The Curious Development of Dog Breeds

Victorian girl and her dog

The domestic dog, is a subspecies of the gray wolf, a member of the Canidae family of the mammalian order Carnivora.

Scientific name: Canis lupus familiaris

Rank: Subspecies

Higher classification: Gray Wolf

Lower classifications:  Affenpinscher, Afghan hound, Aidi, Airedale Terrier . . . and the list goes on and on through an estimated 157 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. And that figure doesn’t include the variations that are not registered, which some have estimated to be as many as five thousand additional “breeds.”

Breeds are usually categorized by the function for which they were bred. The general categories include: companion dogs, guard dogs, hunting dogs, herding dogs, and working dogs, although there are many other types and subtypes. Today, there are many breeds with a long history as “registered” breeds, rare breeds with their own registries, and new breeds still under development.

It’s hard to imagine, but the majestic Great Dane and the tiny Chihuahua are exactly the same species.

So how did this wild and wacky variation among the simple, brown-coated, medium size dog of centuries past turn into Irish Wolfhounds and Yorkshire Terriers?  For that, we can look to the Victorians, who were largely (although not wholly) instrumental in the development of specific dog breeds.

Well before the 19th century and the Victorian era, humans figured out that mating specific dogs who showed a prized trait (e.g., one was a good rat catcher, another a fast runner = terrier), could result in a dog with a greater aptitude for something.  Possibly the most universal example was the herding dogs, whose instinct to kill what they chased was suppressed to just the chase. A major feat indeed.

By the mid-1800s, the basics of what became modern genetics came to be understood. Attributed to Gregor Johann Mendel, a German-Czech Augustinian monk and scientist, Mendel studied the nature of inheritance in plants. The results of his work were distributed to wide acclaim and this knowledge bisected with another extraordinary development: the industrial revolution which gave rise to a middle class.

Now, for the first time in history, people had some leisure to indulge their interests and hobbies, and  Victorian ladies especially, wanted newer kinds of dogs. Before this, breeding dogs was never for looks; it was strictly for function. Until then, having a dog as a pet was almost always the provenance of the wealthy. The general population simply could not afford to house, keep and care for an animal that did not have a viable function on the farm or estate.  But the Victorian era dramatically changed the status of the dog.

The new middle class wanted to emulate the lifestyle of the wealthy lords and ladies, and acquiring a dog as a pet in the family home was an important symbol of status. To amuse themselves, the Victorians developed the first dog shows based on dog breeds they created and named.  Alas, these breeding efforts, which were for esthetic purposes only, resulted in genetic anomalies which continue to plague dogs today.

We need to encourage changes in the breed standards of any dog whose health has been compromised for esthetic purposes.  My own dog, a beautiful German shepherd, is rarely recognized as such.  People continually come up to me asking: “He’s a German shepherd and what else?”  They recognize that the dog is a shepherd, but had never seen one with a ramrod- straight back.  This is my service dog and, when we got him, my first and absolute requirement was that he be healthy.  As his back legs have not been foreshortened over generations (so that he will have that ridiculous lower back stance prized by breeders and judges), he stands straight and tall.  So, with pride, I tell people:  “This is the way a German shepherd is supposed to look:  Healthy!”

Yet, there is no question that looks are important.  How are we going to satisfy our desire for a particular look in a dog with our concern that he or she be of sound structure?  This is a question that only recently has become a concern.

Personally, as stated above, I believe we must stop compromising the health of some purebreeds to meet artificial breed standards. And yet, I know people who are passionate about English Bulldogs, an animal so misaligned that it is unrecognizable from its original predecessor and whose physical characteristics are such that this breed commonly requires a Caesarean section in order to give birth. And there are numerous other breeds, deeply loved for their looks and singular personalities, whose lives are constrained by health problems.

We all want healthy, happy dogs.  What should we do?  Please let us know what breed you particularly fancy and whether or not you think that breed “standard” needs to be revised as a matter of animal’s well-being.

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5 Responses to The Curious Development of Dog Breeds

  1. Norman W Wilson, PhD January 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Why do we continue to create new breeds? The tea-cup dogs, for example. Good article. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  2. Samm January 25, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    Very interesting article. However, I love my mutt, definitely a mixed breed of many varities. He is the cutest and the love of my life.

  3. Heidi M. Thomas January 26, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    Good article, Patricia. Fascinating. Keep up the good work!

  4. Marie Grime February 1, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    The Shepherd’s breeding you mentioned for the down-sloping back is probably one reason why my son’s poor Sebastian suffered with hip displasia.

    After the movie “101 Dalmations,” our friends adopted what turned out to be a deaf Dalmation. The vet told his owner that deafness was very common in Dalmations since the breed had become so popular.

    People were often surprised when they met my old Chihuahua Timon because he was quiet, he didn’t bite or snap, and he seldom shook. Since adopting Timon I have met other Chihuahuas with friendly, affectionate easy-going personalities like his, and have been told by vets that Chihuahuas are calmer now because they are no longer cross-bred like they once were.

    So no, I do not approve of breeding practices designed to alter a dog’s appearance.

    But I feel even more strongly that dogs should not be disfigured for show. I have not dealt with show dogs since 1971, and I’ve heard that the cruel practices have lessened. I remember people having cut off Doberman’s ears, bobbing the tails of several breeds, amputating poodles’ toes to make them prance, even euthanization of puppies whose physical characteristics were off standards.

    I hope all of these cruel practices are out of date by now. They certainly should be. Dr. Bloom, or dog breeders everywhere, can you offer any update on this?

  5. Dr. B February 5, 2013 at 3:48 am #

    Reader Marie Grime asked a valuable question: Are the “cruel practices” used to enhance a particular breed now “out of date”? I wish I could say they were. Unfortunately, while some of the practices have been banned, especially in dog-loving England where they no longer allow “docking” — the practice of cutting off the dog’s tail, the USA has not followed suit. Until, as in England, a documentary is televised that captures the attention of the breeders and outrage the public, we will continue to see malformed dogs who suffer to meet some arbitrary standard.

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