The Economist explainsFeb 13th 2019by K.W. | NEW YORKtwitter iconfacebook iconlinkedin iconmail iconprint iconFEBRUARY 12TH was showtime for some of the world’s finest purebred canines. Around 3,000 entrants, fluffed and trimmed, waltzed their way around Madison Square Garden at the 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. They were whittled down by breed then group—hound, sporting,…
FEBRUARY 12TH was showtime for some of the world’s finest purebred canines. Around 3,000 entrants, fluffed and trimmed, waltzed their way around Madison Square Garden at the 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. They were whittled down by breed then group—hound, sporting, terrier and more—before a seven-year-old Wire Fox Terrier called King scampered off with the top prize. For two breeds, the show was their debut; participation alone marks an achievement. The Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen (pictured), a rough-tasselled French hound, and the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje, a spry Dutch duck-hunter, were recognised just last year, making them newly eligible to compete at Westminster. They were among dozens of breeds bidding for admission to the American Kennel Club (AKC), a rule-setting body. Thirty-five have been accepted in the last decade. They include the Norwegian Lundehund, bred for puffin-hunting, and the Azawakh, a sighthound from the Sahara. Even more aspire to join. The AKC says there are 340 known breeds worldwide, though it recognises only 193. How do breeds make the cut?
Dogs have long been bred for their hunting abilities, for use in work and sport and for companionship. But in the early 1860s the Victorians staged the first dog show and began the business of prioritising form over function. To measure the competition, the show included judging criteria. The “standard”, a checklist, measured traits like size, features, coating and gait. The emphasis on dog aesthetics increased uniformity within breeds, as well as differentiation between them. Breeds had to be reproducible with similar characteristics—they had to “breed pure”, to use the original jargon. Two Borzoi parents had to produce a Borzoi pup. Pedigree was recorded in studbooks (lists of all dogs of a certain breed) and breeds took decades to develop. Contrast this with today’s voguish mixes, often called “designer dogs”: cockapoos (a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle), labradoodles (a Labrador and a Poodle) and the like. Mate two labradoodle pairs and you can expect inconsistent litters. Puppies may have the non-shedding coat of a Poodle and the temperament of a Labrador, but the opposite is possible.
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A few breeders would like to turn today’s mixes into purebreds. (Australian Labradoodles, for example, trace their pedigree back 35 years.) But it is a lengthy process. For official recognition by the AKC, breeds must count over 300 dogs with three-generation pedigrees and a national club must write the standard. In practice, most new entrants are ancient or rare varieties that only recently gained a following in America. Among them are the Xoloitzcuintli, a hairless Mexican breed said to be over 3,000 years old, and the Boerboel, a South African mastiff that originated in the 17th century. (Two homegrown breeds to get recognised recently are the Rat Terrier and the American Hairless Terrier, which are both bred to hunt vermin.) For show-dog enthusiasts, it’s this heritage that sets rarefied breeds apart from designer dogs. Corey Benedict, president of the American club of Grand Bassets, suggests that rare breeds have a history whereas designer dogs are bred to make money. Grand Bassets, he says, descend from a hound that was prized by Louis XII of France.
Step outside Madison Square Garden and the question may seem like a quibble. One might even bump into protesters decrying the whole enterprise for spreading congenital disease among dogs (though the AKC says purebred animals are no more prone to hereditary disorders than mixed breeds). But for breeders, it’s a matter of not being treated like “second-class citizens of the dog world”, says Robert Slack of the American Rare Breed Association. The dogs may feel no different. But their owners do.