What is a breed?

Is "a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities" all there is to it?.

The American Kennel Club gives full recognition to 157 breeds of dogs and has several more in the pipeline, but the average American is probably only sure of a dozen or two. Veterinarian Bruce Fogle features more than 400 breeds in his beautiful Encyclopedia of the Dog, but even serious dog fanciers are likely to mis-identify the Swedish Drever as a cross between a Beagle and a Pembroke Welsh Corgi or confuse the Black Russian Terrier with the Giant Schnauzer.

The confusion isn't limited to obscure breeds vs AKC-registered breeds. Those who wander the show grounds of an AKC all-breed show may well mistake the English and American versions of the Foxhound; the German Wire-haired Pointer and the Wire-haired Pointing Griffon; the Great Pyrenees and the Kuvasz. Novices may look at the American Eskimo Dog and see a "Toy Samoyed" or see the Shetland Sheepdog as a "Toy Collie" or wonder if the Canaan Dog is a mixed breed pooch from the shelter.

Breed identification is further compounded by the registering bodies: AKC considers the Belgian shepherd dogs to be different breeds and recognizes three of the four types, while Canadian and European registries consider them to be four types of the same breed; the United Kennel Club registers AKC's American Staffordshire Terrier as the American Pit Bull Terrier; and although the three types of Dachshunds have slightly different histories, AKC considers them to be a single breed.

And the new emphasis on so-called "designer breeds" complicates matters even further. These dogs are almost always crossbreds between two purebred or first-generation crosses that do not have fixed characteristics but do have a cute name. Thus Puggles (Beagle/Pug), Shih-Poos (Shih Tzu/Poodle), Goldendoodles (Golden Retriever/Poodle), Cavachons (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel /Bichon Frise) and many others pop up in newspaper advertisements, on websites, and in pet stores.

So what is a breed?

Webster's Desk Dictionary of the English Language defines a breed as "a homogeneous grouping of animals within a species, developed by humans," and the Oxford English Dictionary says a breed is "a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities."

Both of these definitions leave room for interpretation. As noted above, although the only real difference between the four types of Belgian shepherds is coat type and color, the AKC registers three of the four types as separate breeds and enrolls the rough-coated variety in its Foundation Stock Service without full recognition. The UKC used to agree, but in 1991, this registry re-designated all four Belgian shepherds as four varieties of one breed as the Canadians and Europeans have done for years.

Furthermore, AKC divides other breeds with coat differences into varieties and uses size and color for further separation within some breeds.(1)

To complicate matters further, many breeds have similar heritage, appearance, and temperament. Some contributed to the development of others, some seem to have been developed from the same basic stock in geographically isolated areas, and some look alike except for minor differences in size or coat type.

The northern, spitz-type dogs all resemble each other. In this group, the Siberian Husky can be difficult to distinguish from a young Alaskan Malamute, and young Samoyeds and American Eskimos strongly resemble each other. The Shiba Inu, a relative newcomer to the US, looks like a small version of the Akita, which it may well have been about 1000 years ago.

Spaniels, a group now separated into several breeds, once were a single breed divided by size and field ability, not parentage. The tiny spaniels became the toys further divided into English Toy Spaniel, Papillon, and others. Slightly larger dogs became known as cockers (for the woodcocks they flushed in the field) and field spaniels, and the largest of the group became the water spaniels and springers, named for the skills they possessed.

Terriers all resemble each other and indeed may have common ancestry, but breed designation in this group may or may not be proof of separate development. The Wirehair Fox Terrier and the Smooth Fox Terrier derived independently but share virtually the same standard except for coat type. On the other hand, the Norwich and Norfolk terriers were considered one breed until 1979, when the AKC recognized the drop-eared variety as the Norfolk and the prick-eared variety as the Norwich. The Airedale Terrier, the largest of the group, strongly resembles a dapper, streamlined edition of the Otter Hound, which contributed to its development, as well as an enlarged version of the Lakeland, Welsh, and Irish terriers. And Cairn and West Highland White Terriers were color variations of one breed and are now considered separate breeds.

Greyhounds, Whippets, and Italian Greyhounds look like large, medium, and small versions of the same dog, but they are different breeds. Schnauzers come in giant, standard and miniature versions, all with different histories. Poodles also come in three sizes, but they are the same breed.

