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Divide and Conquer: How to Classify Breeds into Groups

What makes a Terrier a Terrier and a Hound a Hound? How do we determine which characteristics define a particular kind of dog, and what possible reason can any kennel club give when trying to divide all the existing breeds into separate groups for the purpose of dog show competition? And, come to think of it, what exactly is it that makes a breed a breed instead of just a type of dog?

The question of how to classify the hundreds of different breeds that exist worldwide is an intricate one. What’s considered common sense by one country’s kennel club may seem almost incomprehensible by another. The more you think about it, the less certain you will be of what you thought you knew, and new questions keep popping up. What about the various sub-groups, for instance: what’s a sighthound and what’s a spitz, and where do they fit in? It’s easy to think there must be clear answers, but the more you think about it, the more gray areas you’ll find, and decisions are not nearly as simple as they seemed at first. Eventually you start to wonder if what makes the various groups distinct from each other is purely subjective.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, is generally considered the ancestor of all domestic dogs, no matter the breed. Photo by Holly Kuchera/Dreamstime.com.

Let’s state the obvious first. All dogs are of the same species, Canis lupus familiaris. (“Lupus” was added 20 years ago when it became generally accepted that all domestic dogs descend from the gray wolf, Canis lupus, although they split some 100,000 years ago.) You can, at least in theory, breed any of them together, regardless of differences in type, size, conformation, coat and color, and expect to get puppies. Dogs show more variation in conformation and temperament than any other land mammal; they were the first domesticated animal (yes, even before goats and sheep) and are the most widely kept working, hunting and pet animal in human history. Nobody knows how many dogs there are in the world today, but most estimates list a figure between 400 and 500 million.

Exactly when and how the domestic dog started to morph into different breeds is not clear. Certainly as long ago as thousands of years B.C. there were different types of dogs, used for different purposes, and many more were created over the centuries as the need arose for a hunting dog, a watch dog, a fighting dog, a dog that could help root out vermin, or simply a delightful pet. The fact that domestic dogs existed in so many different distant areas, most of them not closely connected with each other in those days, made the diversity of the breeds that resulted even more pronounced.

The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) currently recognizes 343 different breeds that are divided into 10 Groups, including one devoted exclusively to Dachshunds. Photo by Dan Sayers.

How Many Breeds?
Just how many breeds there are is also unknown: Wikipedia, which is as good a source as any, lists 380. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), which governs purebred dog activities in 87 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, recognizes 343 breeds, although all these are seldom present at even the biggest FCI shows. The FCI divides the breeds into 10 Groups of widely different sizes: the biggest includes around 70 breeds, while at the other end, for example, Dachshunds have their very own Group competition. (Of course, to compensate in some measure for this privilege, the European Dachshunds compete as nine different varieties — three coats and three sizes.)

The American Kennel Club recognizes fewer breeds, 180 at last count, but is catching up fast: 15 Miscellaneous breeds are currently on the way to full recognition, and another 68 are in the Foundation Stock Service. The kennel clubs in Canada, England and Australia offer classes for fewer breeds than FCI, but generally more than AKC. Many breeds are in different Groups in these countries than they are at AKC shows, but they all have seven Groups, just like AKC, and on the whole their Groups fairly closely resemble AKC’s, even if they have different names.

This is, of course, also where we have to deal with the tricky question of exactly what a breed is. When does a type of dog become a distinct breed? Again, let’s quote Wikipedia: “A breed is a specific group of domestic animals … having … characteristics that distinguish it from other animals … of the same species and that were arrived at through selective breeding. … A breed is … not an objective or biologically verifiable classification but is instead a term of art amongst groups of breeders who share a consensus around what qualities make some members of a given species members of a nameable subset.” In other words, a breed is a breed because we agree it is, and that’s the root of a great deal of debate among fanciers from different camps. But that’s a subject for a different article at another time.

