We love our dogs, it’s part of what makes us “human”. No really– Before you roll your eyes, just think about it. There is no other animal on earth with the same relation we humans have with other species so much unlike our own. And this goes beyond “pets”. As dogs, cats, and falcons have kept us from starving, horses have helped us travel for centuries. Call it hyperbole, but I think to own a dog or other companion makes us more complete as a human being. Different cultures prefer different animals, so it’s interesting to see what breeds each group prefers. As an American, I’m obviously most interested in what my neighbors prefer and what it says about us.
According to the American Kennel Club, the Labrador Retriever is the most popular breed in the United States. But– before you think of Labs as the quintessential “American” dog, consider this: They’re also the most popular dog in Canada and the UK. In fact, Labradors originated from the Labrador region of Canada, near Newfoundland. Labradors (as well as many other retrievers) were derived from the “St John’s Water Dog”, a breed that went extinct in the 1980’s. It was originally bred to retrieve fishing nets, which is why retrievers to this day have webbed paws.
German Shepherds are the next most popular breed in the US. Originally bred for herding sheep, today they’re especially known as police dogs, and are even utilized by the military. The breed was created at the end of the 19th century by Max von Stephanitz who acquired a mutt he believed to be the ultimate shepherd. He named this dog “Horand Von Grafath” (Apparently, Germans take dog-naming just as seriously as everything else). All modern German Shepherds are descendents of this dog and his pups.
I want to digress for a minute and talk about tools. Stick with me here, because this is interesting. Most tools make absolutely no sense unless you actually know what they’re for. Without any knowledge of their purpose, they just look like funny shaped pieces of metal. This same logic can be applied to dogs. For centuries they were used as tools, and just like tools, their “silly” shapes and sizes make no sense until you know what they were intended for. Take, for instance, the Yorkshire Terrier, America’s third most popular dog. Personally, I thought it was a lap dog, primarily for companionship. Nope. The Yorkshire Terrier was bred in the 19th century as a rat hunter for clothing mills, hence their size, strong jaws, and protective fur. Who would have thought the Yorkshire Terrier was a ferocious hunting dog?
What always struck me as weird about beagles is that the most famous beagle of them all, Snoopy, doesn’t look anything like an actual Beagle. I have to wonder if Beagles would have been more popular than fourth place if Snoopy actually looked like his breed. After all, didn’t everyone want Snoopy as their dog when they were a kid? Modern Beagles were bred around the 1830’s as trackers for rabbits and other game.
I have a feeling that this is the dog many of you have been waiting for me to mention: the Golden Retriever. For many, this is the quintessential family dog, thanks to movies like Old Yeller. That may be true, but it exists because of advancement of firearms in the 1800’s, no joke. Rifles became so accurate in the 1800’s that fowl could now be shot out of the sky at great range. This led to more wasted kills as downed birds would be lost in the field, or over water. In Scotland, a new dog was bred to fix this, the Golden Retriever. This is why Golden Retrievers have a natural love of swimming, a water repellent outer coat, and a “soft mouth” (so that it doesn’t damage what it retrieves).
The next dog on the list honestly surprised me, since I’ve rarely ever seen one…. the Bulldog. This is a breed with a very violent, strange history. The original Bulldogs were bred for bull-baiting, a blood-sport in which a bull would be entrapped and attacked by dogs. After the sport was made illegal in 1835, the dogs continued to be kept as pets. Then, in one final strange turn, Bulldogs were permanently crossbred with Pugs giving them the appearance they have today. This new appearance, however, rendered them completely incapable of performing their original purpose of taking on a bull. If you want to see what an original Bulldog looked like, then you’re almost better off checking out the next dog on this list, the Boxer.
Boxers are the descendants of English Bulldogs crossbred with another extinct breed, the German Bullenbeisser. Boxer’s were originally intended to serve as German hunting dogs. The Bullenbeissers they were descended from were bred to run ahead and seize hold of large prey (such as bears and boars) and keep it in place until the hunters arrived. Interesting that today Boxer are widely known as a loyal family pet (although they still make a terrific guard dog).
As with the Yorkshire Terrier, the Dachshund is another dog I originally thought was bred purely as a lap dog. Boy was I wrong. The Dachshund is an underground hunter, bred to fit into burrows and hunt badgers. In the United States, they were equally effective at hunting prairie dogs. Their long narrow body is shaped to fit through tight underground tunnels– and it goes far beyond that. The Dachshund’s skin is loose enough to not be scratched while tunneling, and their paws are shaped for digging. Furthermore, their ears are intentionally floppy to prevent dirt from getting in them. Their long snouts assist with hunting by smell, and their deep chests provide ample lung capacity, and therefore extra endurance. The curved tail gives the hunter something to grasp hold of when freeing a Dachshund that is stuck. How a perfectly bred “badger hunters” came to be known as silly “wiener dogs” is beyond me.
The next time you see a Poodle with a silly haircut, consider this: Poodles are one of the absolute smartest breeds in the world. Poodles were originally bred as water hunters. With their penchant for swimming and their water resistant coats, they were ideal for retrieving game from large bodies of water. Due to the breed’s intelligence though, their use quickly spread to tracking and even herding. The smaller version of this breed was partially bred for hunting truffles. The name “Poodle” is derived from the German word “pudel” or “puddeln”, meaning “to splash into water”.
And finally, we find an actual lap dog on the list, and an ancient one at that: the Shih Tzu. It’s believed these dogs originated in Tibet and date back as far as a millennium ago. Further speculation suggests they were introduced to China during the 18th century. Dogs such as these were typically presented to royalty. In the 1930’s they were finally brought to England and introduced to the western world. Back in China, however, the dog would almost go extinct during the Chinese revolution. By the time the communists had taken power, only seven males and seven females remained. Today, all Shih Tzus can supposedly be traced back to these dogs.
If there is anything to be learned from America’s preferred dog breeds, it’s that American dogs are as much a melting pot as American people. With breeds of all shapes and sizes originating from as close to home as Canada, and as far away as China, Americas dogs are as wide and varied as their owners.
Related Dog Categories
- Labrador Retriever – emildom75, Marvin Kuo
- German Shepherds – MarilynJane, US Army
- Yorkshire Terrier – hj_west, ZeePack
- Beagles – Rafael Acorsi, Rafael Acorsi
- Golden Retriever – marcos_leal, timsnell
- Bulldog – Vivian Chen, sabianmaggy
- Boxer – Dryfish, nicadlr
- Dachshund – paldor, Soggydan
- Poodle – The Kennel Club, John Steven Fernandez
- Shih Tzu – audrey sel, mick 124
- editorial – the giant vermin