Some purebred dogs look like mixed breeds to the unpracticed eye, and some little-known purebreds resemble crossbreds to even the most astute canine expert. The Pyrenean Shepherd could be a terrier-poodle mix, the Beauceron could be a German Shepherd mix, and the Tibetan Mastiff could be a Newfoundland cross.

What is a breed? Not an easy question...

Obviously, the answer is not a simple one. In some cases, historic record proves the heritage of a breed for centuries. The Chow Chow, Great Pyrenees, Lhasa Apso, Basenji, Basset Hound, Borzoi, and many other breeds have an ancient legacy and are obviously the result of breeding for a particular set of characteristics and qualities. In other cases, geographic isolation led to development of similar breeds from the same basic stock. For example, the livestock guardian dogs are considered to be descendants of mastiff-type dogs popular in the Roman Empire. Several of these dogs, including Great Pyrenees (France), Kuvasz (Hungary), Maremma (Italy), Akbash (Turkey), and the Tatra Sheepdog (Middle Europe), strongly resemble each other with slight differences in bulk. The Anatolian Shepherd, another Turkish flock guardian, is considered either a short-coated version of the Akbash or a breed on its own, depending on the source of the information.

In some cases, a breed developed in one country was imported to another, and, because of breeder preference and the limits of the gene pool, changed in appearance somewhere along the way. The English and American Cocker Spaniels are examples of this phenomenon. The Cocker came to the US from England and became a smaller dog with some other physical changes; 50 years later, the original cocker was imported and shown first as a variety of the Cocker and then as the English Cocker while the original English dog became the American Cocker.

How about those designer dogs?

Designer dogs usually have purebred parents of two different breeds. However, breeding a male of one breed with a female of another breed does not produce a purebred puppy of any breed regardless of a cute name and a marketing strategy that extols its virtues.

Puggles, Goldendoodles, Peke-a-poos, and other crossbred dogs may make wonderful family pets, therapy dogs, performance dogs, etc., but they are definitely not a homogeneous grouping as defined by Webster or "a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities" as designated by the Oxford.English Dictionary. For example, the Puggle, the offspring of a Pug/Beagle breeding will be 50 percent Pug and 50 percent Beagle, but any characteristic may resemble one parent dog more than the other. A Puggle may inherit the Beagle's droopy ears and the Pug's curled tail, the Beagle's howl and the Pug's loose skin, etc.(2)

What does all this mean?

First of all, a breed must be carefully developed over at least seven generations to fix the desired characteristics. When breeding purebred dogs, the offspring must be identifiable as a member of the breed when compared to the standard and to other adults. In other words, each litter of puppies should resemble its parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on.

Second, those who deal with dogs, especially rescue groups and animal shelters, should have some training in breed recognition so they can make wise decisions in placing the dogs in their care.

Third, although a genetic test now exists to identify more than three dozen breeds, the technology is expensive and has not trickled down to the pet market.

Therefore, in most cases, one can surmise but not prove, even with registration papers, that a dog is purebred. Unscrupulous breeders, and careless ones, can sell a crossbred Samoyed-American Eskimo or Pomeranian-American Eskimo puppy as a purebred, for the breeds involved are similar. In the same way, crosses between Lhasa Apsos and Shih Tzus, any of the small terriers, Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, and many other breeds could be incorrectly identified to prospective buyers.

If breeds are so similar, why have breeds at all?

The advantage of owning a purebred dog is that the animal's appearance and character are pretty well fixed by generations of careful selection for particular traits. Thus puppy buyers can pick and choose the dog that will fit their lifestyle and circumstances - active families can opt for energetic dogs; families with children can choose gentle companions; people who live in apartments can select quieter breeds that need less exercise, etc.

But what's in a breed? If the Drever looks like it's part Beagle and part Corgi, how do we know it isn't? And if the schnauzers look like three sizes of the same breed, how do we know they are different?

As noted above, scientists have recently identified genetic markers for more than three dozen breeds of dogs.(3) The test kit costs about $80 and results are available in four-to-six weeks. However, even with genetic testing, the debate as to what constitutes a breed is unlikely to be settled as long as breeders draw breath. If it is truly "a homogeneous grouping of animals within a species, developed by humans," or "a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities," breeders will continue to discuss whether variations in size, color, and coat type are contrary to homogeneity and whether or not particular hereditary qualities leave room for some variation within the description of a breed.

