The Origins of Dog Breeds Picture

Canine breeds come into existence in many different ways and their beginnings are very often shrouded in obscurity. Let it not be thought that the three or four hundred-odd dog breeds now extant are the only ones possible, or that there cannot be any more truly new breeds. Such is the genetic plasticity of the dog that there is no end to the possible unique variations of which the species is capable. New breeds are born and old breeds die periodically. The genetic transformation of the dog goes on ceaselessly, and for that reason it is impossible that any breed should remain frozen, with all its characteristics fixed and unchanging, for any appreciable length of time. It must be realised that canine breeds are manmade, created by artificial selection out of the endless diversity of the canine gene pool. Breeds must not be confused with species or even subspecies, which occur naturally under the influence of natural selection; dog breeds are only unstable manmade varieties which would not survive unchanged in the natural world without human management.

An important characteristic of breeds is that they are created by breeders -- not by registries or protective organisations such as The Canadian Kennel Club. The origin and course of a canine breed is in the hands of its breeders, first, last and always. It is the business of cynological associations to facilitate and support the work of dog breeders and not vice versa. The purposes of the Animal Pedigree Act, under which CKC is incorporated, are the promotion of breed improvement and the protection of those who breed and purchase animals; such is the mandate of the Act and therefore of the Club (Animal Pedigree Act, Section 3(a,b) ). All else is secondary.

Ordinarily a breed has already existed for an appreciable length of time before it reaches the point of becoming a recognised breed served by a registry. Nonetheless, the event of its "recognition" by a registry such as CKC is always a crucial one in the history of a breed. As things now stand, breed recognition is far more crucial (and ultimately damaging to the welfare of the animals) than it need be or ought to be, but more of that anon. First let us examine what is needed to start a new and unique canine breed.

Four essential characteristics usually distinguish the origin in the genetic sense of a new breed (as opposed to the discovery, popularisation and "recognition" of, for example, an autochthonous breed which may have existed in a particular region for a long time without connection to formal cynological structures). The first and most crucial characteristic is the founder event, in which a finite number of individual canines is chosen to contribute genetic material to found a new and unique canine population. They may all be quite similar, or they may be widely divergent one from another (as when Bulldog and Mastiff specimens were used to create the Bullmastiff breed). What matters is that a finite and sometimes quite small number of individuals are selected from the existing canine population and set apart so that their genetic material alone forms the gene pool for the new breed. That is in fact the next characteristic: isolation. If the founder group continues to exchange genetic material at random with the general canine population, a new breed will not result. Without genetic isolation of the new founder group, the differentiation that creates a new breed cannot take place. The logical consequence of this isolation is the next characteristic: inbreeding. If the founder group is of small or moderate size, such inbreeding cannot help but occur. Even if the founder group should be quite large, ordinarily those who guide the breeding which creates the new breed will find it necessary at some stage to employ a strong degree of incest breeding or inbreeding, to facilitate the weeding-out of undesired characteristics and the fixation of desired traits. Particularly if individuals of widely divergent type and physique are involved, inbreeding will be required to set up a stable genome in which random variability is kept within limits defined by the breeders. The final essential factor is artificial selection, since inbreeding alone will not serve to fix type characteristics and to eliminate unwanted traits. The breeders must select among the individuals produced in early generations so that only those displaying the desired characteristics are allowed to produce subsequent generations. Without the four factors of the founder event, isolation, inbreeding and artificial selection, new breeds ordinarily do not come into existence. These four tools are used to define a new genome which, hopefully, contains only the traits desired by the creators of the new breed and is able to reproduce itself, with its distinguishing characteristics, to a fair degree of stability and consistency.

To this article's index page