Although there’s no workable scientific way of either defining a breed or dividing breeds into Groups, genetic markers for a representative sample of 85 breeds have placed breeds into four “clusters” (or groups, if you will). The classification probably won’t make much sense to most regular dog fanciers, though, as shown by the following:

1. The “African/Asian dogs” include a diverse mix from Afghan Hounds through Samoyeds to Pekingese;
2. “Mastiff type dogs” incorporates such different breeds as the French Bulldog, the Labrador Retriever and the Bernese Mountain Dog;
3. “Herding dogs” includes German Shepherd Dogs and Collies, but also such non-herders as Greyhounds, St. Bernards and Pugs; and
4. What’s classified as “Modern hunting type dogs” is a large, mixed collection ranging from Airedale Terriers to Bloodhounds, Chihuahuas to Great Danes, Old English Sheepdogs to Pharaoh Hounds, and Standard Poodles to Whippets.

With all respect to DNA, it’s difficult to feel this “scientific” division would be of much help for a modern kennel club official.

The Greyhound was described in a famous word painting by Dame Juliana Berners in the late 1400s. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The First Breed Descriptions
Among the first to attempt to describe a number of different breeds was the redoubtable Dame Juliana Berners, abbess of Sopwell Priory near St. Albans, in late 1400s England. Best known for her fondness for hunting and hawking, and for her famous word painting of a Greyhound (“Headed like a snake/And necked like a Drake…”), she was followed by William Shakespeare a century later. In “Macbeth,” he lists “hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves … all by the name of dogs,” making it clear that many different types of dogs were generally known at this time. (A shough, incidentally, was a particularly hairy, shaggy kind of dog, and “water-rug” is a term sometimes still used to describe the English Water Spaniel, which has been extinct since the 1930s.)

By far the most systematic early classification of breeds comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary, Dr. John Caius. He was court physician to Queen Elizabeth I and wrote “De Canibus Britannicis,” which was published in Latin in 1570; the English translation, “Of Englishe Dogges,” came five years later. He divides the breeds into Groups that surprisingly closely resemble FCI’s current system. Caius lists “Sighthounds and Scenthounds, Water and Land Spaniels, Setters, Hunting and Guard Terriers, Mastiffs and Herding Dogs,” and then goes on to further split up the various Groups into sub-species or breeds.

None of the above really helps the modern club official who attempts to achieve a logical division of the modern breeds, however. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes seven Groups (Sporting, Hounds, Working, Terriers, Non-Sporting, Toys and Herding), but with the large number of “new” breeds being added, voices have been raised for splitting them into eight or even more Groups. That’s not a new concept: in 1924, when AKC first officially divided the breeds into Groups, there were only 70 recognized breeds and five Groups: Sporting, Working, Terriers, Toys and Non-Sporting. The Sporting Group consisted of Gundogs and Hounds, and when Hounds got their own Group competition a couple of years later, the Gundogs kept the Sporting name. A further split occurred in 1983, when the Herding breeds split off from the Working Group and got their own competition. With more breeds but lower entries at current AKC shows, the question of whether it would be wise to add more Group competitions still divides dog fanciers.

The Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, the most recent member of the AKC Hound Group, doesn’t have much in common with most other Hound breeds — but is certainly a hunting breed. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Closer Look
Let’s look closer at the seven AKC Groups. The Sporting Group is one of the most logical, at least on the surface, and based on comparisons with other national clubs there aren’t many of the 28 recognized breeds that could be seriously considered for a move elsewhere. (If I have a gripe, it’s the fact that this is called the “Sporting” Group instead of the “Gundog” group, which would be more correct. Numerous breeds that are not in this Group are also used for sporting purposes.)

The AKC Hound Group, however, has some anomalies among its 28 breeds — quite a few more than just a few years ago, with several Coonhound breeds recognized fairly recently. To begin with, scenthounds and sighthounds don’t appear to have much in common: having, for example, Basset Hounds and Greyhounds in the same Group doesn’t seem exactly logical. Also, the Norwegian Elkhound is obviously not really a Hound, but where does it go? Its Scandinavian cousin, the Finnish Spitz, is in the Non-Sporting Group at AKC shows, which is probably even less correct for what’s obviously a hunting breed. In the past, there used to be a separate Spitz Group in some countries. That’s not a bad idea, although you can debate forever which breeds should, and should not, be included. And you could certainly argue that the most recent Hound Group addition, the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, doesn’t have much in common with most other Hounds — but it is certainly a hunting breed, and if not a Hound, what is it?

