What Did the First German Shepherd Dog Look Like?

German shepherds appeared much more gray in their early days.
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German shepherds are dependable, loyal, intelligent and stoic dogs with sleek coats and muscular bodies. Because of these attributes, they make some of the best police and guard dogs. In addition, they are generally approachable and dependable, making great companions. These characteristics didn't appear overnight and the first registered German shepherd, Horand von Grafrath, did look a bit different.

Physcial Features of Today's German Shepherd

Today's shepherd is approximately 22 to 26 inches tall at the shoulders. While often associated with a brown and black coat, they can come in many colors -- even white. They have a medium length dense coat, large pointy ears and a tail that reaches to hock length and tends to curl upward.


German shepherds were developed in 1899 and recognized by the United Kennel Club in 1924. In Karlsruhe, Germany Capt. Max von Stephanitz of the German cavalry created this distinct breed as a formidable working dog. After finding the "yellow-and-gray" wolf-like Horand, and his similar brother, Luchs, he began breeding with the pup's sister and produced a consolidated bloodline -- one which possessed the positive attributes of intelligence and utility, but also with the negative consequences of inbreeding. To continue developing this breed in a healthy way, he began combining the initial offspring with varieties of German sheepdogs selecting for intelligence and utility. While World War I put a damper on desirability, the popularity of the dog actor, "Rin Tin Tin," boosted interest once again.

Horand von Grafrath

Born Jan. 1, 1895, Horand could be described as wolf-like in appearance. He was of muscular and medium build, stood approximately 24 inches tall, and had a course gray coat rather than the brown we associate with modern shepherds. While he was a bit of a wild-child, he was quite alert and quick to head the commands of the captain. Admired as a well-rounded working dog, he became the father of modern German shepherds.

Evolution of a Dog

Over time, Americans and Germans have bred the shepherd in different ways with Germans focusing more on maintaining the utility of the breed and Americans creating more mixed breed shepherds that focus on appearance and personality. Labrador-shepherd mixes and shepherd-husky crosses are becoming increasingly popular.

The Role of Shepherds Today

Due to the relative youth of the German shepherd and von Stephanitz's philosophy regarding the importance of utility and intelligence, rather than physical appearance, less variation is found in the shepherd than some older breeds. Fortunately, the breed's creator has ensured its integration into the present day, less industrialized world, where shepherds serve as guide dogs for the blind and handicapped, search and rescue dogs and loyal companion animals.