By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network
Known for their courage and loyalty, German shepherds consistently rank among the most popular breeds in the United States. A dog named Rin Tin Tin also helped solidify German shepherds as a household favorite. Before prized pooches hit the show ring for Westminster Kennel Club's annual dog show on Feb. 13, we offer a little primer on German shepherds.
Originally bred as farm dogs, German shepherds gained popularity in the late 1800s due to their intelligence and striking features. Captain Max von Stephanitz of Germany is credited with registering the first German shepherd in 1899, and breed standards maintained an emphasis on intelligence. As Germany transitioned from farming to manufacturing, von Stephanitz found that the dogs served as capable police dogs. German shepherds also were recruited to serve as guards, messengers and trackers during the war.
U.S. soldiers returned to the states with stories of the dogs' valor, boosting interest in the breed - in spite of its origin. Briefly after the start of World War I, the American Kennel Club (AKC) renamed the breed as shepherd dog to remove the stigma of German affiliation. In 1954, a Western TV series called "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" featured a heroic German shepherd that inspired many families to crave the same furry companionship. In his first book, "Cesar's Way" Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan said episodes of "Rin Tin Tin" spurred his passion to move to California and become the world's best dog trainer.
[Related: Four dogs that never won Westminster]
Most German shepherds have medium-length black and tan double coats that require brushing regularly. This muscular breed can reach about 24 inches at the highest point on its shoulder blades. What's most striking about the dog's appearance is its pointed ears, wedge-shaped muzzle and athletic gait that can cover long distances without effort.
"They are very athletic dogs," says officer Mike Upshur, who owns German shepherds and trains dogs for police work. "A German shepherd can do a steady pace for about 24 hours."
Intelligence and loyalty make German shepherds good family dogs - and excellent police dogs. In addition to their keen sense of smell, Upshur says the breed easily adapts to sounds that would scare other breeds, including gunshots and traffic. Once trained, German shepherd police dogs focus intently on the task at hand.
"If he is on a track and the person doubles back while the dog is tracking, the dog will automatically train himself to pick that [scent] up," says Upshur. "You can see this dog thinking while it's working. It's just like riding with another cop next to you - or, in the dog's case, behind you."
[Related: Six breeds making their debut at Westminster]
Common health issues
Hip dysplasia is the most common health issue for German shepherds. The condition causes arthritis around the hip joints, making it difficult for dogs to climb stairs. While Upshur recommends adopting rescue dogs as family pets, if you purchase a purebred German shepherd, he stresses the importance of finding a reputable breeder and asking plenty of questions about the dog's history. The AKC offers referral lists in its website.
"Ask to see both dogs, the mother and the father," he says. "A good breeder has paperwork that goes back way before those parents. Anyone can get two dogs and breed them, but a good breeder spends time on a dog and has information on that line going back a number of years. It's not just a moneymaking venture."
Enjoy the pooch parade
Coverage of German shepherds and other herding dogs is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 on the USA network. For more information about the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show, visit westminsterkennelclub.org.
Like this story? Follow @MNNPets on Twitter for more just like it.
Meet the Bouvier des Flandres
Meet the Boxer
Meet the Jack Russel terrrier
5 unusual pet procedures