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Phylax Society

by David W.

They called themselves the Phylax Society, a Greek word meaning “guardian” or “guardsman,”  and they set about searching for dogs to fit their idea of the perfect canine.

Purebred dogs and dog shows exploded in popularity all across Europe in the mid-1800s. New dog breeds were being defined and introduced into the show ring in unprecedented numbers. In Germany, where historically the value of a dog was based upon its utility and not what it looked like or whether it fits a breed standard, there were numerous different types of dogs working as shepherds and guardians in different parts of the country. Many were exceptional in their roles, but there was little uniformity in their size, appearance, or performance capability.

The Phylax Society Gets Started

In 1891, a group of German dog fanciers got together with the intent of developing a distinct and uniquely German breed of Shepherd. They called themselves the Phylax Society, a Greek word meaning “guardian” or “guardsman,” and they set about searching for dogs to fit their idea of the perfect canine. Unfortunately, they had only a vague idea of what they thought the perfect canine should be. The biggest challenge faced by the Phylax Society was not a lack of quality dogs upon which to build a new, spectacular breed of dog, but an inability to agree upon the traits that the perfect canine should possess. Some members felt that the physical appearance of the dog mattered little as long as it could perform the tasks set to it with great agility and endurance. Others held that a conformation standard was most important, one that stressed beauty, or at least consistency of type, over ability. There were a few who believed it was possible to have both beauty and physical talent, and asserted that they would settle for nothing less.

Phylax Society Disbands

Through the mating of a number of dogs that fit no fully defined standard, the Phylax Society did make an attempt to create a new German breed, but without success. Unclear as to whether beauty or brawn should prevail, they produced neither. Disappointed and frustrated, members began leaving the Society, and in 1894, it was disbanded entirely.

However, the dream of a very special German breed of dog did not die with the Phylax Society. A few of the members never lost sight of their goal, and one man, in particular, was poised to take up the cause in a decisive way.


A New Direction

Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz was born December 30, 1864, in Dresden, Germany. His family ranked among the nobility, and he was a career cavalry officer. He spent time at the Berlin Veterinary College, where he learned about biology, anatomy, and an area of study that some call “form to function,” which is the science of movement based on conformation. He was an original member of the Phylax Society and felt that a superior German breed of herding dog could be developed. The British were using breeding and culling techniques that they had developed to great success, and von Stephanitz believed he could do the same with German dogs.

Von Stephanitz purchased property near Grafrath in the 1890s and began experimenting with dog breeding. He was a common sight at dog shows and herding trials in Germany, where he observed that there were many quality dogs at the shows, but there was no standardization of type. Among the competitors exhibited, he preferred the wolf-like dogs with pricked ears and keen senses, possessing exceptional intelligence and willingness to work. He believed that by mating together superior dogs with these traits that he could establish an admirable breed to be used for livestock herding and guarding throughout Germany.

While attending a dog show in Karlseruhe in 1899, von Stephanitz was shown a dog named Hektor Linksrhein. The dog was the embodiment of all of the superior traits that von Stephanitz admired and had been seeking. He purchased the dog on the spot for the handsome sum of 200 German gold marks and renamed him Horand von Grafrath.


A New Breed Emerges

Von Stephanitz cannot be credited with single-handedly creating the foundation stock of the newly emerging German Shepherd Dog, since Horand was himself the product of generations of selective breeding before von Stephanitz bought him. However, von Stephanitz was able to spot the dog’s qualities from among all of the many specimens he saw on a regular basis and calculate his potential as a breeding animal. Von Stephanitz valued Horand’s intelligence, obedience, and power so much that on April 22, 1899, he was inspired to form a new organization, which he called Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde, or the Society for the German Shepherd Dog, commonly known as the SV. Along with long-time friend and co-founder Adolf Meyer, von Stephanitz recruited to the SV three sheep masters, two factory owners, an architect, an innkeeper, a mayor, and a magistrate.

