The White Shepherd: International Dog

By Fred Lanting

What constitutes a “new breed”? Since all members of the canine family are related, the line between breeds is not always distinct. This is especially so where isolation tends to result in differences, while at the same time geographical proximity tends to allow some exchange of genetic material. Look at the development of the Akbash, Kangal, and Anatolian Shepherd in Turkey; the Entelbucher and Appenzeller in the alpine areas; the Cairn, Westie, Norwich, and Norfolk terriers of the U.K.; and the Middle-eastern and Caucasian Ovcharkas as examples of “breeds” that overlap to some extent in both range and phenotype. When man gets his controlling fingers into the reproduction of canine races, the differences become more fixed and obvious, but if it were left up to the dogs themselves, there would be an impossible-to-discern dividing line between one breed and a neighboring one. The same phenomenon is seen in music and language: if one were to walk from country to country and listen, he could not readily tell where every musical and spoken language ends and the next one begins.

There is also the man-made “sudden” change in breed phenotype and identity when breeds, which Nature and man have previously isolated and developed into distinct types, are brought together. The Sarplooswolfhond and the Czech wolfdog are examples of blends of German Shepherd Dog and indigenous wolves. Around 1900, Herr Dobermann created a new breed by blending Greyhound, black-and-tan terrier, Rottweiler, Great Dane, and other more secret ingredients to make a breed especially useful for police and the military. The Czesky Terrier is a fairly easily-identified blend of its Scottish and Sealyham ancestry.

A third way of creating a “new” breed is to take a sub-population of an existing breed, restrict the new registry to those of similar type by virtue of color, size, coat, etc., and simply call it by another name! In North America, one woman got tired of the way the AKC-type U.S. German Shepherd Dog was developing into a narrow, fine-boned, unstable-sharp-temperament, excessively angulated animal. So she selected what she knew from childhood as a level-backed, large, friendly and mild set of dogs from the existing GSD population, bred them for these characteristics, and developed a “strain”. This is often the first step in breed separation, but most people never get past that stage. Because they looked so different after a few generations of such selection, she decided to call it a new breed, after her kennel name: the Shiloh Shepherd. Today, Tina Barber’s creation competes in “rare-breed” (non-AKC) shows and has a considerable population. The new breed is fairly easily distinguishable from its GSD ancestor/brother. A similar thing has happened in regard to the white dog known in some circles as Witte Herder (White Shepherd) and in others by the ancestral name of white German Shepherd Dog.

In the early decades of the history of the SV (club for GSDs in Germany), the white dog was considered atypical and possibly the carrier of unwanted deficiencies. This was based on prejudice, not science; nevertheless, the white dog was “expelled” from the country beginning in the 1920s and '30s by the simple act of denying registration (1933) and thus breeding "rights". The Shepherd Dog Club of America was in its infancy then, and was still a home for the white dog. In fact, Anne Tracy, one of the founders of the American club; along with Mrs. Dodge, one of the dog world's leading financiers; and others owned white GSDs. In the 1950s, however, the GSDCA club people in the U.S. applied much pressure and eventually persuaded AKC to disqualify whites from the GSD show ring. They could not do the same in regard to registration, since AKC has always carefully guarded its registration income and as much power over the breed clubs as they could get. This left the white GSD with only performance competition within the AKC framework. In Canada, until close to the end of the passing century, white GSDs could compete in the conformation ring as well.

For a while, there were almost no white GSDs in Europe, but in the 1960s and 1970s, some were re-introduced into the land of their origin and neighboring countries. Because of the restrictions within the breed, imposed by the national breed clubs, the white GSD fanciers for many years and in most of the world could only satisfy their needs for association, competition, and some degree of independence by creating their own breed standard, rules, shows, and even pedigrees & registrations. Thus, we now see the breed referred to by a few names other than GSD: in Holland, it's the Witte Herder, in the UKC it is the White Shepherd (although owners still have the option of registering as white GSDs), in other countries there are other names, but the thrust is the same. Namely, that most of the fanciers want recognition for the dog as a separate breed, not a "variety" in the sense of dog show competition. It will always be a variety in terms of genetic history, since no outside influences (other breeds) are being used to modify it, but in time, the evolution of the very plastic genotype of the canine will widen the phenotype gap between the White Shepherd and the GSD.

