by   David Hancock

The headline in the Daily Telegraph for Friday the 28th of July 2017 was quite shocking: "Misery of German Shepherds bred to look 'perfect'. The accompanying article referred to a major new report by the Royal Veterinary College, based on data collected from 430 clinics, revealing that cancer, aggression and sloping backs are afflicting the breed. The report also revealed that nearly 50% of German Shepherds are being put down because they are unable to walk! It concluded that this could only be rectified if 'people stopped buying unnaturally shaped dogs'. What would be of even more value would be the Kennel Club disowning any Breed Club not banning such dogs and declining to register any GSDs that failed a veterinary inspection. The KC has listed this breed as one of the 17 breeds covered by their Breed Health and Conservation Plan. That's just a bureaucratic way of ducking responsibility. The KC has done nothing to prevent this breed from becoming a victim of its misguided, almost deranged, breeders and fanciers, over the last half century or more. I have been highlighting this needless deformation for over thirty years, as have many others, but perhaps because this breed has had powerful breed clubs, those in authority have just watched it happen. 'Banana-backed' GSDs, with extraordinary 'extension' in their hindquarters, moving like hyenas have been watched by astonished observers in other breeds with suppressed amazement.

The next day, The Times produced a headline stating: "Dog Fashions are harming alsatians" with an accompanying article stating that this same report found that "Alsatians were most likely to die from complications arising from musculoskeletal disorders, in 13.6% of cases, or the inability to stand, in 14.9% of cases." This report by Dr Dan O'Neill was published in Canine Genetics and Epidemiology; he also stated that German Shepherd Dogs have previously been reported to have the second highest number of health disorders exacerbated by breeding traits, with another German breed, the Great Dane, occupying top place. But another 7,500 GSDs were registered with our KC in 2016, to add to the pool of disfigured dogs - and high vets' bills as well as huge discomfort for the wretched dogs themselves. With most police forces across Europe and North America no longer using this breed as service dogs, we are witnessing the death of a once-famous breed - one destroyed by its own breeders!  

Within the misguided GSD clan there is a weird desire for what they term 'gaiting', wherein the dogs move around the show ring imitating hyenas, their spines arched, their legs moving almost independently of their torsos, illegally encouraged by a cacophony of whistle-blowing, squeaking toys and verbal incitement from ringside exhibitors and their colleagues. This is euphemistically termed 'secondary handling' but is demeaning to the sport of exhibiting dogs and humiliating for this once-noble breed. No other breed seems to need such extended cheating. Astonishingly, when I asked a leading GSD exhibitor why his particular breed should move in a manner not seen in any other, he argued that the GSD is a 'special' breed with its own idiosyncratic way of moving. When I pointed out that the shepherd dogs of Holland, Belgium and the Beauceron of France, all from a common origin and purpose, didn't share this feature, he went silent. I am saddened by such bizarre thinking and in despair that for so long it has been condoned by kennel clubs. 

The despair over the decline of the German Shepherd Dog in the last half-century is well illustrated by the creation of 'offshoots' like the Eastern European Shepherd, the Saarloos and the Czech Wolfdogs, and, mainly in North America, the King Shepherd, the Shiloh Shepherd and the Panda Shepherd Dogs. But now, the Thames Valley Police Dog Section has produced their version and an impressive version it is. Thirty years ago, when working in London, I walked behind a Metropolitan Police dog-handler as he patrolled a nearby street in Whitehall. I was appalled by the 'back-end' of his GSD! The dog was badly cow-hocked as well as bent-backed, with no power from behind and a distinct lack of fluid movement overall. The dog had clearly been obtained from a show breeder rather than 'bred for the job'. Sadly, the dog's handler seemed oblivious to the basic flaws in his dog. For such a fine breed to descend to this was extremely sad. Is any breed safe?

   It is foolish to regard any dog registered with the KC as a purebred product as having true type just because it is a registered pedigree dog. Type in any breed of dog is far more subtle and a lot more elusive than that. For me dogs with the genuine look of their breed are always to be preferred to untypical specimens with "papers". Is a German Shepherd Dog with a roach back, hyper-angulation in its hindquarters and a lack of substance, with two show-ring wins and KC registration to be preferred to an upstanding, well-boned and symmetrically built dog with a level topline but no papers? Contemporary GSD breeders seem to have lost their way and it's going to take decades to restore true type to this quite outstanding breed. I wholeheartedly agree with Lady Malpas, who wrote a decade ago to one of the dog papers: "There can be no justification for any attempt, accidental or intentional, to produce different types of German shepherd." I also support the view of a GSD breed correspondent who questioned 'What has happened to this noble breed? I was brought up in the school that had as a pattern dogs like Ch. Fenton of Kentwood, Ch. Sergeant of Rozavel and dogs of similar type. My mentors told me that a good Alsatian could carry a glass of water on its back without spilling when moving...' What ever makes a breed-clique alter a breed to its disadvantage? The first show Alsatians I ever saw, as a young teenager, were from the celebrated 'of Movem' kennel and had a topline for any breeder to die for!

