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How Hitler and the Nazis almost killed off White German Shepherd Dogs

Miguel Ortiz Avatar

Today, the German Shepherd Dog is often thought of as a being tan/black or red/black in color. However, the White German Shepherd was once a highly-valued farm animal in Europe. Sadly, variety is rare today as a result of discrimination that began in Germany. In fact, Hitler and the Nazis were intent on culling White GSDs completely.

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Max von Stephanitz with Horand von Grafrath (Public Domain)

The beginning of the German Shepherd breed is traced back to a former German Cavalry Captain named Max von Stephanitz. In 1899, he began developing the breed from various traditional German herding dogs. The first registered GSD was a dog named Horand von Grafrath. This dog’s maternal grandfather was a white-coat German herding dog named Greif von Sparwasser. Today’s White GSDs trace their lineage back to Sparwasser and other white-coat German herding dogs before him.

Prized for its loyalty, intelligence, and obedience, the white-coat German herding dog excelled in its duties. Moreover, herders preferred the dog’s white coat because it blended in with their flocks and made it easier to spot dark-coated European wolves. The white coat is a recessive gene which von Stephanitz considered necessary to refine and bring out desired traits in the German Shepherd breed. He was unconcerned with the color of the dog and focused entirely on the qualities that made the GSD a good working dog like strength, stamina, intelligence, and loyalty. In his 1921 book, The German Shepherd Dog, von Stephanitz wrote, “The coloring of the dog has no significance whatsoever for service.”

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Ann Tracy’s New York kennel whelped the first litter containing White GSD puppies in America (Public Domain)

In the early 20th century, the popularity of the GSD, including the white variety, grew. 1912 saw the first German Shepherds imported to America with white puppies showing up in the first litters. Five years later, the American Kennel Club registered the first White German Shepherds. After WWI, White German Shepherds were just as popular as their colored counterparts throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

However, in 1933, discrimination against the White GSD began. The German Nazi party rose to power and sought to take over the breeding of German Shepherds. High-ranking party members disagreed with von Stephanitz’s assertion that coat color had no effect on the quality of the dog. Moreover, Hitler reportedly disliked von Stephanitz who refused to join the party in addition to disagreeing on the breeding of GSDs.

geraldine rockefeller dodge white german shepherd dogs
Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge was a lover of GSDs, including the white-coat variety (Public Domain)

In 1935, under mounting pressure from Nazi breeders, von Stephanitz abandoned the German Shepherd Dog Club that he founded 36 years earlier. He died the next year. With von Stephanitz gone, the Nazis banned the registration of White GSDs falsely claiming that they were prone to health problems like deafness, blindness, and mental instability which diluted the breed. Like other prejudices under the Nazi regime, these ideas took root with the public. White GSDs were disqualified from the breed standard and breeders culled white puppies from litters.

Sadly, the unfounded prejudices against the White GSD were not exclusive to Nazi Germany. Breeders around the world, including in America, considered white and lighter coats among German Shepherds to be genetic defects and a sign of inferiority. Despite the fall of the Third Reich, the German Club maintained the Nazi idea of breed purity in GSDs and, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the idea took root in the United States. A campaign was started by members of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America to eliminate white genes from the breed and, in 1959, the club adopted the colored breed as the standard and deemed the white coat as a disqualification.

prince white german shepherd dogs
Prince was a White GSD who served the London Ontario Canine Police Force (White German Shepherd Dog Club International, Inc.)

Still, advocates of White GSDs defended the variety and its popularity grew in the mid to late 1960s. In 1964, the first White German Shepherd Dog Club was formed in Sacramento, California. On April 6, 1968, the AKC recognized the White GSD as a pure breed and allowed their registration and competition in performance events. However, the AKC considers the variety to be a faulty color and bars them from conformation events and titles.

In 1969, White GSD supporters from across the country joined the club in Sacramento to form the White German Shepherd Dog Club of America. The organization changed its name in 1977 to the White German Shepherd Dog Club International, Inc. to reflect the worldwide support for the variety. On April 14, 1999, the United Kennel Club, the second-largest dog breed registry in the United States, recognized the White Shepherd as a separate breed and direct descendant of the German Shepherd Dog.