I watched the Westminster Dog show the other night. Though I do not breed or show, I still find it loads of fun to watch. But I couldn’t help noticing that there seem to be more and more breeds that I know little or nothing about. As the co-author of one of the first breed-specific behavior profiling books (Choosing a Dog, Berkely 1995), I’ve trained just about very American breed there is. But the Xoloitzcuintli (show-low-eats-queen-tiei)? Who knew.
The AKC (American Kennel Club) currently lists 175 distinct dog breeds. And when you include worldwide breed listings, the count goes up past 500. Holy genetic miasma, Batman.
Centuries ago, we had giant mastiff types (Mastiffs, Rottweilers, proto-bulldogs), hounds (mostly sighthounds), Spitz or arctic-types (Chow-Chows, Inuit dogs, Huskies), and herd guarding dogs (Great Pyrenees, Komondors, Anatolians, and again, the Rottweiler). But over the centuries, with the realization of how useful dogs could be, and with the expanding needs of human enterprise, the number of breeds increased. Terriers to keep the rats away, hunting dogs to help find and retrieve game, scenthounds to track, and smaller, agile herding breeds with deft expertise in managing sheep and cattle movements. And, of course, the toy breeds, most of them developed for a new need- companionship.
It’s the toy breeds that, I believe, led to the explosion of selective breeding, for purposes beyond simple utility. Not just bred for size, many of these little canines were designed to be placid enough for frequent handling, and also for aesthetic appeal. It was this fairly new concept of breeding for sheer looks that helped initiate the explosion in breeds, and in both problems, and potential benefits.
Clearly, we do not need 500 breeds- not for utility’s sake. Twenty maybe- thirty tops. I myself prefer to have two dogs at a time- both physically competent to defend themselves and the home, with one a bit smaller and more vocal than the other (Alert! Alert!), and the other physically impressive enough to deal with anything that might come blasting through our door at 3AM. Both of course need to be good-natured, well-behaved, and curious about life. But I don’t necessarily need a Greyhound, a Dalmatian, a Chinese Crested, a Husky, or a Puli- not for utility’s sake. If I had one of these, it would be out of trainer curiosity, not need.
Today, most dog lovers acquire a dog largely by what it looks like, with less focus on function/utility. It makes unfortunate sense- how many of us need to herd cattle in our yards, chase down rabbits in the desert, or pull sleds across the tundra? It has become a simple search for companionship, with looks heading the list of desirable features.
When people acquire their dogs based on looks, it often leads to behavioral problems. You like how a Chow Chow looks? Get one for that reason alone and you might not be prepared for the breed’s aloof nature. Love that Border Collie stare? Better have time to exercise and socialize that intense, obsessive character. When people choose dogs the way they do cars or hair styles, it often leads to unexpected issues, and a call to Dr. Steve.
Are there any unexpected benefits to having hundreds of breeds? I didn’t used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. My great concern for many pure bred dogs has been the terribly small gene pools that many fine breeds have relied on over the decades. When you see the medical messes that some dogs have become, and realize that it is often caused by the pairing of undesirable recessive traits due to the inbreeding of closely related dogs, you begin to wish for those gene pools to grow, or at least be less regional. It’s why mixed breed dogs usually live longer, healthier lives (albeit with less ability for us to predict temperament and size).
The creation of a “new” breed requires by definition the interbreeding of two or more different established breeds. For instance, today’s German Shepherd Dog was created only about 120 years ago, by the interbreeding of different working herd dogs, leading to the dog we know today. (Don’t get me started on the controversy surrounding this great dog though, particularly that dopey sloping top line nonsense, the hip issues, etc.). When a new breed is being created, cross breeding must occur, expending the gene pool and, at least initially, reducing the odds of genetic depression. That is of course provided you are breeding healthy dogs.
I’m not talking about the recent “hybrid” dog craze, which, though similar in its desire to create a “new” breed, often does so for all the wrong reasons, including profit, and a naïve desire to enhance or repress certain breed traits. I cannot tell you how many “Puggles” I’ve seen who bark as loud as a Beagle, or Labradoodles who shed. Amateur breeders looking to cash in on premiums demanded for “designer” puppies often do not have the experience or integrity to properly create a new breed. That’s my soapbox moment.
And so I wonder; could the increase in the number of breeds help? Could the creation of a new dog, in forcing breeders to blur gene pool lines, inadvertently help improve the health of the species?
Maybe. At first, perhaps, before said breeders begin to home in on the look and disposition they seek. Once that happens, they invariably narrow down the gene pool, line breed then in-breed, and the problem begins again.
But in the meantime, it’s fun trying to pronounce Xoloitzcuintli.
Add a comment
More From This Author
We human beings are a strange lot. We try to save endangered species by protecting their habitats...
What it would look like if we could see the way dogs smell? Would it be like a Scottish moor,...
Two doors down lives a neighbor with a gaggle of dogs- bigs, mediums, squeakers- a lot of dogs in...