Unlike the situation in most countries, the AKC is not the only (or even a government-controlled) dog registry in the U.S. There are the United KC, the States KC, the National Canine Association, and the “rare” (non-AKC-recognized) club called ARBA, plus the many single-breed national clubs.  Few would have foreseen, I believe, the wider results of UKC's actions regarding the white GSD, also known as White Shepherd, when the hundred-year-old registry decided to create a separate breed classification for what had long been considered the white variety of an equally-old breed. Just before 1900 A.D., both the German Shepherd Dog breed registry in Germany, and the United Kennel Club registry and association of dog fanciers in the United States, were organized. The UKC started as a club for fanciers of a few breeds, with emphasis on working-hunting qualities, and in the 1990s under the leadership of Fred Miller began a transition from its status as a multi-breed club. Currently, it is an all-breed club with several groups, one of which is the Herding Group. In that, the GSD has been recognized for many years, including the white sub-race. In the 1990s, the venerable United Kennel Club started offering new separate conformation competition for the White Shepherd as well as the older regular classes in which white and "colored" GSDs could compete together. They had always offered obedience classes for any and all.

In 1999, I was invited to judge the world show of WAWSO to be held in September of 2000, on the recommendation of people in the U.S. who had seen me judge the White GSD national specialties a couple of times. This may be because I am a UKC judge as well as an international SV judge of the White Shepherd's "ancestor-cum-cousin", and am a little familiar with the development of the separatist movement. After studying the European situation in regard to this "new" breed, and having arrived a couple of weeks ahead of the show, I was able to respond to the requests for some advice as to future direction. What I see is a magnificent opportunity for Raad van Beheer and similar organizations to establish the breed as a truly international dog, and I am recommending that they allow more than one breed club per country. Europe is fragmented with too many factions and by non-unity registration problems, and these difficulties could be eliminated by offering registration to all White Shepherds and white GSDs wherever they are, and whatever breed name they use in their home countries.

Politics always raises an ugly head. In America, there is still a rift in the breed ranks: the White GSDClub International (WGSDCI) and a recent spin-off continue to hold onto the vain hope that AKC and the GSDCA will welcome them back into the GSD family and allow them to compete in conformation shows against the “colored” GSD. The other main group insists on breed separation, is represented by the American White Shepherd Association (AWSA), and officially is seeking AKC recognition as a separate breed. AWSA is the U.S. member of WAWSO, the World Association of White Shepherd Organizations. The newest organization in the U.S. is one founded to be the breed's "parent club" for the UKC, and is known as UWSC, United White Shepherd Club. Many fanciers hope that reconciliation and compromise will result in a better dog and a stronger association of fanciers.

Several other countries now have at least one separatist group, with usually only one WAWSO member per country. For examples, in Holland, where I judged the White Shepherd world show recently, there are the VWH (Friends of the White Shepherd) as member, and the smaller WHVN (White Shepherd Club of the Netherlands) as the non-member. Currently, the Raad van Beheer “recognizes” only one national breed club. In Germany, there are several or even many clubs, none of which are WAWSO members, partly because the fragmentation is such that there might be three to half a dozen members of a "club", consisting of one breeder and some customers; they are not unified and representative as is the case in other countries. In each of Denmark, Austria, and France, there are two true clubs; in the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Slovenia one each. In Belgium the situation is much like that of Germany. The white Shepherd dog is fairly strong in the U.K., especially England, but until the recent end of the quarantine, the bloodlines have been quite distant from others. It is interesting to note that the Swiss club, which formulated the Standard that WAWSO now uses, is currently very weak, near collapse, and not a member of WAWSO. The club there made the breeding standards so strict and so early, that the actions tended to discourage people and drive them out of the club before much progress was possible. The first white GSDs were imported into Switzerland in the early '70s, with "Lobo" (born in the U.S. in 1966) the first registered there. In Canada, there is a non-WAWSO club basically consisting of  membership from both Canada and the U.S.; they hold some of the biggest shows for the white Shepherd Dogs anywhere.

