What is a dog breed? No, seriously, think about it._ How do you define a dog breed? _Some would say the way they look – you know a Golden Retriever when you see one! Others might say genetics – after all, we selectively bred these dogs, and that shows up in their DNA, right? Others would say it entirely depends on whether or not their ancestors show up on a dusty old list first written down in the Victorian era.
A short history of dog breeding
Dog breeds have existed for thousands of years. While early humans were happy with having domesticated dogs that looked pretty much exactly like their wild wolf ancestors (at least, we assume they were happy – no one’s been able to grab an interview with one yet), at some point people started realizing that they could selectively breed dogs in order to make them better at certain jobs. This realization just happened to coincide with the beginning of some major civilizations in Asia and Europe, when farming started to become a really big deal.
In the Victorian Era (1837 to 1901) of British history, people started getting really into how things looked – at least in the case of dogs, which is all we really care about here. These Brits remembered how people used selective breeding to make dogs that were good shepherds and good wheelbarrow pullers. Then they collective looked around one afternoon during tea and said, "By golly, we can make dogs look pretty, too!"
During this time, "dog fancy" took the world by force. What, exactly, is dog fancy? It’s the hobby of appreciating, promoting, and breeding dogs. What happened in the Victorian era is that people started breeding dogs to accentuate certain physical features. People interested in specific breeds began to come up with standards that all dogs in the breed were to be judged by. This is still in full force today – turn on the TV on Thanksgiving and you’ll see the American National Dog Show, where dog owners bring their dogs to be judged according to the standards of the American Kennel Club.
How dog breeds are decided
There are organizations around the world called kennel clubs that are dedicated to dog fancy. Most cover more than one breed of dog – clubs that concern themselves with only one breed are typically called breed clubs.
Kennel clubs control something called a breed registry, also called studbooks. A studbook is an official list of animals within a specific breed whose ancestry is known – basically, confirmed members of a breed. The dogs on this list are typically referred to as purebred or pedigreed. Purebred simply means that a dog has been bred from parents of the same breed; pedigreed means that the lineage has been recorded.
There are two types of studbooks: closed and open. Closed studbooks do not accept any outside blood. That means if your purebred dog mates with a non-purebred dog, the puppies are considered mutts. This is true even if the non-purebred dog appears to be purebred – if the dog isn’t pedigreed, it’s a mutt. Open studbooks, on the other hand, do accept outside blood. However, dogs need to conform to strict breed standards in order to qualify for purebred status.
Kennel clubs can decide which breeds they want to recognize. Each kennel club has their own standards on what qualifies as a breed. They also have their own programs for experimental crossbreeding.
All of this is to say that…
Figuring out how many dog breeds there are is complicated
There’s no one organization that decides how many dog breeds there are in the world, though one comes close – the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, or FCI (World Canine Organization in English). The FCI was founded in 1911 with the goal of facilitating the exchange of information between kennel clubs in different countries. Currently, the FCI has 84 member countries, with one kennel club representing each country. Notably absent? Either of America’s two kennel clubs, the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club.
As of writing, the FCI recognizes 332 breeds, with an additional eleven provisional breeds. That’s very different from the American Kennel Club, which currently recognizes only 187 breeds.
So, the simplest answer to the question "How many dog breeds are there?" is 332, since that’s what the majority of worldwide kennel clubs recognize. However, the more accurate and complicated answer is that it depends on how you define a dog breed. While dog breed qualifications are rigidly standardized by kennel clubs, those "standards" can be very different depending on which club you’re dealing with.
How breeds affect pet health
For the layperson, it may seem like breeds don’t really matter. Sure, some people will seek out purebreds, or mutts that lean towards a specific breed, but there are plenty of other people who will adopt the cutest dog that shows up at the shelter. Breeds are a human-made construct – what bearing do they have on your relationship with your dog?
Turns out, a lot. Purebred dogs can end up suffering from pretty major health problems. So can dogs that aren’t purebred but have lineage that’s close.
Why? There are two major ways that health problems are introduced into breeds:
Inbreeding. More of a problem for purebred and pedigreed dogs, especially if they belong to kennel clubs with closed studbooks. Because you need to breed two dogs from the same gene pool in order to create a purebred, you’re severely limiting the genetic diversity. You know how human cousins aren’t supposed to have babies? Same here.
Genetic problems caused by selective breeding. You know how people breed dogs in order to accentuate certain physical features? Turns out that can cause some problems (I guess that’s what happens when you play God). Take the pug, which has been bred to have a weird, squashed face and huge, bulging eyes. Having big bulging eyes means it’s actually super easy for those eyes to just pop out of their socket during a scuffle with another dog. There are other examples that are less graphic: German shepherds and hip dysplasia, dachshunds and back problems, and cocker spaniels and ear infections.
If you can confidently name your dog as being from a particular breed, you need to be on the watch for health problems. There’s a good chance your vet has already explained the future health risks for your dog, but if they haven’t, you should bring it up at your next appointment. You should also look into pet insurance – since your dog has a higher risk of future medical problems, it makes sense to get insurance now so you know you can financially support your dog’s health.
Image: Jim's Photos