How do we determine what breed a dog is?

How do we determine what breed a dog is?

There’s an old saying that goes “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. . .it’s a duck.” But how do we really know if a dog is the breed we think he is. How is it determined that this dog is that breed?

This seems like a simple question doesn’t it? But it’s really more complicated than we realize. After all, what makes a dog a particular breed? Is it his appearance? Each breed, regardless of what registry recognizes it (or doesn’t), has a breed standard. This standard outlines what the ideal dog of this breed should look like. Ears, tails, coat, color. . . It’s all laid out. While no dog is perfect enough to meet this standard 100%; it is still a guideline for judges, breeders, and the general public to determine what breed a dog is.

It’s also important to note how the dog behaves. This is outlined in the breed standard as well. Retrievers should carry game from the water and return it to the hunter. Herding dogs should move stock. Draft dogs should be able to pull heavy loads. Pointers should point.

The pedigree is also important. After all, that proves a dog’s purity for generations. You know he’s a standard poodle because every one of his relatives for generations was also a standard poodle.

But is that all there is to it? What about border collies who don’t herd? Are they still border collies simply because they look like a border collie and had parents who were border collies? How about if you have a German shepherd with floppy ears and a very straight rear? Is he still a German shepherd even though he doesn’t really look like one?

When dog breeds were first developed, what the dog did was more important than how the dog looked. Dogs were classified and categorized by the task they performed and how they executed it. Any dog who “gave eye” to move stock was a border collie. He didn’t need to be long-coated, black and white, have half-pricked ears, or be of any particular size. It was his style of herding that defined him. Similar-looking dogs who worked upright to move sheep were not considered border collies even if they looked like border collies.

Like so many things. . .it's in the eye of the beholder.

Like so many things. . .it’s in the eye of the beholder.

If you go to the local shelter or rescue and adopt a dog with a golden coat, long hair, a medium build, and drop ears; you’re going to call him a golden retriever. And so would anyone else who looked at him. But who’s to say he isn’t really 1/8th Labrador retriever? You cannot prove it. Despite the recent popularity of dog DNA testing, there are no genetic markers for breeds or even breed characteristics. No respectable registering body would allow you to register your dog as a golden retriever for breeding purposes because you cannot prove his lines are pure.

You could also have a Rottweiler/golden retriever cross who looks identical to a hovawart. Or a Yorkie/Japanese chin who looks like a papillion. Theyโ€™re mutts but their appearance is indistinguishable from recognized purebred dogs.

So, again, I ask the question. What makes a dog a member of that breed? Is it his appearance? Is it his behavior? Or is it proof of pure lineage? The answer depends on what you think is most important. ๐Ÿ™‚ People who value a dog for his working ability will define him by his ability to accomplish the task. Those who like a particular look will use that to determine whether or not that dog is of that breed. And those who value purity will judge the dog by his ancestors to conclude what breed he belongs to.

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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2 Responses to Breeds

  1. Kristine says:

    Objectively speaking, I consider a dog to be a certain breed if the parents of that dog are of that breed.

    So, if you take two Border Collies and breed them, the puppies are Border Collies whether they work stock or not.

    If the parents are a full Border Collie and a dog who is half lab half Border Collie, then the dog is a mix.

    I know that if you go back far enough, you will find different foundation breeds in any and all of the breeds that we have now. But at some point the actual breed was identified (whether by ability to perform a task, appearance, etc.) and it is at that point that such things start to be reckoned.

    I don’t consider “proof” to be the thing that makes a dog a certain breed. So, if I went to a shelter and found a Lab, I am going to consider him a Lab unless there is some compelling reason not to. Again, objectively, he might be 1/8 something else, but for practical purposes . . . so what?

    I do take strong exception to those who consider any dog without papers a “mix”. That is simply not the case if the parents are of the same breed.

  2. Jamie says:

    I think it’s a wishy-washy area. You could take two dogs of a particular breed who, for all intents and purposes, really don’t look like said breed even though their parents were and breed them. The resulting pups would look even less like that breed yet still technically be that breed. IMHO, you need two things to be a breed: purpose and appearance.

    To me, pedigree is less important. And looks even less so than that. But that’s just me. I like a functional dog. ๐Ÿ™‚

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