The Old German Shepherd Dog in America

By Linda Rorem




Those who bring sheep here from Europe, do not forget to bring a good sheep dog or a 

pair of these most necessary animals, transportation costs are repaid by the first offspring of 

the dogs, as these dogs are still rare here and with every day more people are looking for them.  

Der Nordamerikanische Landwirth: Ein Handbuch für 

Ansiedler in den Vereinigten Staaten (North American 

Agriculture: A Handbook for Settlers in the United States), 

1848, by Carl L. Fleischmann   



A few years prior to World War I, the first registered German Shepherd Dogs arrived in the United States.  These weren’t the first German shepherd dogs who came to America, however.  German immigrants had been coming to America since before the founding of the United States.  Among them were farmers who came with livestock and dogs to herd the livestock.    


There are very few descriptions of the physical appearance of these dogs.  Their appearance probably covered the range of the German herding dogs shown in Captain Max Von Stephanitz’ book, “The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture,” first published in 1923.  While the dogs registered by the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV) became standardized into a narrower range of type like most kennel club breeds, the former variety of types continued on in the German dogs bred solely as livestock-working dogs.  Today there is a registry for these sheep and cattle dogs, the AAH -- Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Zucht Altdeutscher Hütehunde (Association for Breeding Old German Herding Dogs).  Within the overall designation of “Old German Shepherd” are varietal names that apply to strains such as the Westerwälder Kuhhund, Harzer Fuchs, and others.


Besides the varieties shown on the AAH website, in earlier times there were additional types that appear to have greatly diminished or disappeared today.  Grey dogs seem to have become uncommon in the working sheepdogs and cattle dogs, although variations of wolf-grey still occur in some lines of the modern German Shepherd Dog.  The color white, now disallowed in the SV-registered German Shepherd Dog, was not uncommon among the original German herding dogs, and two strains in particular were commonly white – the Pomeranian Sheepdog and the Hütespitz.  These two were still being mentioned up until the 1960s, but seem to have disappeared after that.  Also gone, apparently, are the small herding spitzes, the ancestral type of the modern Pomeranian, American Eskimo, Keeshond and German Spitz.  C. P. Lasteyrie of France wrote in 1810:


The dogs, used in Prussia, for driving the flocks, are of a race differing from those known in France, under the name of shepherd’s dogs.  They are of a small compact form, and prick-eared, resembling our wolf-dogs [a French name for the Pomeranian].  Some of them are close-haired, others are shaggy; but all are very docile, and never wound the sheep.  At the  voice of the shepherd, they repair to that part of the flock, which is pointed out; and if the animals refuse to advance, the dogs push their noses against them, which is enough to make them adopt the desired direction.  It is much to be wished that our shepherds would accustom their dogs never to bite the sheep.  These animals, naturally timid, are quite alarmed when the dog approaches them, under our system; they press against each other, run away with terror, and are often materially injured. Their constant state of fear disturbs their repose, and makes it impossible for them to graze in tranquility, which is prejudicial to their health. Few of our flocks are seen without individuals, at one time or another, exhibiting marks, which have been caused by the tooth of the dog.


All of these types probably figured among the German dogs that came to America.  In addition to the herding dogs in Germany, there were also large flock guardian dogs.





The sheepdog –

from Illustrirte Hausthierarzt, 1867




German shepherd dogs of different coat types –

from Geschichte und Beschreibing

der Rassen des Hundes, 1895



German shepherd dogs – from Das Buch vom Gesunden und Kranken Hunden, 1901


Longhaired shepherd dog from Saxony, blue-grey flecked - from The German Shepherd Dog In Word and Picture

by Max von Stephanitz, 1923


Blue merle from Württemberg -

The German Shepherd Dog In Word and Picture

by Max von Stephanitz, 1923




       Pomeranian Sheepdog –

       1938 English collector’s card  



Hütespitz –

from Kamerad Hund, 1951


German immigrants were among the pioneers of the sheep industry in the U.S.  In May 1824 a news item in the Charleston Courier related that a ship had arrived a few days before with a shepherd who had come from the mountains of Thuringia.  Accompanying him were a shepherdess and shepherd’s dogs.  “They are gone to the plantation of Col. Breithaupt, in Edgefield District, who is about establishing a considerable Sheep Walk, for which the pine wood range is particularly well calculated.  We wish him success, as the introduction of this branch of industry will increase our domestic comforts and facilities . . . .” 


