This article first featured in the National Dog online publication in February 2011 and is reproduced here with kind permission from its author: Rebecca Rendell
The White Swiss Shepherd has a compelling story, a complex tale spanning over a century although considered a new breed. It’s a breed whose very existence today can be attributed to the tenacity of breeders and admirers from around the world, who chose to shelter and preserve the White Coated Shepherd throughout its turbulent past.
The breeds’ foundation begins in Germany, where a humble sheepdog caught the eye of a cavalry officer who had dreamt of creating a superior sheepherding dog breed. In a time where ‘if a dog wasn’t a good worker, it wasn’t a good dog’ Captain Max Von Stephanitz was not concerned about the first German Shepherd Horand Von Grafrath having white ancestry. What was important was that Horand had the physique and temperament that epitomised an obedient and noble working dog, capable of tireless endurance yet still strong enough to drive marauders away from the flock.
Horand was bred over daughters and granddaughters to quickly establish the traits that were so admired. This also ensured the colour genes of his ancestors, in particular his white grandfather Grieff, were stamped into the genetic code of the new German herding breed for generations to come. The White Colouration in Shepherds is a colour bequeathed from the white sheepherding dogs of the 1800’s that helped form the German Shepherd breed as we know it today.
The white colouration is a ‘masking’ gene which is responsible for the Samoyed and yellow Labrador. It naturally produces different shades ranging from heavy gold to white, although selective breeding for coat colour will influence a breed overall. The white masking gene only affects coat colour, it does not affect the skin underneath. The gene for white coat colour in Shepherds is genetically different to that of white boxers and white Dobermans (where the skin and eye colour are affected), and is unrelated to the Merle gene or Piebald gene, the two genes responsible for congenital deafness in dog breeds.
The White German Shepherds fall from grace began in 1959 when the German overseeing body ‘Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunden’ labelled the White German Shepherd an Albino, and the standard was changed to prohibit the use of dogs with more than 50% white or full white coat. The results where catastrophic, some countries ceased to register them altogether or made the white coat an automatic disqualification so that no offspring were eligible for registration, others countries while still papering Whites took away their show ring privileges. On a worldwide scale, the White German Shepherds were now excluded from the conformation rings with their broken coloured counterparts, although may would agree this is now a strong contributing factor to the White Swiss Shepherd retaining the conformation of the GSD’s of old. Since the label of albinism had been applied in 1959, the White German Shepherd was now in mortal peril. The court of public opinion believed the white coat was defective somehow, a flawed mutation rumoured to be responsible for anything from blindness to hearing impairment as well as generally unsound. At this time there was no defence, technology such as DNA testing to scientifically refute these claims was unheard of and communication between owners and breeders of whites in different countries was non-existent. Word of the alleged taint carried quickly, generating an almost superstitious pall around the White German Shepherd that still persists today.
The culling of white dogs from the German Shepherd breeding pool saw the White German Shepherd almost disappear completely from the countries where they were no longer offered registration by the Canine Control Bodies. America and England were not as heavily affected due to registration still being maintained.
Devotees were unconvinced by the campaign to eliminate the White Coated Shepherds from the German Shepherd breed, and the first breed club specifically for the White German Shepherd began in America in 1964 where White Shepherds could be shown in their own speciality shows. Canada followed in 1970, and Australia also had its first White German Shepherd club in the late 1970s, which was active for many years in Australia, hosting shows as well as marching in the 1978 Moomba parades. The clubs presence coincided with German Shepherd enthusiasts lobbying the KCC to no longer register coat colour white as part of the German Shepherd Breed in Australia any longer.
The White Swiss Shepherds story slowly emerges in 1967, where Mrs Agatha Burch returned to her homeland of Switzerland with her American White German Shepherd stud, Lobo of White Burch. Soon after he is joined by White Lilac of Blinkbonny from England, and they are bred under the Shangrila prefix. Their offspring began to spread throughout Europe, and the Shangrila breeding lines were intermingled with the scattered remnants of White German Shepherds still in existence, as well as other American/Canadian imports. In 1989 the (translated) “White Shepherd Dog Society Switzerland” formed, bringing together both English and American registered dogs and local unregistered dogs within the one club. The White Shepherd Society became a registered organisation with the Swiss Kennel Club in 1991, allowing the dogs to be officially shown as White Shepherds throughout Switzerland. The Dutch Kennel club followed in 1993, registering the White Shepherd on a provisional register allowing them to also officially compete in dog sports and conformation. With the local lines in Holland being added to with early imports from England, Canada and America as well as dogs purchased in Germany, even before the 1991 registration with the Swiss Kennel club the White Shepherd had become a popular breed in Europe in its own right.
Closer to home, the White Shepherd Association of Australia was formed in the year 2000, with the help and support of the Friends of White Shepherds Club in South Australia. The burgeoning popularity of the internet allowed rapid communication across the county, helping bring together some of the last ANKC registered White German Shepherds as well as the unregistered White Shepherds. A stud book was begun without prejudice, and the interest and popularity of the White Shepherd in Australia began to steadily rise. Since 2003 the club has been known as the White Swiss Shepherd Dog Club of Australia, and still fulfils its role as a primary registry for Australian White Shepherds having recorded pedigrees for both local and imported dogs for over ten years.
In Europe the dogs were now commonly known as White Shepherds, until after many years of petitioning the FCI provisionally recognised the White Shepherd as a new breed, The White Swiss Shepherd. Switzerland was named the country of origin but not without controversy due to the international nature of contribution to the breed. Countries affiliated with the FCI accepted the provisionally registered White Swiss Shepherd breed, also accommodating any local unregistered White Shepherd bloodlines through the use of development registers. For inclusion onto a countries development register a dog is usually presented for judging and grading before acceptance into the White Swiss breed.
Through the development register system many Australian bred dogs have been exported to Europe to compete successfully at shows as FCI registered White Swiss Shepherds. Our countries latest export Rosehill Duchess de Brabant (Amira) has just been awarded the honourable title of Young Italian Champion. The early Australian lines have been slowly added to with English and American imports, as well as frozen semen from some of Americas most successful stud dogs. The last few years have seen White Swiss Shepherd lines incorporated via the use of imported stud dogs and frozen semen, positively contributing to the development of the Australian lines. Amira’s bloodlines are a modern mix of local Australian, American and European bloodlines.
The Australian bred White Shepherds are unable to be registered with the ANKC at this time, except as a neutered associate. This is a shame as the Australian White Shepherds heritage is unique to the rest of the world, and able to provide a welcome contribution to the steady evolution of the International White Swiss Shepherd breed.
Regardless of any debate the Australian dogs are not valued by the general public for their pedigrees, but rather for their beauty, intelligence and versatility which has allowed them to fulfil many different roles in thousands of Australian homes. They work as family dogs, obedience dogs, agility dogs, herding Dogs and assistance dogs, their owners knowing that no amount of ribbons or trophies could ever replace the loyalty and affection that a member of the Shepherd breed has to offer.
Editor’s note :
22/5/2016 – The Australian bred White Shepherds are able to be registered with the ANKC on the Sporting Dog Register which allows undesexed dogs to participate in ANKC sanctioned dog sports and be eligible for ANKC titles. Unfortunately, at this time they are unable to be registered on the ANKC Main or Limited registers.