The German Shepherd Dog

by Linda J Shaw
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Just when I was beginning to get ambulatory, my elderly mother passed suddenly and I was pitched into settling her affairs, renovating an old house for sale, and packing up for a move to a new place. Today is literally the first day in almost a year that my time has been my own. There is still much to do in the next few months, but hopefully I will be able to update this site more regularly. I have several illustrated articles that had to be put on hold, and once my studio/office is unpacked and functioning I will be able to complete them.

In the meantime, I have been thinking about how GSDs, or any pure breed for that matter, is generally selected for breeding. The conformation show is the primary vehicle for determining suitability for breeding. Whether American or British or FCI, they are all pretty much the same – the dogs are selected on the basis of how they look. Some clubs, like the SV, make an attempt to raise the bar a bit higher, and many private breeders institute additional screening processes for hips, eyes, genetic diseases or whatever. But it is the conformation show ring where the money is, where the big titles and trophies are doled out, where the cameras and sponsorship and public attention is trained. It has become entertainment, high theatre, where announcers breathlessly await the flourishes of well dressed judges, to the thunderous applause of audiences who wouldn’t know a working dog from a baboon.

For years after I got into the breed, I would hear that the purpose of showing and breeding was to improve the breed. Forty years later I can think of no breed that has been improved by the show ring. You would think that after forty years and no progress, breed clubs would figure out that the system isn’t working very well, and find a better way to screen breeding animals. But people love theatre, and the show ring isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So if I could wave the magic wand and do only two things, these two things are what I would change:

I would like to see conformation judges banned from uttering the phrase “work ethic”. A dog’s willingness to run around a ring has absoluletly nothing to do with real work ethic. I don’t think a conformation judge should be allowed to comment on any dog’s temperament, that he or she has not seen work, really work. They can say it’s a nice dog, that it seemed stable or approachable at that time, or that it showed specific weaknesses, but real working temperament cannot be judged in a show ring. How many times have I seen “great work ethic!” in ads or on web sites for dogs that have never been properly tested for anything. A breed judge is doing the breed no favours when he attaches unqualified praise like this to a dog that may or may not deserve it.

The other thing I would do is ban handlers from touching their dogs. No prodding, posing, poking or brushing. If the dog is not ready for the ring, it’s too late once it’s inside. No more pulling the hindquarter into the weird artifical pose that has evolved over the decades.  If a dog is over angulated and cannot pull itself into a decent stance, or if it sinks its stifles (knees) into the grass, so be it. If the dog is roached backed and stands hunched up like a turtle, leave it be.  A well structured dog will always look good.  Train it to show itself as well as it can, bait it into a standing position when the judge needs to see it, but let the dog show itself.  Make the dog show about the dog and not the show.




by Linda J Shaw
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The GSDCA in Trouble, part 3    That Dallas has been the most influential stud of the last 20 years is not an especially good thing.  He seems to have been a very nice dog, and a welcome step away from the exaggerations of the last several decades, but he was still too long and too angulated to function as a full time working dog.  I’ve read that he worked in “all three phases” of schutzhund, but did he achieve any titles?  He himself was more of the same genetically – Lance, Lance, Lance – and he would have been unable to bring the hybrid vigour and genetic diversity that American lines so desperately need.  The breed doesn’t need prettier show dogs.  It needs stronger dogs – physically, constitutionally, structurally, mentally, immunologically and genetically.

Amidon blames handlers for the demise of interest in American style specialty shows. They haven’t helped.  The specialty show has become a caricature.  More importantly, handling show dogs doesn’t qualify someone to direct the genetics of a working breed. Remember Lamar Kuhns and his idiotic mantra of “all lines to Lance”?  Kuhns was a genetic illiterate, but his idea has been pretty much achieved, to the breed’s detriment.

It’s not Lance’s fault. He appears to also have been a very nice dog, if untested and untitled. It wouldn’t have mattered how good he was. It is the level of inbreeding that the “fancy” has engaged in that has weakened the breed in North America.

Are breeders to blame? Of course. The stampede for National trophies bigger than their dogs was more compelling than producing solid, proven, performing dogs that could pass on the breed’s best attributes. Judges who rewarded ever greater exaggerations should have been sacked. Kennel clubs that couldn’t be bothered to ban inbreeding or the breeding of defective animals are no less to blame.

“New activities” aren’t going to renew interest in American specialty shows. That is missing the point.  The shows aren’t important.  Returning to the standard is. Unfortunately I don’t think anything will change under current governance. If they were going to uphold the Standard they would have done it by now. The old Baby Boomers who are obsessed with their extreme dogs will die off eventually, and younger people who still believe in the GSD as a great working breed will hopefully carry on. Whether they carry on with contemporary American bloodlines remains to be seen.

L. Shaw

by Linda J Shaw
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The GSDCA in Trouble, part 2    I know from personal experience that the mental state of the American show GSD deteriorated to an alarming degree. I’m told things have improved, but how much?  Moses, Amidon and Rinke all talk about the working ability of the breed, but agility, rally, obedience, “watching the kids” and weekend herding are not work. These fun activities are not objective tests of working temperament.  Many breeders’ claims of “wonderful” temperament in their dogs are without objective evidence.  A good GSD should demonstrate that it will, unaccompanied, hold its ground under threat, has the drive to persist on a difficult track, and the stability to withstand applied stress. Rinke says that taking the dog home off lead will show you its temperament, but that won’t show you working aptitudes unless you arrange for a capable tester to assess the dog.

