Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz

“Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz”

Max von Stephanitz
Max von Stephanitz


Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz, Founder of Today’s German Shepherd


History and Influences of Max von Stephanitz

Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz, credited with being the founder of the German Shepherd dog as a distinct breed, was born on Dec. 30, 1864. Born in Dresden, Germany, he was born into German nobility. His family expectations were that he would become a military officer, and even though he wanted to work in agriculture, he followed his family’s wishes and ended up a career officer with the cavalry. This one choice proved to be pivotal, as it enabled Von Stephanitz to travel the country where he encountered a variety of working shepherd dogs.

It was in this capacity that Max von Stephanitz witnessed the day-to-day work of herding dogs and developed an interest in finding the ideal shepherd. During that time he also gained much experience working with the Berlin Veterinary Hospital, which certainly influenced the formation of his ideas about what would comprise the ideal working dog. It was also during this time that Max von Stephanitz realized that there was no distinct breed type, as the farm dogs varied greatly in appearance from one area of the country to the next.

Max Von Stephanitz realized that the ideal working dog would need to be physically built for endurance as well as speed. Since a typical shepherd would be expected to keep a flock of over 200 sheep under control, the dog would need to be intelligent, obedient and tireless. He would need to be courageous and have a strong instinctive nature toward protectiveness.

Once he retired from the military, Max von Stephanitz purchased a large estate with the intent of developing the perfect working dog. Max von Stephanitz attended a dog show in 1889 where a particular working dog caught his interest. Believing he had finally found the dog that encompassed so many of the characteristics he was looking for, Max von Stephanitz quickly purchased the dog, renaming him Horand von Grafrath. Upon the foundation of this dog Max von Stephanitz developed what is now known as the modern day German Shepherd.

Maintaining the German Shepherd as a Family Dog

Max von Stephanitz believed that the ideal breeders of German shepherds would be families with only a couple of breeding dogs, in order to facilitate daily contact with the dogs as a way of carefully choosing the dogs which would enhance the breed in the future. “All the wonderful qualities of character possessed by a good shepherd dog will therefore only be brought to light when he remains in the same hands for a very long time, preferably from puppyhood, where having obtained a footing in the house, he shares the joys and sorrows of the family…and our dog is completely ruined in mind and body wherever he is treated only as merchandise…”

Along these same lines, Max von Stephanitz did not believe in maintaining dogs in kennels on a regular basis and argued that such would necessarily result in dogs which would be unable to perform to their utmost ability. “Whenever the dog is kept in an enclosed kennel, he will not only degenerate physically, becoming stiff, sluggish and lazy, but will also become mentally torpid, and lose all his sharpness and vim.”

Creation of the Breed Standard

After obtaining Horand, Max von Stephanitz worked to develop a standard for the breed. He created a stud book for German shepherds, registering Horand as the first stud dog. The German Shepherd Dog Club was created as well, with Von Stephanitz serving as its first President.

Max von Stephanitz, drawing upon his experiences with the Berlin Veterinary Hospital as well as his own observations, began a serious breeding program. Choosing dogs with desirable traits, he devoted years to establishing a recognizable breed type, focusing on the abilities of the dog as a working dog. He also worked diligently to cull out physical traits which would weaken the breed as a whole.

Versatility of the Breed as a Whole

Max von Stephanitz recognized a need to integrate the German Shepherds into other areas of society, and became a strong advocate for using the dog in military service, law enforcement, protection service and in rescue efforts. Always looking for ways to protect and improve the breed, Von Stephanitz paid close attention to trends in breeding and worked tirelessly to maintain the standard for which he is so well recognized. Discouraging breeding for beauty instead of purpose, Von Stephanitz’s motto was, “Utility is the true criterion of beauty.”

