Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The History of Rottweilers, Mastiffs, and German Shepherd Dogs

To provide some background on Luther's ancestry, we are featuring short descriptions and videos from the Animal Planet website. Also be sure to check out all the photos of these three breeds along the left side of the website.


The Rottweiler



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The Rottweiler's ancestors were probably Roman drover dogs, responsible for driving and guarding herds of cattle as they accompanied Roman troops on long marches. At least one of these marches led to southern Germany, where some of the people and their dogs settled.

Throughout the succeeding centuries, the dogs continued to play a vital role as cattle drovers around what was to become the town of Rottweil (which is derived from red tile, denoting the red-tile roof of the Roman baths that had been unearthed there in the eighth century). Rottweil prospered and became a center of cattle commerce. Their dogs drove and guarded cattle, guarded the money earned by the cattle sales and served as draft animals. So evolved the Rottweiler metzgerhund ("butcher dog"), an integral component in the town's industry until the mid-19th century. At that time, cattle driving was outlawed, and dog carting was replaced by donkey carts and railroads.

With little need for this once vital breed, the Rottweiler fell into such decline that it was nearly lost. With the realization that the breed was teetering near extinction, dog fanciers formed a club in 1901 and set about to revive it. Even though the 1901 club was short-lived, it did formulate a breed standard. Two subsequent clubs were formed in 1907, one of which promoted the breed as a police dog. The two clubs merged in 1921. The breed continued to grow, and by the 1930s it was competing in AKC competitions. The Rottweiler has recovered from its brush with extinction to become the second-most popular breed in America.

The English Mastiff

Watch video here (embedding unavailable).

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The mastiff is the prototypical breed of the ancient mastiff group of dogs. The confusion between the mastiff breed and the mastiff family makes it very difficult to trace the history of the breed. Even though the mastiff family is one of the oldest and most influential, the breed is undoubtedly of more recent, though still ancient, origin. By the time of Caesar, mastiffs were used as war dogs and gladiators.

In medieval times, they were used as guard dogs and hunting dogs and became so widespread as to become commonplace. Mastiffs later stepped into the arena of dog fighting, bull-baiting and bearbaiting. Even when these cruel sports were banned in England in 1835, they continued to be popular events.

The modern mastiff descends not only from these pit dogs but also from more noble lines, being descendants of one of the most famous mastiffs of all time: the mastiff of Sir Peers Legh. When Legh was wounded in the battle of Agincourt, his mastiff stood over him and protected him for many hours through the battle. Although Legh later died, the mastiff returned to his home and was the foundation of the Lyme Hall mastiffs. Five centuries later the Lyme Hall mastiffs figured prominently in founding the modern breed.

Some evidence exists that the mastiff came to America on the Mayflower, but the breed's documented entry to America did not occur until the late 1800s. The breed was nearly decimated in England by World War II, but sufficient numbers had been brought to America by that time to keep the breed going. Since that time, it has gradually risen in popularity.

The German Shepherd Dog



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Despite an outward appearance slightly resembling a wolf, the German shepherd dog is a fairly recently developed breed and, contrary to some beliefs, it is no more closely related to the wolf than any other breed of dog. The breed is the result of a conscious effort to produce the ideal shepherd, capable of herding and guarding its flocks. Perhaps never in the history of any breed has such concerted effort been put into improving a dog, mostly due to the formation in 1899 of the Verein fur Deutsche Scharferhunde SV, an organization devoted to overseeing the breeding of the German shepherd.

Breeders sought to develop not only a herding dog but also one that could excel at jobs requiring courage, athleticism and intelligence. In short order, the German shepherd had proved itself a more than capable police dog, and subsequent breeding strove to perfect its abilities as an intelligent and fearless companion and guardian. During World War I, it was the obvious choice for a war sentry. At the same time, the AKC changed the breed's name from German sheepdog to shepherd dog, and Britain changed it to Alsatian wolf dog, both attempts to dissociate the dog from its unpopular German roots. The wolf dog was later dropped as it caused many people to fear the breed. In 1931, the AKC restored the breed's name to German shepherd dog.

The greatest boon to the shepherd's popularity came in the form of two dogs, both movie stars: Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin. The German shepherd held the number-one spot in American popularity for many years. Although presently it has dropped from the top spot, the German shepherd remains as one of the most versatile dogs ever created, serving as a police dog, war dog, guide dog, search-and-rescue dog, narcotics- or explosives-detecting dog, show dog, guard dog, pet — and even shepherd.

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