In Germany, the 'breed wardens' for the GSD wield enormous power. It was therefore good to read that a new (2013) breed warden has taken a long hard look at the breed and outlined his main priorities: health and agility, return to the Standard, a broadening of the bloodline basis or gene pool and reduction of inbreeding, the promotion of working ability and, significantly, opposition to the trend of breeding look-a-like 'clones', wherein every dog in the breed resembles the next one - the dreaded 'cookie-cutter' dogs. The last point is of interest; how do you breed to the Standard without producing dogs of almost exact appearance? It could lead to a temporary loss of breed type but it might also result in the best working dog physique being favoured over rows of extremely handsome identical dogs - all with the same faults. 
The past service to man of the German Shepherd Dog is difficult for any other breed to match. I have seen them at work and witnessed their versatility in nearly twenty different countries. I had always considered their breed type to be fixed. Unlike manufactured breeds like the Dobermann and the Leonberger, there is no risk of a strong prototypal ancestor-breed like the Greyhound or the Bulldog manifesting itself. Any breeder who tampers with a breed type long established, long accepted and long proven able to produce an intelligent, healthy, biddable dog is a dangerous, misguided maverick who should be halted in his tracks. In any breed of pedigree dog it only takes one determined breeder with more money than sense to promote his concept or a dominant clique to gain ascendancy for true type to be threatened. Breeds don't just lose type; breeders lose their way. But who lets them? The KC really must appoint Breed Councils as the guardians of each breed – it is truly a high priority.

Despite being able to trace its ancestry back to the native sheep dogs of Thuringia and Wurtemberg, I believe it is fair to state that the GSD has ceased to be a pastoral dog and should now be regarded as a service dog. I believe it is also fair to state that for a century at least it was the most widely-used service dog in the world. That is some tribute to the early breeders. It is not any solace to the breeders of today however to see that retrievers, purebred and crossbred, are replacing the GSD as guide-dogs, the police in many European countries are turning towards the Malinois for their needs, with spaniels being preferred for drug, contraband and bomb-search work. The ubiquitous Border Collie is emerging as the best-equipped, all-round, multi-purpose service dog, mainly because of its biddability and wide-ranging natural talent, but also through its physical robustness, which means lower maintenance costs for the user. The harm done to the GSD breed by misguided faddists is incalculable. In their important book on the breed, The Complete German Shepherd Dog of 1983, breed experts Nem and Percy Elliott wrote: “The breed definitely went wrong of that there is no doubt. To get things back on an even keel, is what’s necessary, i.e.: back to the balanced dog, of correct type. For some that is not enough. They wish to continue to exaggerate their breeding plans; but in the opposite direction! Consequently, there are those who wish their dogs to be shorter than normal, with sloping and raised backlines, half-starved during puppyhood so as not to be too heavy; and this is equally wrong. Those of us with the necessary experience, have to continue to try and guide the development of the breed on the right lines. I think we shall succeed, but time will tell.” This makes sad reading and I wish them and their enlightened colleagues eventual success. No farmer could afford to breed deformed dogs! And no police force would want to use them.

   If breed type, real breed type, not ‘flavour of the month’ or false phenotypes compounded over recent years by show ring whim or temporary fashion, actually matters, and I do believe it does, an argument could be made for ‘starting again’. By that I mean the drawing-up of the correct historical type for each native pastoral breed from the earliest depictions, principally from very old photographs, then by a programme of planned breeding, re-creating or restoring that type in each of our native pastoral breeds. When you look at the KC acceptance of a created breed such as the Eurasier and that by the FCI of the Kromfohrlander, a far stronger case could be made for the restoration of our lost native breeds. I see look-alikes of the Welsh Hillman, the Old Welsh Grey, the Black and Tan Sheepdog and the Irish breeds: the Galway Sheepdog and the Glenwherry Collie remarkably often; the type is clearly strongly perpetuated. It would be a fascinating project too to reproduce the lost Smooth Shetland Sheepdog; those who admire the breed but not its contemporary coat would certainly find such a scheme of interest. Perpetuating unsound, sickly or overdone pedigree breeds makes no sense at all in today’s more compassionate society. For breeders, both here and in Germany, to ruin such an outstanding breed as the GSD in such a relatively short period of time, takes some doing - and for the kennel clubs of the world to condone such destruction is frankly a disgrace.