An interesting side-note is that there are still a few white German Shepherd Dogs in Germany and Holland that trace their heritage directly to the white GSDs of the early 1900s - 1920s, despite not being allowed registration by the SV. They represent an untapped (as yet) vein of rich genetic gems for the future of the White Shepherd. All the rest of the White Shepherd dogs in Europe, with the partial exception of the U.K., have been recreated by the imports from North America. Even today, there are a few people who refer to the dog by its older name, "The American-Canadian Shepherd White Shepherd Dog"; if it had not been for the gene pool in North America, there would be no White Shepherd in Europe today. It is similar to the re-introduction of hybrid wine grapes from the U.S. (that had ancestry from France and other parts of Europe), which saved the French wine industry after a disastrous blight wiped out the industry. Today, there are several hundred, perhaps thousands, of White Shepherds throughout Europe, although a small percentage are interested in shows. In 1991 the fanciers decided there was enough of a character and body outline difference to warrant designation as a new breed.

As it is now, the FCI (a world "registration" body which prints Standards based on the country-of-origin breed standards) is hobbled by bureaucratic strictures and squabbling. For one thing, they and their national all-breed registry affiliates and members are hung up on the name of the breed. For instance, White Herders are recognized by FCI clubs in several countries, but FCI will not allow into the gene pool any of the dogs, no matter their identical genetic heritage, that are registered under a different name, such as German Shepherd Dog. That means that under current rules, an American white "GSD" of identical ancestry as a European "White Herder" cannot be imported into Europe and breed with (have registrable offspring with) the dogs now registered by the Raad van Beheer. This does not make sense for a number of reasons, principally basic logic, but also for the sake of genetic diversity. Most of my readers have heard or read this term often enough in my lectures and magazine articles, but until it is accomplished on a greater scale, I will continue to preach it. One result of isolation is the creation of a breed, but if that isolation is continued or too restrictive, we find an almost lethal level of defects appearing in a breed population. As long as there are similar-enough dogs from different parts of the world (or registries) that offer diversity in genes/alleles, we must use them to strengthen the breed we are focused on.

The United States fanciers need to import European bloodlines for the White Shepherd's improvement in areas such as better gender definition (such as masculine heads for males), less length to the body, and other traits. This cannot be done under the umbrella of the AKC, because of the name difference; AKC will only accept FCI-approved white GSDs from "approved" countries for inclusion in the GSD gene pool. European clubs that are likewise shackled by FCI or national all-breed clubs' regulations cannot use white GSDs from America because they are not already registered as "White Shepherds". This unnecessarily limits genetic diversity and improvement in exterior conformation as well as in health and other phenotype areas. The UKC in North America and other clubs in Europe have the opportunity of improving this newly recognized FCI breed.  This will signal an important advance in the welfare of the purebred dog. The alternative, I believe, however unintended, would destroy the breed in its most active European country (Holland) and in the other countries in the same way. WAWSO is an organization already in place, which can be used to insure the purity of breed of each dog being referred to the UKC, in much the same way as the American Pit Bull Terrier Club approves "inspectors" in the U.S. such as myself, to verify breed purity and quality before dogs are granted UKC papers.

Another benefit will be to increase genetic diversity while preserving type and improving health. In one of my specialty fields, that of hip dysplasia, I foresee a strengthening of the gene pool, as well. The Raad van Beheer has instituted probably the most severe restrictions on hip quality for breeding rights. At first glance, this may seem a good idea, but upon reflection, it can be considered paradoxical or contrary to good breed management under the current system. In a Dec. 1999 article entitled  "Hirshfeld Isoleert Nederlandse Honden in Europa", in Holland's "Dog World" (de Honden Wereld) about Hirshfeld Stichting, the way the Raad and their chosen vets read the hip joint radiographs, Mrs. Janette Leunissen-Roosenboom makes some very astute observations on the dangers of overly-severe restrictions on which animals are allowed to breed and have registered offspring. They parallel or fit with considerable congruity both my viewpoint on variability in gene pools, and the remarks of Prof. Dr. Bouw, who presented a keynote address at the founding meeting of WAWSO several years ago.

