Breeding to the Standard
By Tracie Karsjens, Atlas Kennels

People like to talk about breeding to the STANDARD. They say STANDARD is if it had all capital letters and was the end all be all definition of what the German Shepherd is, was and should be. I respect the standard because it gives us a guideline, a baseline, for how to evaluate German Shepherds today. It does not necessarily reflect the history of the breed and it certainly does not reflect the future of the breed. It reflects what is today, as best we can put it into words and often with a lot of room for interpretation.

Let's talk for a minute about breeding to the standard. In 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1931, the esteemed prize of American Grand Victor was awarded to Ch. Arko v. Sadowaberg. He was also the 1927 German Sieger. Now here is a dog that clearly was as close as it gets to the standard in the late 20s. Here's a picture of him:
This was early in the breed's history, but not that early. The first German Shepherd was exhibited in the US in 1907 so this Grand Victor represents 20 years of maturity in the GSD breed in America.

Now let's go forward 40 years. That's not really a long time even in terms of the lifespan of a dog. In 1986, the Grand Victor title was won by Ch. Sequel's Senator of Merivern. He also earned his Register of Merit award for producing champion offspring. Here's a picture of him:
Looks like the German Shepherd Dog changed quite a bit in 40 years? Most notably, the rear angulation has gotten much more pronounced. The dog is also thicker in bone and more substantial. So the question is, did the standard change? Yes, the standard did change in that time period, but not in a way that explains the dramatic change in the dog. Instead, breeders changed the dog in spite of the standard.

Let's look at the evolution of the dog in a time period where the standard did not change. The current AKC standard was approved in February 11, 1978. So let's take a look at the 1979 Grand Victor Ch. Schokrest On Parade:
And then take a look at the 2010 Grand Victor Ch. Scher-Lo's Rogue of Karizma
Again, there is a significant change to the dog, and again it's most notably in the rear angulation. The standard did not change in this time period so how do we explain the changes?

It's simple - the standard is a guideline. It is interpreted by humans and it is well understood that two people can read the same thing and walk away with completely different understandings. So did the breeder of the 1978 Grand Victor breed to the standard? Yes, but so did the breeder of the 2010 Grand Victor.

We can think of the standard much like our government.
  • The legislative branch write the laws - this is similar to when the GSDCA decides on a written standard.
  • The judicial branch interprets the laws - this is what we ask our conformation judges to do: put the standard into practice in the show ring
  • The executive branch oversees the laws - this is the role of AKC as the parent registry for the GSDCA
Breeders and owners of German Shepherds are like the average citizen, just doing our best to understand the laws and obey them, but also speaking up when laws are unfair. We try to do our best to understand the standard and breed to it, but it's also something that can be changed and it evolves.

The analogy can be taken even further - the laws of the US have changed dramatically over time. Civil rights, gay marriage, prohibition - these are all areas where the law has made dramatic changes. So too must a breed standard change and be a living document in order to keep up with the times. Things that made sense 40 years ago might not make sense anymore as we learn more about genetics, about how to breed healthy animals and as our world changes.

Back to German Shepherds: I often hear as a owner and breeder of white German Shepherds that whites are fine, but until the standard is changed no one should breed them because the standard says not to. There is a serious flaw in that logic. If whites are okay and should be able to be shown, then if no one breeds them they will go away! It's like saying, yes, we should have civil rights but until the law changes just sit quietly on the back of the bus. That's not the way change happens. Change happens when people stand up for what they believe in and try to make things better. Sitting quietly and waiting for change is going to be a long wait.

Should someone have told the breeders of GSDs in the last 40 years not to breed more angulation but to wait until the standard was changed to ask for it? Of course not - the breeders of American GSDs stood up for where they felt the breed should go and we able to shape their breed. Whether you like or dislike the changes that have happened in the GSD over the years, it's still something that was created by NOT breeding the status quo but by pushing the envelope.

White GSDs were once acceptable in the AKC standard. That changed and it can change again. But if no one breeds whites then they will simply die away and the GSD breed will lose an important part of its heritage.

So when someone tells me that I shouldn't be breeding something that isn't in agreement with the standard, I will stand proud with all the people who have worked to develop and change the GSD breed over the years and I will work for the change I believe in.

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