FREDERICK, Md. — They’ve been a loyal companion of presidents and vice presidents. They’ve disappeared into piles of smoldering rubble seeking out the living and the dead. They’ve been messengers, sentries and scouts and parachuted out of planes to patrol the front lines of war around the world protecting our troops. They have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Day in and day out, they are the trusted companion of police officers in keeping us safe, apprehending criminals or identifying contraband. They were the first to guide the blind, and today are found in diverse service and assistance roles providing aide to those in need. They’ve even had starring roles in legendary Hollywood movies.
This impressive resume belongs uniquely to the German shepherd dog, which this year marks 100 years in America – an anniversary that will be celebrated at several East Coast dog shows this month.
With their upright ears, alert demeanor, long snout and characteristic black and tan color, German shepherds are one of the most recognizable of the 161 kinds of pure breed dogs in America. They are also among the most popular, ranking second of all breeds according to the American Kennel Club.
In an era of designer dogs, the German shepherd has endured virtually unchanged; proven in its capabilities and confident in any surrounding. With front legs poised together and rear legs off set as if ready for takeoff, the trademark stance says it all; alert and ready for action, with control and intelligence, and protective nature.
Experts place the German shepherd in the top three dogs for their intelligence, which helps explains why they are highly trainable and excel at both obedience and agility, as well as service and therapy roles. Their herding instincts come naturally and they can just as easily round up children in the backyard as sheep in a pasture.
These characteristics also have made German shepherds well-suited for their best known role as K-9 Officers in law enforcement and as a military working dog.
Along with a strong working drive, their intelligence and discriminating scenting abilities are superior detectors of minute traces of illegal drugs or the components of an explosive device. Their demeanor allows them to be K9 officers by day and gentle family members at night.
America’s love affair with German shepherds began on the big screen in the decade after their arrival here.
In 1921 the German shepherd “Strongheart” was one of the first canines to be featured in a silent movie. But it was later that decade when the classic story of Rin-Tin-Tin, a German shepherd rescued from a World War I battlefield, cemented America’s love affair with the dog. Along with Lassie, a long-haired collie, they are two of only three dogs with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Today German shepherds are more likely to be the stars of living rooms and local law enforcement than the silver screen. On any given weekend, you'll find families with their German shepherds competing for top dog honors in obedience, herding, tracking and conformation at dog shows all around the country.
Since the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, German shepherds and other working dogs are playing a greater and more visible role in keeping our communities safe.
With national memorials and community ceremonies, they and their handlers are finally gaining the recognition they deserve for their dedication and sacrifices.
The next time you see your local K-9 officer and his German shepherd or a veteran with his retired war dog companion, take a moment to say thank you – but ask first before petting. Chances are you can.
Allen Schaeffer is a member of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America (www.gsdca.org). Readers may write to him at 6088 Edmont Drive Frederick, Md. 21704.