When you have a limited population, there should be wide latitude in allowing breedings to take place. That is, dogs that do not perfectly match the ideal conception (breed standard) should still be allowed to contribute genetic material to the breed. Only when there is a sufficiently large population, with rather free flow or intermingling of sub-populations, should more and more strict controls be implemented. This is the approach the SV (GSD Club in Germany) has practiced for many years. They now have enough of a genetic base that they can afford to clamp down hard on hip quality and progeny radiographic results. They will soon reach a new plateau by the use of "Zuchtwert" (breed value numbers based on progeny testing). For more on that subject, see my articles on the <http://realgsd.net > website.  I believe that inclusion of all the world’s white Shepherds/GSDs as one “breed” will give that broad genetic diversity and still allow severe culling for dysplasia. The broader family-line base enables breeders and clubs to be more strict than if registration were limited by name or FCI membership.

With a smaller population such as in the currently restricted recognition of the White Shepherd, severe controls in the beginning are counter-productive. If only the dogs with perfect hips (according to the relatively inaccurate hip-extended method used) are allowed to breed, the managers will be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Genes that are beneficial for other qualities relating to type and character could be irretrievably lost. The way the Hirshfeld Stichting (known as WKHS) would judge X-ray pictures and limit breeding rights will tend to isolate dogs in Holland from the rest of Europe and the world, and prevent the use of dogs that would otherwise benefit the breed(s) involved. Since Holland might have the greatest population of White Shepherds in Europe, such a stand would have detrimental effects. There is no reliable way to estimate numbers of these white dogs in Germany because there is no central accounting.

WKHS is a panel of HD "scrutineers" as they are known in Britain and Australasia, that uses Greyhound hips as the model to which others are compared. But they have raised the bar so high that hips which would be considered HD-free in Belgium, for example, might be read as HD +/- ("plus/minus") which can be translated as slight or mild dysplasia. Far better would be a procedure that tells the breeder (and clubs) how a particular dog's joints compare in laxity and in risk for later degenerative joint disease or arthritis, to the breed population as a whole. Using such information, plus peer pressure to breed only dogs with better than the average laxity index, both goals can be approached: retain genetic diversity and make real progress in lowering HD incidence in the chosen breed. That method, as you will have read on the "realgsd.net" and other websites, already exists, and is known as the PennHIP method. While I was in Holland in September, I presented a lecture on HD and visited a Penn-certified vet as well: Dr. Maarten Kappen of Eersel. Later in the week I met another vet whose partner was in the process of becoming PennHIP-certified. I recommended to the breeders of the White Shepherd in Europe that they not only utilize PennHIP, but also make it mandatory for membership or a part of their clubs' codes of ethics that any PennHIP results be made known, in an open registry and publication for breeder's use and research.

In Holland, perhaps half of the White Shepherds are not registered or affiliated with any club. The remainder are split into political camps, with approximately 30% of the breed in the VWH and 20% in the WHVN. I believe that blanket acceptance offered to all White Shepherds, even those few in Europe still known as white GSDs, will bridge the political gap, unite the breed, and further genetic diversity while still promoting breed improvement and preservation. I also think the availability of new choices such as PennHIP for HD diagnosis and prediction, and UKC for better shows and breeds, foreshadows great advances in the sport and cynology in Europe and elsewhere.

(editor's note: Fred Lanting is an SV judge of GSDs, an all-breed judge for many registries around the world, and a lecturer in various dog topics such as HD and anatomy-&-gait. He has judged the national specialty for the white GSD club in America more than once, and local White Shepherd shows many times. He judges most groups for UKC. He is the author of "Canine Hip Dysplasia" and "The Total German Shepherd Dog" in addition to several other books.)

 

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