In the early years in America, the German herdsmen naturally enough continued with the practices of their homeland.  In 1833, a religious writer related an anecdote given to him by another clergyman, as illustrative of the 23rd Psalm, noting that in America the shepherd usually followed the sheep:


 ‘A year or two since, I heard in Boston, that some person had imported a large flock of Saxony sheep, and that they had just arrived in the city.  One morning I happened to look out of my window at the moment they were passing by.  And I was delighted at the illustration of Scripture, which the scene afforded.


‘There were probably an hundred or an hundred and fifty in the flock.  The shepherd, who had come over to this country to take care of them, went before the flock.  He held his right hand behind him, with the palm, turned towards the sheep.  A large buck followed close behind, almost touching with his forehead the palm of the shepherd's hand.  The rest of the flock were arranged in very regular order, behind the leader, somewhat in the form of a wedge.


‘The shepherd's dog followed behind the whole, urging on, the few straggling sheep, who were disposed to linger.


‘Whenever the shepherd turned a corner, the leader of the flock obeyed the turn of his hand, and thus the whole number were led, without the least difficulty, through any part of the city.’


During the years of 1832 to 1834, Prince of Maximiliam of Wied traveled in America with the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer.  He wrote about his travels in four volumes that were published in 1843.  In Ohio he came upon the settlement of Zoar, “a pretty settlement of Wurtemberg Separatists,” headed by a man whose name is given as Baeumler. 


In 1833, this colony had sixty very neat buildings, all roofed with new red tiles, which are not common in America, and which looked remarkably well in the green valley . . . The Ohio Gazetteer says, that the settlement was originally founded on a piece of land of 4,000 acres, which the company purchased in 1810, and the greater part of which is now well cultivated.   The Separatists possess, besides, 1500 or 2000 acres of land in the vicinity, as well as some vineyards, which are said to produce very good wine. . .   A long wooden bridge is thrown across the canal and the river . . .  Just as I was at the spot, the shepherd drove a numerous flock of sheep over the bridge, and answered my questions in genuine Swabian German.  His entire dress and equipments were quite in the German fashion: a shepherd's crook, a broad leather bandolier, ornamented with brass figures, a flat broad-brimmed hat, and a large grey coat; a costume very uncommon in America. His dogs, too, were exceedingly careful in keeping the flock together.


The town of Zoar remains today, but as happened with many communal settlements, cohesion was lost after the passing of the early leaders, and the communal society began to decline.  Toward the end of 19th century the remaining residents decided to dissolve the society and divide the property. 


In New York, around 1843, another community of German religious separatists incorporated near Buffalo and called their village Ebenezer (today it is the town of West Seneca).  They bought 8,000 acres of wild land and set about making improvements.  The correspondent of The Cultivator, a monthly agricultural magazine published in Albany, NY, wrote that they numbered


800 souls, and are expecting large additions from Germany during the present season.  They have already built up three compact villages a mile or two apart; numbering about 100 large and commodious dwelling houses, some 30 or 40 barns . . . four saw mills, one flour mill, one oil mill, a large woolen factory, a calico printing establishment, a tannery, a large variety of mechanic’s shops, school houses, &c., &c.; and have large herds of horses, cattle and swine, and over 2000 sheep . . . .


Separate barns, spacious and well ventilated, are provide for horses, oxen, cows, yearlings, calves, and sheep, so that they are all sheltered in the most comfortable manner through the winter, and the apartments for the sheep are thoroughly white-washed four or five times a year.  Thus they promote health and increase the weight and fineness of the fleece.  The sheep are divided into parcels and each is in the constant attendance of a shepherd and his dog during the day, in summer, and driven up every night and hurdled; and the land thus manured by them during the night, is at the proper time sown with turnips.  The cattle are also kept in separate classes; and each is under the constant attendance very day of its herdsman, and driven up into the yards at night.