The Working Group has 29 recognized breeds at AKC shows, but the composition of this Group differs more than most in other countries. I guess it depends on what you mean by “work” – what the Australians call their Utility Group is very similar to our Working, for instance. Great Danes, which are of course in the Working Group in the U.S., are classified as a Non-Sporting breed in Australia, and Akitas are in the same Group as Poodles, Bulldogs, Shih Tzu and Boston Terriers in Great Britain!

Although the mild expression, curvy outline and plush coat of the Bedlington doesn’t scream Terrier, the breed is a Terrier in mind if not in body. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The 30 breeds in the AKC Terrier Group would appear to be the most consistent of all. A Terrier is a Terrier, right? But what about the Miniature Schnauzer, the German “Terrier” that’s not in the Terrier Group at all in most other countries. How much Terrier are American Staffordshires, Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bulls really? And what about the Bedlington? Its mild expression, curvy outline and plush coat don’t exactly scream Terrier, although pretty much everyone seems to agree that if pushed it is really a Terrier in mind, if not in body!

The 21 breeds in the AKC Toy Group basically have just one thing in common: diminutive size. That doesn’t mean there’s much international agreement on which breeds belong and which don’t. The Italian Greyhound, for instance, competes with its larger cousins in the Sighthound Group at FCI shows. Several other AKC Toy breeds also compete against bigger breeds at FCI shows – the Yorkshire Terrier is in their Terrier Group, the Pomeranian competes with Alaskan Malamutes and Huskies in the “Spitz and Primitive types” Group, and Min Pins and Affenpinschers are in the same Group as Boxers and Great Danes.

The AKC Non-Sporting Group, with 19 breeds, is the smallest numerically, yet wins more BIS than most. This, it has been said, is where you toss in the breeds that don’t fit in anywhere else. The “non-sporting” epithet is frequently incorrect as well. Take the Poodle, for instance: its heritage as a true sporting dog is closely guarded by the parent club, and anyone who has seen Poodles retrieve in water would not be convinced that the Non-Sporting Group is where they belong. Of course, Toy Poodles go in the Toy Group at AKC shows, although not necessarily in other countries. And, for example, the Bichon Frisé is considered a Toy breed in both Australia and Great Britain.

Finally, there’s AKC Herding Group, with 25 breeds. There’s some international disagreement here also. The British, who call this the “Pastoral” Group, put several of AKC’s Working breeds in this group: the Komondor, Kuvasz, Great Pyrenees and Samoyed.

A Sample of Discrepancies
It would carry too far to detail all the discrepancies between the ways the various national kennel clubs divide the breeds into Groups: the above is just a sample. If you ever sit at ringside at a foreign dog show you may be surprised to see which breeds come into the different Groups…

Perhaps after all there’s something to the rather Draconian suggestion that was made, perhaps in jest, that the only way to divide the breeds into Groups with some consistency would be if breeds whose names started with the letters “A” through “D” were Group 1, those starting with “E” through “H” were Group 2, “I” through “L” would be Group 3, etc. We would have Affenpinschers competing with Afghan Hounds, Doberman Pinschers with Dandie Dinmont Terriers, and Siberian Huskies with Shih Tzu…

That would perhaps be even odder than some of the Group divisions we see today, but not by much!

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.
Comments
  • Meredith McCown June 26, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Fascinating!

  • Bonnie Linnell Clarke June 26, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    As always, wonderfully researched and beautifully written!

  • Wayne Ferguson
    Wayne Ferguson June 26, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    Hi Bo,
    Just want to tell you how much I enjoyed your “Divide and Conquer” article. You write so well.
    Hope you are enjoying your summer and looking forward to seeing you soon.
    Best always,
    Wayne Ferguson

    P.S. So far, we have 17 Specialties and 38 Supporteds for Morris & Essex KC show!

    • Bo Bengtson June 26, 2013 at 5:04 PM

      Wayne Ferguson is President of the famous Morris & Essex Kennel Club, which hosts a show only once every five years. The next big event will be on 1 October, 2015. Save the date!/BB

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