Right away, the SV established a breed standard against which all German Shepherd Dogs would be judged, along with a Breed Register to record bloodlines. The dog that von Stephanitz purchased earlier in 1899, Horand von Grafrath, was recorded as the first German Shepherd Dog in the new registry.


Having spent many years studying dogs and their bloodlines, von Stephanitz was ready to begin developing his new breed in earnest. With Horand as his main stud dog, von Stephanitz and other breeders in the area set out to prove that the German Shepherd Dog was at last more than just a rich man’s fancy.

A Grand Design

After having reached the rank of Captain in the cavalry in 1898, and establishing the SV in 1899 subsequent to his release from the military, Max von Stephanitz wanted to do more than just breed fine dogs. He wanted a place in history. Taking what he had learned from his studies at the Berlin Veterinary College and through experience gleaned from his own prior dog breeding endeavors, he began a program of what some consider to be a rather ruthless approach to achieving his goals. Ruthless or not, the steps taken by von Stephanitz in an era when genetics and DNA testing were not available proved to be almost prescient in their accuracy in extracting the best qualities of the dogs he bred and eliminating the unacceptable strains.

Von Stephanitz knew that, in order to set a certain “type,” dogs with similar backgrounds and traits must be bred together over several generations. He did not care to wait that long. To speed the process and to capitalize on the valuable qualities of his treasured stud dog, Horand, von Stephanitz quite intentionally implemented a process of line breeding and inbreeding to quickly stamp successive generations of puppies with the “right stuff.”

People knowledgeable in animal husbandry understand that breeding like to like is the only way to establish consistent results when raising any type of animal. Every distinct species in existence owes its heritage to the concentration of its genes through inbreeding or line breeding. Although frowned upon in some circles, inbreeding is the fastest way to concentrate genes. The pairing of close relatives such as brothers to sisters, fathers to daughters, or mothers to sons, is called inbreeding. Linebreeding is the pairing of less direct crosses, such as fathers to granddaughters or mothers to grandsons, and the practice is still called line breeding even when the pairing is of more distant relatives several generations removed.

Linebreeding and inbreeding, when practiced carefully and with purpose, have the potential to produce spectacular results in the development of sought-after traits. The reason that inbreeding and close line breeding are shunned by many breeders of all types of animals is that along with a concentration of the good traits comes a concentration of the faults as well. It is to the credit of von Stephanitz that he understood which animals to select to continue the bloodline and which ones to cull without sentiment due to inferior qualities.

Von Stephanitz utilized such breeding techniques in pursuing what he called his “grand design.” His goal was to produce dogs with superior conformation, loyalty, obedience, and courage. Toward this end, Horand was bred extensively and produced many offspring. Horand’s most famous and successful son, Hektor von Schwaben, was bred to female offspring of Horand, thus producing the famous and influential Beowulf, among others. Beowulf and his brothers were bred back to daughters and granddaughters of Hektor, and it is to these offspring of Horand and Beowulf that all modern German Shepherd Dogs can trace their ancestry.


Because of the intense inbreeding of dogs early in the history of the German Shepherd lines, the specific look and type that von Stephanitz was striving for became fixed in an amazingly short period of time. In particular, the pricked ears and the athletic, sloping angles of the shoulders, hips, and legs, stamped his animals as “the” German breed. He knew, however, that he had to look for suitable unrelated dogs to create enough genetic diversity for the breed to survive. He did, of course, insist on remaining in complete control of choosing which dogs were registered and approved for breeding. Toward this end, he and the SV published the Korbuch, or Breed Survey Book, two decades after the founding of the SV. The Breed Survey Book detailed the guidelines to be followed when selecting German Shepherd Dogs for breeding. Von Stephanitz also insisted that dogs judged in shows be held to the same standards and not selected simply on the judges’ preferences. He emphasized “utility and intelligence,” but according to many, the dogs bred or culled in the beginning were selected based mostly on looks, until there were enough dogs of sufficient age to begin judging them on their athletic ability and work ethic. Fortunately, the progeny of Horand inherited more than his looks.