There probably are no really strong American show line dogs.  A dog that “shows you its molars” (a comment made by a well-known American show breeder about one of his well-used studs) in its own backyard is showing you nothing.  American dogs are not objectively tested for stable defensive drive.  Show judges are not able to judge temperament in a show ring except to cull the truly defective.  Without working titles, working ability in a line degenerates. Rinke comments that, “There are good dogs that are doing protection, obedience, leader-dogs, guard-dogs, and family dogs. (What) I’m talking about (are) animals that are very close to the Standard – extraordinary specimens”. He seems to imply that the great American show dog is superior to the true working dog, and that the capabilities of a true working dog still exist in modern show lines, despite dozens of generations of untested, untitled and unqualified breeding. I’d be happy if they did, but there is no evidence that this is true, and much evidence that it is not.

Most American breeders of AKC show lines seem to have little experience of working dogs. They don’t differentiate between German show and German working lines, which are quite different. They appear not to understand bite work and the differences between drives and defense, or the importance of nervous stability and how it is tested. They seem to prefer to avoid the issue and produce soft, low drive dogs (drive and energy are two different things). Show breeding has become pet breeding. When I got into the breed over forty years ago, it was understood that the shepherd was not just an everyman’s pet. A shepherd required training, discipline and exercise, and was “more” dog than average. Show breeding has changed that.

None of these three breeders discuss the working dogs they bred or the dogs of their breeding that are guiding the blind, serving on SAR units or as police service dogs. Have any dogs of their breeding achieved advanced schutzhund titles, or even advanced tracking? Why are the Best in Shows and ROMs and Selects so much more important? They are to a conformation breeder. They are not to the breed.

To be continued…

by Linda J Shaw
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The GSDCA in Trouble, part 1    There are three Interviews posted on the GSDCA site, with Jim Moses, Barbara Amidon and Dave Rinke, that make for interesting reading.  What struck me was that the GSDCA appears to be dying, and they seem to have no idea why.  Membership is dwindling, and entries for the national, futurity and maturity shows is shrinking even while American SV style shows, trials and clubs are becoming more popular.  If the GSDCA was a company, I wouldn’t invest in it.  All three seem cognizant of deep trouble but appear unable to identify why.  And yet the answers are so obvious.

I’ve been going through Reviews and Red Books from the early 1980s through the 1990s, gathering references on structure.  Prior to the 1980s the dogs were solid, balanced and without exaggeration. Pedigrees were relatively open, and the back ends of most were still anchored by schutzhund titles.  But by the middle of the 1980s the tsunami of Lance genetics was well underway.  While dogs with excellent, Lance-free pedigrees still existed, their lines were being swallowed up by Lance lines for no better reason than that breeders wanted to win in the conformation ring.

By the late 1980s and 90s, the pedigrees of so-called top dogs had reached a level of inbreeding that was disturbing, to say the least. At the same time, “top” dogs began dying prematurely of torsion, toxic gut and cardiomyopathy, while pancreatitis, esophageal problems, allergies and thyroid issues became more common. How coincidental do you suppose that was?  I owned many American line dogs, almost all with health issues.  After almost two decades I fled to German working lines and suddenly had healthy, long lived dogs.  None of these three breeders even mention the genetic bottleneck into which American dogs have been levered. Rinke comments that breeding indiscriminately to the same dogs is reducing genetic diversity, but never suggests that the only real remedy is to breed out to unrelated (non-Lance) dogs. Simply trying to select against genetic problems while remaining within the same inbred gene pool is not going to repair the breed over the long term.  I sometimes wonder if American breeders have any real understanding of the dangers of inbreeding.  Certainly the wider public is learning fast.

With increased levels of inbreeding (breeders like to call it line-breeding, but that strikes me as disingenuous) physical type became increasingly strange.  Some breeders delighted in advertising their dogs as extreme.  Torsos, spines and chest cavities became abnormally elongated. Rear angulation became so unstable that the back legs could neither properly support the dog’s weight, nor generate the strength required to lift the dog into a period of suspension.  Breeders who achieved gait with “long, smooth, elastic, close to the ground strides” sacrificed the period of suspension to get it. Such dogs show “movement” by racing around the ring with huge strides, high speed and no power.  This may give the impression of spectacular side gait, but these dogs can’t gallop properly and they can’t jump. They can’t work. American breeders alone find this distortion to be attractive and desirable.  The rest of the world sees it for what it is.

To be continued…

by Linda J Shaw
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Finally spring is springing, and I am starting to get back into it. It has been a while since I have updated, and I appologize for that, but I have been somewhat immobilized since New Year’s. Ice on a stone walkway and a nasty tumble into a rockery and I have been forming a close relationship with my crutches for several months. Fortunately I have one dog who is a high speed, self propelled rocket with a large yard, and another dog who is happy sunbathing. However I am finally beginning to hobble about, and to start picking up where I left off after Christmas!

My internment was not entirely unproductive. I managed to complete a 78 page manuscript for a book I have been mulling over for some time: An Analysis of Canine Structure and Gait. That’s 78 pages without any illustrations; they are next on my to do list. Despite the differences between so many breeds, they are fundamentally alike. And they are nothing like horses. So much of what has been claimed for dogs has come from opinions about horses, and they are wrong, or at least irrelevant. I have a bit more research to do and then I am going to spend a month storming the illustrations. It is going to be fun.

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