“They only kill their masters!” “Their brains swell inside their skulls and make them go crazy!” “What do you get when you cross a Doberman and a collie—a dog that will maul you and then run for help!” Since about 1895, the Doberman breed has been making the public cross the street at their approach. Long before the American pit bull became the “fad panic dog,” the Doberman held that position—and then some. In popular culture, movies, and backyards worldwide, the Doberman in the 1970s and early 1980s was “it,” the dog so many hated, so many loved, and almost all misunderstood.
What happened to the Doberman is not unique; every time a powerful, intelligent working breed becomes quickly and extremely popular with the general public, trouble follows. Without fail, there is a flood of people motivated by puppy sales they think will be quick and easy money, the so-called “backyard breeder.”
I want to take a moment to define what is meant by “backyard breeder” as there is much confusion about the term. “Backyard” does not refer to where the actual breeding of the dogs takes place but rather where the dogs to be bred come from. A reputable, serious breeder knows that no one male dog is the best fit—genetically—with all his female dogs. For this reason, many small kennels will not keep a male dog; they will search far and wide to find the stud dog that best improves their female dog’s faults. In the Doberman breed, it is not unusual for a reputable breeder to have frozen semen from a great dog flown in from Europe at a cost of thousands of dollars. In other words, they go outside “the backyard” to breed. True backyard breeders often only use their own dogs to save money and effort.
The Doberman has—more than almost any other breed with the exception of the American pit bull terrier —suffered the ravages of popularity. Once considered one the finest working dogs the world has ever seen, the Doberman was chosen as the dog of choice of the United States Marine Corp during World War II. As K9 Leathernecks, these dogs—family pets donated by patriotic families—saw some of the toughest action in the Pacific. These Dobermans stood up to almost constant shelling and hellish conditions on the volcanic islands during what many consider the fiercest fighting of the war. Their job was to walk point on patrols, sniffing out Japanese troops hidden in the jungle and down in the thousands of tunnels in which they lay in ambush. As well, the dogs ran messages from one outpost to another, helped locate wounded men after battle, and guarded facilities.
But in the time since they served with such distinction, much damage has been done to the “ultimate guard dog” developed in Germany in the 1880s by a sometimes tax collector named Louis Dobermann. Herr Dobermann, and the men who came after him to perfect and carry on his dream, preferred a very “sharp” (eager to attack) dog—and so the breed was when, in the early 1920s, it first arrived in America in numbers. In fact, one breed expert was quoted as saying “it took courage to own one.”
In Germany the breeding of working dogs was hugely popular. Almost every town had a training club, and knowledgeable trainers and breeders helped civilians to enjoy the working aspect of their family dog. After World War I, when the allies forbid any military training in defeated Germany, the Germans still managed to train thousands of war dogs by calling it a “sport” (schutzhund) which still exists today. In this way Germany had all the trained war dogs they needed by the start of World War II.
The Germans have always been acknowledged as expert working dog breeders, and their success lies in the fact that strong dog breed clubs were formed which protected the interest of the breed—not the owners! A Doberman owner, for instance, could not just breed his or her dog to any other dog if they wanted the litter to be registered. Instead, a breed warden would inspect the dogs and recommend a suitable pairing. The parent dogs were required to have working titles. Once born, the breed warden would again appear and this time take away any weak or sickly pups to thin the litter to the best half-dozen pups. While this type of interference in a person’s dog breeding may seem strange to Americans, it is the reason the Germans produced the finest in Dobermans, Rottweilers, German shepherds, and other working breeds.
However, when the Doberman hit the east coast of the USA in the early ’20s, their stunning beauty and regal expression made them a magnet for the dog show crowd. At that time America had no formal police dog type trials, so dogs born in the United States did not have to prove their worth as working dogs prior to being bred. And this was the age of the flapper! America did not have war on its mind. Dog breeding became an extension of art, of fine and beautiful things, and the Doberman’s sleek, modern look made it a natural for this purpose.
Yet Herr Dobermann and the early breeders had done their work well, and despite breeding that ignored temperament and character here in the U.S., the breed earned respect as a canine protector and was utilized in the military and police forces for some decades.
Trouble was brewing, however, and the military was the first to discontinue their use, followed more slowly over the years by police departments. The problem was the basic nature of the breed which was fundamentally different from the German shepherd which moved into favor with police and military.
To be continued.