Eventually, seeking more land and wishing to avoid the influence of the growing city of Buffalo, the group moved on to Iowa and founded the famous Amana Colonies. 


An article in the 1846 issue of the Cultivator discusses the shepherds dogs in the United States.  “There are several breeds of dogs which may be trained to watch and drive sheep.  We have seen at least three varieties which came from England and Scotland, one or two from Germany, and a very large kind from Spain . . .”  The English sheep-dog is described as having “a sharp pointed muzzle and long glossy hair.”  Dogs brought from Germany are described as being “rough haired,” of the type shown in an illustration of a dog with a shaggy beardie-type coat:  “Mr. Bymler, the principal of the German community at Zoar, Ohio, had sheep-dogs of a similar appearance, a few years ago.”  This is the same Mr. Baeumler – his named was spelled several different ways – whose community had been visited by Prince Maximilian of Wied.


For a time there was a great interest in German sheep breeds, particularly those derived from the Merino.  Flocks were imported, and with some of the flocks came shepherds and dogs.  Germans were considered to be expert sheep farmers, and sheep breeders in the U.S. wanted to investigate their methods.  The February 1850 issue of The School Journal and Vermont Agriculturalist, published in Windsor, VT, related under the heading “Fine Blooded Sheep”:


A ship from Bremen, has brought twenty-five Saxony sheep, imported by D. W. Catlin, of New York, and C. B. Smith, of Litchfield Co., Conn., and intended as an addition to their flocks in Torrington and Harwinton, Conn.  They are from the flock of Maximilian Baron de Speck Leitchena, near Leipsic, Saxony.  They combine, says the Tribune, every requisite in fine sheep, fine form, good constitution, compactness and weight of fleece and fineness of fibre.  A shepherd accompanies them, with a well trained shepherd-dog, with a view of introducing, as far as practicable, in this country, the system of raising and training sheep, as practiced in Germany.


The American Agriculturist reported on an importation of Saxony sheep in 1850:


By the ship Louisiana, arrived here in November last, Mr. D. W. Catlin of this city, and Mr. C. B. Smith of Litchfield county, Connecticut, imported 4 Saxony bucks and 8 ewes.  They were selected for them by Baron de Spreck near Leipsic, and are of nearly the same character as those we have before noticed as being imported at different times by Mr. Taintor.  Their size and fineness are extraordinary, and they cannot but make a most valuable cross on the Saxon sheep of this country. They were attended by a German shepherd and a very fine sheep dog.


Silesian sheep, bred from the Spanish Merino, were among the breeds imported from Germany.  In the December 1858 issue of the American Farmer the editor wrote of S. S. Bradford, a breeder of Silesian sheep in Culpeper County, Virginia.  Mr. Bradford had shown some of his sheep at the U. S. Agricultural Fair in Richmond, VA, that October.     


The flocks of [S. S. Bradford] were in charge of a shepherd obtained expressly from Germany, and thoroughly trained in the management of sheep.  The wool of these sheep was of the finest quality, and these Merinoes will prove a most valuable acquisition to the State of Virginia . . . .


It is claimed for the Silesian, that they have the rugged hardy constitution and weight of fleece of the Spanish Merino, and rival the Saxon in the softness, elasticity, evenness and beauty of staple; and that in symmetry of form they excel them both.  No one who knows the extraordinary care, skill and intelligence which has been given for many years to the improvement of the Merino by the flock masters of Prussian Silesia, will be disposed to dispute this claim.


Mr. Bradford's sheep have been obtained through the agency of Messrs. Campbell of Westminister, Vermont, and Chamberlain of Red Hook, New York. These gentlemen are associated in the ownership of a large flock of Fine Wooled Sheep, and have imported largely. After a careful examination of the best flocks on the continent they have for several years made their selection from the celebrated flock of Mr. Fisher, of Silesia.