Breed development

Although the domestication of the dog is shrouded in mystery, many scientists are convinced that dogs developed from wolves that settled on the fringes of human development. Wolves found easy pickings in the garbage heaps near human settlements, and, as the wolves became more accustomed to humans and vice versa, humans probably found equally easy pickings among the wolf cubs. These cubs became pets, cave or hut guardians, hunting companions, and later, livestock guardians and herders.

Once a truce was established between wolves and men - a situation that likely happened over and over again in different parts of the world - people may have started to select wolves to enhance certain traits, and thus created dogs skilled in herding, tracking, guarding, retrieving, and coursing.

Wolves in different parts of the world contributed to development of dogs with different body types and coats. There are several theories about the details.

According to Fogle, four types of wolves contributed to the development of dog breeds:

Raymond Coppinger, a dog trainer, breeder, and scientist, believes that this widely-accepted theory is not quite accurate. Coppinger presents his version of the development of dog breeds in his fascinating book Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution.(4)

However dogs became partners to man, the dispersal of dog breeds, the development of new breeds, and the extinction of others was influenced by war, nomadic tribes, trade routes, pastoral communities, and the spread of civilization. Many of today's breeds can be traced back hundreds or thousands of years, but the modern version may not bear more than superficial resemblance to the original.

The value of purebreds

People developed breeds in attempts to refine dogs for particular purposes. British sheep farmers along the England-Scotland border developed Border Collies to gather the flocks from the hills and move them from one field to another. European sheep farmers developed a different type of shepherd dog to work the terrain in their countryside. Shepherds in mountainous areas developed dogs to guard the flocks from wolves. Shepherds on the Shetlands and other islands developed smaller breeds of dogs (and sheep) to fit the size of the habitat.

Hunters developed upland game dogs and waterfowl dogs to hunt birds, terriers to hunt pests, and hounds to chase rabbits, hares, and gazelles. Nomadic people developed breeds to haul goods on sleds and carts. Warriors traveled with large guard dogs, and noblemen used fierce dogs to protect palaces and property.

People who lived in cold, harsh climates developed breeds with weather-resistant coats; those who lived in deserts developed dogs that could withstand the heat of day and the cold of night; and those who lived by the sea developed dogs that could swim in cold water without ill effects.

Although many - if not most - of these breeds no longer work at their original jobs, they maintain many - if not all - of the skills to do those jobs. This combination of physical attributes and mental abilities makes them predictable as pets and in many cases adaptable to other purposes. Prospective puppy buyers can select a breed based on the attributes that fitted the dog to do its original job. For example, Labrador Retrievers, the top dog in AKC registrations, are in high demand as pets for active families because they are gentle, playful into adulthood, active, and relatively easy to train. Border Collies, on the other hand, usually make poor family pets because they are workaholics; if they don't have enough to do, they may herd the kids or destroy the house.

Although most dog owners want "just a pet," many enjoy participation in activities that simulate the original purpose of the breed. Newfoundlands may do carting or water work(5), Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds may do dog sledding, retrievers and pointers may do hunting tests and trials(6), and Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs, corgis, and other herding breeds may do herding tests and trials(7), owners of terriers may participate in "go- to-ground" competitions, and owners of sighthounds may do lure coursing tests and trials. Some of these events are held in conjunction with all-breed dog shows; others are conducted separately or at national specialties of the breeds involved.

German Shepherds and the Belgian sheepdogs rarely herd sheep but they assist the police and the armed forces in a variety of jobs. Many other breeds put their skills to good use in finding lost or injured people, sniffing out contraband, working in arson investigations, guarding military installations, helping handicapped owners, and visiting hospitals and nursing homes.(8)

Breeds in trouble

Predictability of appearance is a two-edged sword. Not only can it be an advantage to a family looking for a pet, it can be a major drawback when the sins of a few dogs of a breed are visited on the whole breed. Such is the case with a growing list of breeds, including the bully breeds, Akitas, Chows, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Malamutes, and others.

Many US jurisdictions have breed specific bans or vicious dog laws. These laws blame dogs for their breeds, not their deeds. They indict the therapy dogs and search and rescue dogs and gentle family pets along with the dogs that roam at large, threatening neighbors and their pets.

