(DOGS) Since the breed’s peak in popularity after World War I, German shepherds have recently seen a steady decline. Despite their original development for German cavalry workers, they are now commonly being replaced with Belgian Malinois as military working dogs, providing even less reason to continue breeding. But according to Susan Orlean, author of “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend,” the German shepherds’ rise to fame was mainly caused by the popular animal actor Rin Tin Tin, who transformed the German shepherd into the most sought after breed in America. But could Orlean’s new book and its future movie adaptation bring this beloved breed back into the spotlight? Read on for more on Orlean’s biography of the legendary pooch. —Global Animal
NY Times, Susan Orlean
SUCCESS can be a drag. You yearn for it, strive for it, and then, when it finally arrives, it sets off repercussions you never anticipated that sometimes undo that success.
Take the German shepherd. Originally bred to the exacting standards of a German cavalry officer, it became one of the 20th century’s most popular working breeds. But in recent years that popularity, and the overbreeding that came with it, has driven the German shepherd into eclipse: even the police in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who had relied on the dogs for years, recently announced they were replacing them with Belgian Malinois, because the less-popular Malinois were hardier and more reliable.
But there is good news about this bad news, if you are a lover of the breed, because less visibility, especially in inspiring roles as public servants, is likely to mean less demand for the dogs. That means less reason to produce too many puppies, which is the best thing that can happen to any purebred dogs.
German shepherds have existed for only a little more than 100 years. The breed was developed in the late 1800s by Max von Stephanitz, who dreamed of standardizing the motley array of German farm dogs into a single model that would be sturdy, smart and companionable.
Von Stephanitz might have been lost to history as just another German soldier messing around with dogs in his backyard, except that he managed to start breeding wonderful puppies. Even so, German shepherds might have ended up as a niche breed, alongside Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers and Entlebucher mountain dogs, except that von Stephanitz began giving the best of his litters to local police forces, where the dogs triumphed: they were athletic, attentive and intelligent, everything von Stephanitz had promised.
A breed club soon formed and, in just a few years, it had 60,000 members in Germany. After American G.I.s returned home from World War I raving about this extraordinary new breed, German shepherds became the most sought-after dog in this country, too.
The best and the worst thing happened next. Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd puppy brought home from the war by a lonesome American soldier named Lee Duncan, became an international movie star. Now German shepherds weren’t only admired for their intelligence and Olympian athleticism. They acquired the aura of magic, the glittering charisma of a celebrity.
But dogs are not brands. Unlike Prada backpacks or Jimmy Choo shoes, demand for a certain breed can’t be relieved by merely ramping up production. Unscrupulous kennel owners and pet shops start producing puppies as fast as they can, even when the genetic mixes they’re creating aren’t healthy. Responsible American breeders soon noticed the dogs were showing an alarming rate of hip and eye problems, and they asked experts from Germany to tour kennels here and make recommendations for sorting out the genetic mess.
That intervention set things right, but the popularity of the breed remained. If there was a slight lull for German shepherds in the ’30s, it passed quickly when they were named the Army’s official mascots in World War II, with Rin Tin Tin as the spokesdog for the War Dog program; this, coupled with the hit ’50s television show “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” made German shepherds the ultimate American dog.
Demand for the breed, and the cruel practices that drove its supply, continued in the postwar years. “Success, like a chicken bone, is bad for dogs,” began a story in Life magazine called “Sad Degeneration of Our Dogs,” which ran in 1958. “The higher a dog rises in public favor, the more devastating its downfall. None has soared higher or fallen harder than the German shepherd.”
Who is to blame? Is it von Stephanitz, for developing a breed of dog that turned out to be simply too well-liked? Is it Rin Tin Tin, for stirring up so much German shepherd passion? Or is it really just human nature?
We seem incapable of resisting the pull of popularity; what’s more, people are especially crazy — and often illogical and emotional — when it comes to dogs. And it’s not just German shepherds, either. You can always tell when “101 Dalmatians” has just been rereleased, or a funny talking Chihuahua is featured in a national advertising campaign; suddenly, every dog park is overrun with Dalmatians or Chihuahuas.
Sometimes these dogs have owners who have come to realize they were more in love with the dog when it was an image on screen than as a real, live member of the household. Or, in the case with German shepherds, they love them so much that they want to produce more of them, without much idea of how to do that well.
Bad breeding is bad for everyone, and in recent years the American Kennel Club, among other organizations, has done its best to discourage it, and to encourage adoption from shelters, which have, unfortunately, an oversupply of abandoned purebred dogs. It’s been a success, but it will never completely override our very human tendency to want those things — and animals — that have the shine of popularity.
The decision of the North Rhine-Westphalia police only looks like a failure for the breed. A little less popularity is the best thing that can happen to it. Perhaps, if other law enforcement agencies follow this lead, German shepherds will recede a bit from public view. They will make fewer appearances as stern search-and-rescue workers and soldier dogs and guide dogs. And we, the impressionable creatures we are, will be a little less determined to have a wonder dog of our own.