Although German immigrants to Australia had brought their herding dogs with them in early days of settlement and were actually part of the early herding dog scene, the standard German shepherd breed was actually subject to an importation band in that country for many decades. How such a policy developed is a very good example of what happens when the public’s perception is based upon nothing more than a name.
How did such a crazy idea get started?
Well, keep in mind that in many Anglophone countries, this breed is almost never known as the German shepherd dog. Because the dog had been evident in Britain before World War I, it was decided to name the breed the “Alsatian” or “Alsatian wolf dog.” As someone of German ancestry, I’ve never much liked that name. Alsace is part of a German-speaking region in France called the Alsace-Lorraine ( Elsaß-Lothringen). It is on the western side of the Rhine, and because of its German-speaking population, it has been part of the German Empire. It is currently in France. (I have some ancestry there because the surname Metz appears rather close in my genealogy, and Metz is a city in the Lorraine.)
Now, I am not sure if German shepherds have any wolf in them or not. I’ve heard some rumor that wolves were crossed into them at some point. However, I do know that the two breeds that were created through crossing wolves and GSD’s (the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and the Saarloos wolfhond) have generally been failures at doing the German shepherd’s work. I’ll just say that GSD’s are most likely comprised of dogs.
The term “Alsatian wolf dog” is an utter lie. The dogs aren’t necessarily from Alsace, and they most likely aren’t part wolf.
But such a term could get the Aussie graziers all fired up, and the federal government of Australia banned the import of GSD’s to Australia in 1928.
However, maybe some of this hysteria was warranted–but for a very different reason.
The fear was that these dogs would go wild and breed with the dingoes, introducing “wolf” genes into the population.
Now, I have to say that domestic dogs are destroying the pure dingo through interbreeding. Dingoes and dogs are the same species. Indeed, it is much more likely for a dog to breed with a dingo than it is with a wolf in the wild. In fact, pure dingoes are slowly disappearing in Australia. Only in the remotest parts of that country can one find pure dingoes.
Some of these dingo-dogs are larger than pure dingoes and are less afraid of people. They can truly reek havoc upon a flock of sheep.
However, dingoes will breed with just about any domestic dog, and German shepherds were chosen as a scapegoat simply because the Brits had renamed it the “Alsatian wolf dog.” If collies had been called the “Highland wolf dog,” my guess is they would have also been demanding to restrict the import of that breed.
I’ve always found this story to be somewhat ironic. After all, Australia does love its sheep-herding dogs. In fact, one of them, the koolie, is derived from the ancestral German sheep-herding landrace today called an “Altdeutsche Hütehund.” Some of these dogs resemble German shepherds and other continental shepherds, while others resemble a shaggy dog called a “Schafpudel” (sheep poodle). Another variety comes in merle. Some of these look like Australian [sic] shepherds, and others look like koolies or rather unusual merle German shepherds. These are the famous “tiger dogs.”
So one of the staple sheep dogs of Australia is actually a close relative of the German shepherd. That most likely means that if the British had called this dog a German shepherd, there would have been no ban. Indeed, I think they would have imported them by the score.
It has been legal to import German shepherds to Australia since 1973.
However, it just amazes me how a name like “Alsatian wolf dog” can cause so many misconceptions.
It reminds me of how it was commonly believed that bloodhounds (as in the heavy pack hound) are fierce. They usually are anything but aggressive. This misconception comes from dogs that were kept by the Spanish conquistadors and colonial authorities in the Spanish Empire in Latin America, which were used to attack the indigenous population. These dogs are often a cross between the war mastiff and the heavy Spanish scent hound, which was something like a bloodhound. In Cuba, there were specially kept for tracking slaves. These dogs became legendary, and the Southern slave-owners in the US imported them to track runaway slaves. Everyone seems to know the scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Liza runs across a frozen river, while the bloodhounds nip at their heels. We also have the poem by Longfellow called “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” in which another bloodhound is the villain.
This poem inspired a painting by Ansdell, which is quite instructive. The dogs in that painting aren’t bloodhounds as we know them. They are of the catch dog type, with maybe some traces of scent hound.
But even today, I am sure that there are bloodhound owners who tire of people asking them about how aggressive their dogs are. Again, it all goes back to the public’s perception.
And sometimes the public has about as much rationality as a flock of sheep with lobotomies. And in those cases, words do matter.