The original dog of choice for the "ban the breed" crowd was the "pit bull." The State of Ohio labels pit bulls as vicious and places them under the same restrictions as dogs that have actually attacked and injured people or maimed or killed other animals. However, the pit bull is a type of dog, not a specific breed, and includes breeds like the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Pit Bull Terrier. Dogs of these breeds are rarely used by dog fighters, yet the stigma of past history remains and the breeds are included in pit bull bans and restrictions.

Some breeds suffer from great popularity. A motion picture, a television show, a product commercial - all influence the public to seek out a particular breed of dog. Change in lifestyle can also affect breed popularity as people move from rural areas to the suburbs and from single family homes to condos and apartments and opt for smaller dogs to share their lives.(9) Market demands increase, commercial kennels and breeders produce more puppies, and registrations rise. Breeding to satisfy demand often results in a decline in breed health or temperament in the rush to sell puppies.

The versatility of breeds

Dogs are the most versatile of animals. They range in size from the tiniest Chihuahua to the largest Irish Wolfhound or Mastiff - from two pounds to 200 pounds. They come in all coat types from the bare skin of the Chinese Crested to the thick double coat of the Newfoundland and the silken tresses of the Shih Tzu. They come in all colors from white to black, in bi-colors and tri-colors, and in patterns from spotted to patched to tiger brindle. They have bushy tails and smooth tails, lop ears and tipped ears and upright ears. They come in a range of temperaments from mild and joyful to tough and aloof.

In short, there's a dog breed to fit any lifestyle or family vision, a dog that will keep up with an active family or lounge around with a couch potato, a dog that will provide companionship and love under any or all circumstances. But behind the facade, no matter the shape, size, or attitude, is a history as old as civilization and a partnership that has lasted through the ages. The dogs of today may not be sheepherders and guardians, palace protectors, or royal hunt companions, but they are just as valuable and worth preserving as breeds, as fellow travelers in human history, as companions, and as life partners.


(1) AKC uses coat type to divide Collies into smooth and rough-coated varieties, Chihuahuas into smooth and long-coated varieties, and Dachshunds into smooth, long, and wire coated varieties. They use color to divide Cocker Spaniels into black, parti-colored, and ASCOB (any solid color other than black) varieties, English Toy Spaniels into four varieties, and Bull Terriers into white and colored varieties. They use size to divide Beagles by height (13-inch and 15 inch), Poodles into toy, miniature, and standard varieties and Manchester Terriers into toy and standard varieties.

(2) Check out Hot Dogs! Fourteen of the Top Designer Dogs from Barron's.

(3) The Canine Heritage(™) Breed Test kit is marketed by MetaMorphix Inc. The dog owner provides a DNA sample by rubbing the inside of the dog's cheek with a sterile swab. The breeds recognized by the test are Afghan Hound, Akita German, Basenji, Basset Hound, Beagle, Belgian Tervuren, Bernese Mountain Dog, Border Collie, Borzoi, Boxer, Bulldog, Chihuahua, Chinese Shar-Pei, Chow Chow, Cocker Spaniel, Collie, Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, English Setter, German Shepherd, German Shorthaired Pointer, Golden Retriever, Greyhounds, Italian Greyhound, Labrador Retriever, Mastiff, Miniature Schnauzer, Pug, Rottweiler, Saluki, Samoyed, Shetland Sheepdog, Shih-Tzu, Siberian Husky, St. Bernard, Standard Poodle, Whippet, Yorkshire Terrier. For more information, visit http://www.metamorphixinc.com/products2a.html.

(4) Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, University of Chicago Press, 2001. Check it out at the Dog Owner's Guide Amazon Bookstore.

(5) See "Zealot designs a draft test" and "Spirit is a water rescue dog!"

(6) See "Joy and enthusiasm mark sporting dog trials"

(7) See "Border collies put to the test" and "Wolf in the fold, tunnel, and ring"

(8) See "Ivy works out at Newtown, Ohio, country club," "They follow their noses to lost and injured humans," "Grace under Water," "Dogs helping people lead independent lives," "Dogs with Jobs: Working Dogs Around the World," and "Eden Alternative adds animals to retirement centers."

(9) In 2007, 13 of the top 20 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club were toys or small dogs, and several other small breeds (French Bulldog, Havanese, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Papillon) have climbed from relative obscurity in 1997 to appear in the top 40. The full registration report is available at http://www.akc.org/reg/dogreg_stats.cfm

Norma Bennett Woolf

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