What Is A Dog Breed? How Do You Understand The Term, And What Does It Really Mean?

Most people would immediately say “yes” if you asked them if they knew what was meant by the term “dog breed,” but if you asked them to explain their answer, a lot of people would struggle! Generally, most dog lovers think of a dog breed as being a specific uniformity in temperament and appearance that is shared by a group of genetically related dogs, which are identifiable once known as different from those possessed by other dogs within the wider species group.

Some people think of a dog breed as being a specific uniform collection of dogs with shared genetic traits that is afforded pedigree status and recognition by a formal body like the Kennel Club, and which has a breed standard or description in place for it. 

Others refer to hybrid dog types and deliberate cross-breeds like the Labradoodle or Cockapoo as “breeds” too, although the Kennel Club itself disagrees on this point!

Given all of the various permutations of the word “breed” and how different people are apt to describe what a dog breed is rather differently, it is understandable that there’s a lot of confusion, and not all dog lovers use the term correctly or understand it fully.

Within this article, we will attempt to answer the question of “what is a dog breed?” and explain what the term means, and how to use it correctly. Read on to learn more.

A formal definition of “dog breed”

A dog breed is a specific dog type that is, or originally was, deliberately bred by humans to perform a particular role and/or look a particular way and potentially, possess certain fixed temperament traits too.

Human intervention is the key here; and the term “dog breed” ultimately results from human input into the evolution of domestic dogs. Whilst genetically unique dog types have evolved in many individual regions of the world (more on that later), for a dog to be a member of or excluded from being a member of a breed relies on human input into the breed, and so, the breed’s development.

As well as the definition given above for use of the term “dog breed” in its purest form, the word is also used in other related contexts, such as to describe “cross-breeds” or “hybrid-breeds.”

Whilst dogs as a species have ancestry going back millennia to a genetic divergence from a common ancestor shared with the wolf, the dog breeds that we name and recognise today are a much more recent concept.

Before the Victorian era, dogs were generally grouped into “types” (which we’ll look at in the next section) rather than narrowly defined breeds. Queen Victoria herself was a big dog lover and owned a huge number of dogs over her lifetime, and interest in dogs and the deliberate breeding of and importing of unique, interesting and distinct types of dogs became very fashionable during this time as a result.

Dog shows and competitions based on looks and to a lesser degree, temperament became popular for the first time, and deliberate or selective breeding to create and fine-tune characteristics other than working prowess first began in earnest.

During this time, the very first formal breed standards were established for popular breeds, and additionally, the world’s first formal dog breed registry – the Kennel Club – came into being right here in the UK, to set, oversee and monitor said breed standards. 

As you can see, the use of the term “dog breed” and application of the term at all is a relatively recent thing in the history of the canine species!

Dog types versus dog breeds

Before dog breeds and the division of dogs into very narrowly defined sets and groups with shared traits that we call breeds essentially came into existence for the first time in the Victoria era, dogs were almost exclusively described as a “type” rather than a breed.

We still use these wider type groupings today too, both formally and informally.

So, what is a dog type? It’s a much broader collective title to describe dogs with shared traits but whose individual looks and personalities might be quite different. Some examples of dog types include terriers, collies, lapdogs or toy dogs, hounds (and further divisions like sighthounds and scenthounds) and many others.

Some such titles make up the Kennel Club’s formal umbrella groupings for showing purposes, like terriers, toy dogs, gundogs, and utility dogs.

The traits shared by dog types are universal but broad; for instance, terriers will generally share a strong prey drive, potential tendency to stubbornness and bags of tenacity, but can vary considerably in size, looks and possible energy levels.


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Landrace dog breeds

As you might expect, different areas of the world and different areas of the same continents have evolved various locally occurring dog types that share common traits with other dogs from the same area but that are unique from dogs originating elsewhere.

This is referred to as being a landrace breed, which is defined as a traditional, domesticated and locally adapted dog type that has evolved over time as dictated by both indirect human intervention (but not deliberate selective breeding) and the environment and conditions of the localised area too.

Not all landraces are recognised as pedigree breeds, and because the definition of a dog breed implies human intervention, very few modern dog breeds are in turn landraces.

The definition of a pedigree dog breed

A pedigree dog breed is a dog breed that is recognised and accepted by a formal authority breed registry that is considered by the majority of interested parties as the benchmark; like the Kennel Club in the UK.

For a dog breed to be afforded pedigree status, it has to be accepted by and recognised by this authority, which also manages and sets its breed standard, and mandates the conditions under which any individual dog is eligible or ineligible for entry on the breed register itself.

Breed registries

A breed registry is a complete list of all dogs in any given country or under the authority of any recognised body (like the Kennel Club) that are considered to be pedigree and a recognised member of their respective breed.

However, as well as universally recognised national authorities like the Kennel Club in the UK (and other countries) a number of other registries exist too. Anyone can theoretically set up an organisation of their own, give it a name, and invite people to register dogs with it and afford them “pedigree status” under their own terms of admission.

This means that some dog types and cross-breeds like the aforementioned Labradoodle and Cockapoo that are not (at the time of writing, August 2019) considered to be breeds and eligible for pedigree registration by the Kennel Club, might be “registered” with any of a number of competing and less prestigious, less long established, and less widely accepted registries instead.

Some of these registries are more plausible and widely accepted as positive than others, naturally – but always check that when a breeder or seller of a dog is talking about the dog’s pedigree status, they’re referring to the same organisation as you are, which usually means the UK Kennel Club!


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