In caring for Mr. Bradford’s prized sheep, his shepherd managed the flock using traditional German practices:


Mr. S. S. Bradford . . .  rarely has less than a thousand fine wools in a flock.  His German shepherd seldom leaves them out of his sight for more than an hour. In good weather he hurdles them nightly on the poorer spots of the field in which they graze, and gun in hand, to punish intruding dogs, he sleeps in a box or house on wheels, which is rolled wherever his charge is penned for the night.  In rainy weather they are invariably housed day and night; as during intensely cold weather.  He feeds them daily about a bushel of oats to 100 head.  In the grazing season they require no other such feed; when housed in the day time they get corn fodder to pick, in addition to their oats.  The shepherd has them so completely  under his control, as that with the assistance of a single sheep dog he manages them as easily as though not more than half a dozen in number.— His well known whistle and a wave of the hand, will turn the flock in any direction, even from too near vicinity to an unfenced patch of wheat or better grass than that on which it is desired to graze them.  If a single sheep is obstinate or stupid, the dog is despatched to teach him his place.  He performs his task with wonderful sagacity indeed, relieving his master from the care of watching for hours. He comprehends what is forbidden ground for sheep, and will not permit one or more to stray from the rest ; always promptly driving those so inclined back to their proper position.  When with the flock in the day time, the shepherd, though keeping them in sight, usually relies almost entirely on the watchfulness and intelligence of his canine companion, and employs himself in cutting or grubbing briars, making baskets, or something of the sort.


On some farms dogs were given other jobs in addition to sheepherding.  In an article in the November 15, 1852 issue of the Ohio Cultivator, a farmer describes how he built a home-made dog-power churn, first taking measurements of his dog so as to construct the treadmill in accord with the dog’s size.  “My dog is of the German shepherd species; we find him heavy enough to churn and rock the cradle both at once. After a few times training, by simply inviting "Toss" to come and churn, he stepped up into the box, that is the power, and trod away with all dignity and alacrity, and in from ten to fifteen minutes, according to the state of the milk, produces good solid butter.  The churn should not be filled quite half full of milk for speedy churning.”


By the 1870s German shepherd dogs might even appear in a dog show.  In December 1875 the Missouri Valley Poultry and Pet-Stock Association held its second annual exhibition in St. Joseph, MO.  Exhibited along with the Newfoundlands, English Bulls, Black and Tan Terriers, Irish Setters, and others, including plain “Shepherd” dogs (probably working collies), was a German Shepherd owned by Howard Simpson. 


Ultimately the early German shepherd dogs were not maintained as a breed or breeds in America.  They had better luck in Australia, though, where German sheep had also been imported and German herdsman also immigrated, some bringing dogs.  In the late 19th century a breed of blue merle Australian herding dog came to be called German coolie or koolie.  Although mixed with the more numerous dogs of British background, the German element provided an influence and a name for the breed as a whole.  In the U.S., however, little trace remained. 


Among American sheep raisers, German management practices proved to be less practical for the conditions prevailing in the United States.  Labor was too costly and land was easier to come by and was managed differently.  In more populated areas with mixed agricultural use, it was less expensive in the long run to put up fences and leave the sheep pastured, although for a time there were still situations where a flock would be tended on occasion, for instance a family farm flock watched over by the children and the farm dog.  For a time there were flocks tended in public parks and on large estates where they were used for mowing grass, fertilizing, and providing a touch of rustic atmosphere.  Very large flocks on the unfenced ranges of the west could be tended by shepherds and dogs, but the grazing on the wide open lands didn’t require as close a supervision of the flock as was the case in Germany. 


With the advent and great rise to popularity of the registered German Shepherd Dog in the U.S., the earlier German herding dogs were forgotten.  There was no discernible attempt to breed them on an organized basis, and they either disappeared or were absorbed into the general American farm dog population, blending in with the more numerous collies and other breeds.  Perhaps they made a contribution, even if small, to the American herding dog breeds that are now called English Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, and some of the Cur breeds.




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Linda Rorem