The history and development of distinct dog breeds is a fascinating study and one that modern purebred dog fanciers appreciate and revere.
Today, most dogs are family pets, valued more for their companionship than for any of their other working abilities or historic roles. But it wasn’t that long ago that most dogs worked for their keep; herding sheep or reindeer, driving cattle, guarding property, pulling carts or sleds, hunting birds or other game or rooting out pests.
As Americans began leaving the farm for city life in the mid to late 1800s, however, some of the old jobs that dogs had performed throughout history vanished. Rural Americans still relied on their dogs for numerous jobs, but landed gentry and urban Americans, just one generation off the farm and with no such jobs to offer, turned to their dogs for leisure pastimes. Dog sports began to flourish.
A critically important chapter in the history of modern purebred dogs began in 1884 when sportsmen from 12 dog clubs met in Philadelphia to form a club of clubs. Each of the delegates had hosted dog shows or run field trials in the recent past and believed that the sport of purebred dogs needed a central organization. The result of this meeting was the birth of the American Kennel Club (AKC). Within months the AKC was founded and soon thereafter the AKC established a stud book and began publishing the AKC Gazette, a magazine that it still publishes today.
Many of the early purebred fanciers were wealthy, so to this day, purebred dogs are often associated with snobbishness. But today’s purebred dog fanciers don’t fit that stereotype. They are dog lovers from all walks of life who have come to value the predictable traits that specific breeds have to offer. They like the fact that they can jog with their Dalmatian; that their Golden Retriever will fetch a ball or a Frisbee; that their Fox Terrier is feisty, or that their Whippet is a clean and calm couch dog. They like knowing that their puppy will grow up to be a certain size, have a particular coat, temperament, and energy level. They like to know that the dog they are bringing into their lives will be able to live with them for its entire life; that it won’t get too big for them to handle; that its energy level won’t wear them out; or that its coat won’t demand more care than they have time to give it.
These are not snobby reasons for choosing one dog over another. They are essential factors to consider when getting any dog. The predictability of purebred dogs enables people to choose the right dog for their family’s lifestyle, an important key to successful dog ownership. This is what keeps dogs in homes for life, and out of shelters.
In the United States, the American Kennel Club is the leading organization helping dog lovers preserve, improve and enjoy purebred dogs. AKC recognizes more than 170 breeds and varieties and classifies them according to their abilities and historic role, placing them in one of 7 different variety groups: Sporting, Hounds, Working, Terrier, Toys, Non-Sporting, and Herding.
Pure breeds were developed by purposely crossbreeding dogs with desired traits in order to fix or consolidate those traits in a particular bloodline. Many purebred dogs perform numerous jobs so well that they easily could fit into more than one group, so the group designation should be considered instructive, not limiting. The German Shepherd Dog, which AKC places in the Herding Group, for example, excels in police, rescue, herding and guide dog work. The Golden Retriever’s keen retrieving ability places him in the Sporting Group, but he is also highly regarded as a service and therapy dog.
Some dogs still maintain their traditional jobs. Others have acquired new jobs, such as sniffing out contraband, performing search and rescue work, alerting deaf owners to the sound of a crying baby or to a smoke alarm, or comforting a lonely senior in a nursing home. The wonderful thing about dogs is that they are never happier than when they are working side by side with their human companion, and this is true whether assisting in a life-and-death search, on a weekend outing with the family or competing in an obedience or agility trial.
Today, most dogs are pets. In order to choose the best family dog, people need to take the necessary time to learn as much as possible about the breeds that interest them. They should familiarize themselves with proper breed appearance, structure and temperament, and they should be aware of the breed’s historical function. They should seek out responsible and dedicated breeders by visiting AKC dog shows and by contacting local kennel clubs or AKC parent breed clubs.
Good breeders match sires and dams with care, not only for appearance, structure, temperament, and health but also to maintain the intelligence and specialized breed abilities. A conscientious puppy buyer will provide the appropriate food, veterinary care, socialization and training necessary to develop their puppy’s inherent abilities to assure that he meets his full potential.