“Those puppies deemed too small, weak or imperfect were ruthlessly culled”

Continuing with his “grand design,” von Stephanitz educated breeders on the form to function athleticism and essentially forced them to focus on the angle of the bones, the proportions and measurements of the body and legs, and the overall conformation of the dogs they were raising. The SV sent representatives to inspect litters of puppies recommended for addition to the registry. Those puppies deemed too small, weak, or imperfect were ruthlessly culled. Sometimes culling took place based only on the number of puppies in a litter. If the self-titled SV Breeding Warrens deemed that there were too many puppies for the dam to raise them adequately, pups were culled based on appearance and gender, with a slant toward preserving larger, more robust males.

If by today’s standards the methods of the SV seem harsh, it is important to remember that such methods were not considered abnormal in the period. Animals were bred and raised primarily for utility, and the techniques used to establish the German Shepherd Dog were considered normal husbandry. Certainly, the methods succeeded in creating a useful, recognizable breed in an amazingly short period of time.

Max von Stephanitz continued to wield much influence over which dogs were bred in order to continue the lines, even when he and the SV could not inspect every mating. As President of the SV, he reserved unto himself the right to choose the Sieger and Siegeren, or Grand Champion male and female, at the SV’s largest specialty show every year. His selections let breed club members know which dogs he felt possessed suitable conformation and temperament to earn the right to produce offspring. Puppies from the Sieger and Siegeren became much sought after, thus ensuring that the breed type remained fixed.

More Than a Sheepdog

Under the guidance of Max von Stephanitz, the SV became the largest breed club in the world, but von Stephanitz was not satisfied. Realizing that industrialization would reduce shepherds’ reliance on sheepdogs, and certain that German Shepherd Dogs possessed traits suitable for many different types of work, he pushed to have the dogs trained for new tasks. German Shepherds began competing in tracking and obedience, and in 1901, the first Schutzhund trial was held in Germany.

Remarkably, German Shepherds excelled at any task asked of them. By 1910, over 500 German police stations were using the dogs in various capacities, and it took little imagination to realize that they would be a seamless addition to the military. With the onset of World War I, German and French troops first began using the dogs for search and rescue of the wounded, which is the basis for present-day search and rescue activities. Their role quickly expanded, and soon they were being asked to carry messages, ammunition, first aid kits, and other supplies to the front lines. The dogs proved themselves to be brave, loyal, smart, and strong. They also served as sentries and guard dogs, and their presence was imposing. One of the most hazardous duties they were called upon to perform was locating mines and bombs. Their success in sniffing out mines led them to later be used to detect explosives and drugs in military and police work worldwide.

Their utility expanded beyond the trenches as they were trained to aid soldiers who were blinded during the war, lending blinded soldiers a “seeing eye.” During World War II, Allied soldiers fighting against the Germans were so impressed with the dogs that many were captured and taken out of the country when the war ended. Although German Shepherd Dogs continued to serve in their original role as herding animals, they found themselves being appointed to jobs in many walks of life.


German Shepherds quickly rose to worldwide fame thanks to Hollywood. Beginning in the 1920s, dogs such as Rin Tin Tin and Braveheart paved the way for a long succession of canine heroes that extends into the present day. Hollywood almost proved to be the demise of the German Shepherd as well, when unscrupulous breeders, determined to capitalize on the enthusiasm of the public to own this great dog, pumped out puppies with no care for conformation or temperament. Fortunately, groups of enthusiasts in Europe and America rescued a core population of quality breeding stock that revitalized the bloodlines.

Max von Stephanitz passed away on April 22, 1936, exactly 37 years to the day after founding the SV. His legacy lives on in the breed of dog that came to define his entire life and purpose. The SV still exists, based in Augsburg, Germany, to serve and protect the noble German Shepherd. This started from the idea of a few German dog fanciers once called the Phylax society.

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