of the Best.”


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