Well, this post took me on an unexpected journey.
I was about 8 the first time I saw a Doberman. I was walking around my relatively rough council estate, and tied up in one of the concrete gardens was a slender, black and tan dog with drooping diamond ears. It also had blood all over its muzzle.
Something about its posture told me that it wasn’t injured, but I still thought it was beautiful. Then I heard a noise and looked up. Coming towards me on the path was a man with a defeated, forlorn expression aimed at no-one, covered in bloody bandages. He neither looked at me nor the dog as he passed, but my shocked 8 year-old brain put the two together and assumed he’d been attacked by it.
Hardly surprising, given that the RSPCA had already confiscated a rogue pit bull from our estate, as well as a Staffordshire terrier that had attacked an even younger girl on a swing. Also, this was around 1991, and the UK had just passed the Dangerous Dogs Act to try to stamp out dog-fighting.
The Doberman wasn’t named as a banned breed, but we were warned as children not to play with them anyway. Still, I was struck by how sleek and elegant it looked, and even at age 8, I was aware that dogs weren’t usually vicious without some kind of mistreatment or (lack of) training from their owner.
Still, the Doberman’s origin doesn’t exactly help its reputation, either among humans or dogs!
Back in 1890, Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann of Apolda, Germany, was in need of some protection. Why? Try being a dog catcher, dog pound keeper, night watchman, and a tax collector all at once.
Fortunately for him, at least two of his jobs allowed him to mix and match dog breeds to his heart’s content. Some of those included in the doggy dating were the Rottweiler, short-haired German shepherd, the Weimaraner, black and tan terrier, and the German Pinscher.
He was certainly determined, because by 1908 the Doberman Pinscher had been recognised by the American Kennel Club, and it certainly did the job. Used as a police, guard or even guide dog, it was considered incredibly loyal, intelligent, alert and fearless, as well as appropriately suspicious of strangers.
As a guard dog, it even has its own urban legend, “The Choking Doberman”, although it’s occasionally swapped out for a boxer or German shepherd.
According to Jan Harold Brunvald, this story spread like wildfire in the US in 1981, despite the details being third or even fourth-hand: woman comes home to find her loyal Doberman guard dog choking.
She takes it to the vet, who advises he keep it over night to operate. As soon as she gets home again, the woman receives an urgent call from said vet, warning her to leave the house immediately. Why? The Doberman was choking on three human fingers – belonging to the injured intruder hiding in her closet.
Speaking of the US, some readers from across the pond may have spotted something different about the featured image.
The first Doberman I saw had the usual floppy diamond ears, but it had a docked tail, as did the several others I spied over the years. It wasn’t until I saw Disney’s Roscoe and Desoto from Oliver and Company, or the first Beethoven movie, that I noticed these Dobermans had pointed ears as well.
Like 40% of the people surveyed in a study by Mills et al., I assumed this was simply a breeding variation. Nope, this is called cropping, which according to WebMD’s Fetch involves:
cutting off the floppy part of a dog’s ear – […] usually performed on anesthetized dogs between 6 and 12 weeks old. The ears are then taped to a hard surface for several weeks while they heal so they stay upright
So that’s in addition to the un-anaesthetised tail-snipping at a couple of days old. Lovely.
Ear-cropping and tail-docking for non-medical reasons are now illegal in parts of Europe, and some US organisations, like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), are trying to have these requirements removed from breeding standards.
One argument for the docking and cropping, aside from them being “integral to the look of the breed” is to reduce the risk of ear infection or tail injury. Then again, AVMA’s Dr. Patterson-Kane argues that the breeds with the highest risk of ear infection – cocker spaniels and poodles – do not have their ears docked. As for tail injuries, Dr. Serpell, of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, makes the point that
research shows an intact tail is unlikely to become injured […] if it does, injuries are minor and heal easily.
But “beauty” can have more than one price.
In addition to the unpleasant canine cosmetic surgery, many Dobermans are subject to health problems. Dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart muscle disease, and according to the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, as many as 50% of European Dobermans may be affected by it.
Another possible delight is Von Willebrand disease, where the blood has trouble clotting. Not a great situation for any animal, let alone one specifically bred for protection. But when called up for service in World War II, the Doberman Pinscher didn’t disappoint.
They were known as Devil Dogs, and were part of the 1943 US campaign in Bougainville, Solomon Islands.
Twenty-one of the twenty-four dogs in the first Marine Dog Platoon were Doberman Pinschers, provided by the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. The “Devil Dogs” were a superb early warning system, because according to the Marine Raider Regiment’s commanding officer, “Not one marine was killed while in a marine patrol led by a dog”.
Andreas von Wiedehurst, or “Andy”to his friends, was the most famous Doberman of the bunch. He was from Pennsylvania and had mangled ears from “enjoying a scrap”. Strangely enough, it was his ears that eventually failed him – two months after the Bougainville campaign, due to all the gunfire, he had become partially deaf and was killed by a truck in Guadalcanal. Some of the other Devil Dogs who survived did see a happier ending though: many were adopted by their handlers after the war.
In 2013, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas erected the first national monument commemorating the four breeds of dog historically used in combat: the German shepherd, Labrador, Belgian Malinois, and the Doberman Pinscher.
It’s clearly loved and respected, and when treated that way, it’s the brave and loyal kind of devil dog.
Latin: Canis familiaris
What? Sleek, black and tan dog breed known for its intelligence, loyalty and fearlessness.
Where? Millions of homes worldwide.
How big? 61-71 cm / 24-28 inches high.
Endangered? Nope, although the number of Dobermans with heart muscle conditions may be higher than expected.
Probable motto: It’s my job to be suspicious.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
As with my tortoiseshell cat post, there are probably lots of animal charities local to you that could be investigated. Otherwise, the UK’s Dobermann Rescue tries to rehome and/or rescue abandoned dobes.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 2003. “The choking Doberman – and other urban legends“. W.W. Norton & Company.
“Dangerous Dogs Act 1991“. 1991. UK General Public Acts. Legislation.gov.uk.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Doberman Pinscher“. Britannica.com.
Forsyth, Jim. 2013. “US military dedicates first national monument to combat dogs“. NBC News.
Frankel, Rebecca. 2014. “Dogs at war: Caesar, one of the first marine dogs in the Pacific“. National Geographic.
“Genetic welfare problems of companion animals“. No date. Universities Federation of Animal Welfare.
Hecht, Julie. 2016. “Tail docking and ear cropping affect dogs, and not just physically“. Scientific American.
McCarthy, Niall. 2018. “America’s most dangerous dog breeds [infographic]“. Forbes.
Mills K.E. et al. 2016. “Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs: Public Awareness and Perceptions“, PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158131.
Nelson, Kate. 2016. “The dog breed most likely to bite you has been revealed“. The Independent.
Pagan, Camille. No date. “Ear cropping and tail docking: should you or shouldn’t you?” Fetch.
Tail docking and ear cropping in dogs: a short review of laws and welfare aspects in the Europe and Turkey“, Italian Journal of Animal Science 16(3):431-437.
Smith, Steven Trent. 2014. “A few good marines: dogs in war time“. History.net.
Featured image credit: Photo by Sasha Vasyliuk.