The 1925 Sieger

"Klodo von Boxberg"
“Klodo von Boxberg”

By this time Germany was holding a national conformation show to determine the best male and female German Shepherd each year. By the end of the show, only one dog in each gender would receive the coveted title of Sieger. Many of the most influential breeders would arrange to breed their best bitches to that year’s Sieger dog, thus cementing the dog’s impact on the breed as a whole. Max von Stephanitz recognized this, and in 1925, while judging the annual Sieger show, he made a decision which impacted the breed forever.

Believing that the direction the German Shepherd breed was taking as a whole toward taller, boxier dogs was the wrong direction, Von Stephanitz awarded the year’s Sieger to a dog named Klodo von Boxberg. Klodo was a dramatic departure from the typical German Shepherd at that year’s show. Where the other dogs were boxy, Klodo was long in body. Slightly shorter than many of his peers, Klodo was nonetheless impressive, especially when his long-reaching gait was revealed. Klodo was a German Shepherd of impeccable movement, with a long effortless stride. His impact on the breed as a whole continues to this day.

Max von Stephanitz was sought after as an international judge, traveling to the United States in 1930 when he was asked to serve as the German Shepherd judge at the Morris & Essex Kennel Club Show. This event was held at the estate of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. German Shepherd breeders were clearly anxious for his opinion on their breeding stock, resulting in such a high entry of German Shepherds in the show Max von Stephanitz had to judge the dogs on the first day of the show and the bitches on the second day. He took this task very seriously, writing a personal critique on every single entry.


Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz Shares His Experience

Max von Stephanitz had determined that a working dog needed several common characteristics, among them intelligence, loyalty and a tireless devotion to completing the tasks required of him. It had taken him years to achieve his goal of creating a standard for the German Shepherd breed as a whole. He committed to share his knowledge and experience in writing. He published his book, calling it The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture. Written in 1925, translated by J. Schwabacher, and reprinted in 1994 by Hoflin Publishing , Von Stephanitz referred to the ideal dog as being, “Untiring, always zealous for duty, always attentive, always ready to serve, such is the character of our shepherd dog.”

Controversy of Max von Stephanitz

There was controversy associated with Max von Stephanitz as well. Rumors abounded that Horand was one fourth wolf. Questions still exist today about whether Max von Stephanitz used dogs with wolf ancestors in his breeding program, as his original book listed wolves among breeding stock. In any case, Max von Stephanitz insisted on having all references to wolves removed from later printings of his book, and actively encouraged breeders to refrain from using wolves as part of their breeding stock.

More controversy of Max von Stephanitz 

Another area of controversy which surrounded Max von Stephanitz dealt with was the color of German Shepherd dogs, in particular, white shepherds. Grief, the grand sire of Horand, was a white shepherd, and Horand sired many white pups. Max von Stephanitz, with his emphasis on the suitability of the German Shepherd to serve as a working dog, was not greatly interested in the colors of the dogs he promoted.

Maintaining Integrity in the Face of Adversity

In the 1930s several prominent members of the Nazi party became actively involved in the German Shepherd club in Germany. These members advocated a desire to produce dogs that were attractive in appearance. This philosophy was the antithesis of all that Max von Stephanitz had worked for, which was to develop a dog known for his abilities rather than appearance. Max von Stephanitz staunchly maintained his position despite threats from the party. “The breeding of Shepherd dogs must be the breeding of working dogs, this must always be the aim or we shall cease to produce working dogs.” Max von Stephanitz, who had always advocated utility over beauty, eventually resigned from the club.

He passed away one year later.

Maintaining his devotion to the dogs he loved throughout his life while tirelessly working to achieve the goal of preserving the breed as a working dog, Von Stephanitz will always be admired for his achievement and dedication.


Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz
Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz

One of the most often quoted statements of Max von Stephanitz could surely have been used as his epitaph: “Take this trouble for me: Make sure my shepherd dog remains a working dog, for I have struggled all my life long for that aim.” Captain Max von Stephanitz, 1864-1936


*all quotes were taken from Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz’s book or personal statements attributed to him

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