Do Dog Breeds Matter?

In 1945, Japan had only 16 Akitas.

Eaten by starving Japanese families, their pelts lining the coats of Japanese military officers, the beloved, ancient breed became more important dead than alive.

Akitas are ancient dogs from Japan.

Rosie the Akita

Akitas were lucky. Morie Sawataishi, a Mitsubishi engineer from northern Japan, took an interest in the dogs and began breeding, raising, and showing them. Today, there are thousands of Akitas all over the world.

But other breeds don’t fare so well. They become less popular and eventually disappear.

Wikipedia identifies 40 extinct dog breeds from the Abyssinian Sand Terrier to the Welsh Hillman.

Do breeds still matter? After all, a mutt is as loving as a pure breed. And mongrels are being recruited more often to fill working dog roles.

The first argument for breeds is that knowing their inbred, core characteristics makes it easier for humans to find dogs to work with them.

The leading dog breeds of 1911.

Leading dog breeds (1911)

Some poodles may have the ability to herd sheep. But if you want to be more certain, find a border collie. And while you may know a mixed breed who likes to play fetch, if you’re going to spend thousands of dollars training a dog to retrieve game, you’d probably be smart starting out with a Chesapeake Bay retriever.

But I’d argue that dog breeds are less important for their practical considerations—is this dog or that dog more likely to retrieve, herd, or follow a track. Instead, breeds are important because they’re a sign of how much humans wanted to have dogs beside them.

Think about it. When wild canines came close to human settlements around 14,000 years ago, they were acting in their best interests of survival. And the humans who decided not to chase them off but to allow them to stay close were doing the same thing.

But when a human decided to encourage mating between two dogs that were good guards, he was no longer just an opportunist looking to improve his chance of survival. He was forming a partnership with the dog and committing to a life together.

And that’s what breeds really are.

They are the historical reminder that people want to live near dogs. And that they’re willing to learn something about genetics to make it more likely to happen.

The golden retriever came about when Lord Tweedmouth of Scotland wanted a dog that could hunt all day but settle in by his side indoors at night instead of being kept outside in a kennel.

Honey the golden retriever fulfills the destiny of her breed by retrieving.

You mean this isn’t just a game? I’m fulfilling my destiny?

I see remnants of hunting lines in Honey’s behavior. She’s a natural retriever. She’ll go as long as we do. And she shows no fear at loud noises.

But the stronger part of her nature is her willingness to settle by my side when I’m working. No matter how boring it may be.

Modern Akitas bear little resemblance to the mighty Samurai dogs who would rather die than back down from a fight.

The breed’s savior, Morie Sawataishi, despaired over people who bred Akitas for their looks instead of their character. But their continuing existence is still important to the Japanese people. And the Akita breed tendencies of loyalty, tenacity, and strength express virtues that tie the Japanese to their past and their culture as well as to these beautiful dogs.

So I’d argue that breeds do matter.

Honey the golden retriever is a beautiful dog.

So you say I’d never win a ribbon at a dog show? What do they know?

Not for winning ribbons at a show. But as a reminder that humans have made dogs what they are today. And dogs have made humans what we are.

Your Turn: Do you believe, like I once did, that dog breeds are entirely unnecessary? Or do you think they have a purpose or meaning?
Read about Morie Sawataishi’s work championing Japan’s Akita breed in Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain (affiliate link). I reviewed Dog Man for Pet Travel Tuesday at A Traveler’s Library.

Affiliate links mean I will earn a small commission if you buy something through that link. But it will not increase your cost. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging.
photo credits: (Akita) – aldenchadwick via photopin cc, (dog breeds) – perpetualplum via photopin cc. Click on the images to learn more about the photographers.

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  1. This is an interesting question. I’ve had both pure breed and mutts. I love my Labradors and for many of the reasons you outline. But then we rescued Tino who was a mutt through and through and he was a wonderful dog. I do think it’s true you have more control over the personality traits of a pure breed as well as size. Getting a mutt puppy – you could end up being really surprised. I wish that pure breeds weren’t so inbred as that I believe is a real problem. We’ve gone overboard with breeding to meet a standard to the detriment of the dog.

  2. Great post, and such an interesting history; I didn’t know that about the akita! Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with dog breeds and the hundreds of breeds and breed types all around the world. I have always been very interested in purebred dogs, and I currently have a purebred rescue. I like the focus on the preservation of a line or its important traits, particularly when a breed serves a particular working purpose. I think that purebred fanciers get in muddy water, however, when breeding to fit a certain standard produces abusively bred, unhealthy animals (e.g., many brachycephalic breeds, many toy breeds, many giant breeds, even my own beloved GSD, known for its wretched hips). Good thoughts, though!

  3. I think breeds are still important. Many dogs still work for a living and as such, you need to be able to select dogs that will provide you with specific behaviors. You can’t just pick a medium size dog from the shelter and train it to herd large flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. The strong instinct and intelligence must be present in the dog. The same is true for police dogs. A shepherd mix at the shelter may well be an excellent police dog, but there’s also a chance that the beagle that is also part of his heritage will surface to make for an easily distracted sniffer. Even for people who just want a pet, it is easier to find a personality match within a purebred. If you are looking for a couch potato dog, that cute mix at the shelter could turn out to have a herder in its background, and be anything BUT a couch potato.

    Of course, getting a purebred doesn’t mean it can’t be a shelter dog/rescue. There are many wonderful purebreds looking for their forever homes at shelters and rescues.

  4. goldenrescue says:

    Absolutely, breeds matter. Many people want a breed more for its disposition than its looks or working ability, and to pet people, that’s probably the most important thing. As someone said, a mixed breed puppy can be a surprise. While some people breed for the show ring only, others realize that most of their pups will not end up in the conformation ring–or if they do, it isn’t a lifetime job– but in pet homes, and they breed for a correct temperament first and foremost, and then they take appropriate steps to socialize those babies so that they like people.

  5. Great post. I guess my thoughts are that I agree with the heritage you speak of. How dogs’ partnerships with people & the resulting breed diversity to perform functions & live side by side with man are important to honor. But I also think most dogs are not bred for working purposes any more & that there are widespread over-breeding issues or breeding exclusively for looks that aren’t doing dogs any favors & aren’t honoring the dog & man legacy.

    At the end of the day, breed isn’t as important to me as personality and individuality. For those commenters who mentioned that you never know what kind of dog you will get with a mutt puppy, I say Isn’t that the spice of life? I don’t want a puppy who I’ll know exactly what kind of adult dog they will become. Traveling that path together & discovering my dogs’ personalities is the best part of raising dogs. I’m so grateful for the surprises they have thrown at me as it’s been those things I didn’t expect that have made me a better dog lover & guardian.

  6. Very interesting subject. I feel guilty everytime I think of getting a purebred while so many mixed breeds are out there. Very good point about being more certain of what behavior a dog will have if you get a purebred. Maybe I will feel less guilty next time I am window shopping for an agility dog. My mixed breeds certainly aren’t agility dogs.

    • There’s really no reason to feel guilty. There are plenty of purebreed rescues out there, and those dogs are looking for their forever home just as much as the mixes are.

  7. Adopt first – I don’t care if she is purebred or an American (mutt) dog, simply adopt. I do think breeds matter, but will only support those breeders who refresh their lines, use their dogs as intended and not just for show or looks. Dogs are being bred into pain and suffering for show – this can be abuse. Breed responsibly, carefully, and less often than not.

    But first, ADOPT.

  8. I think breeds are important when someone chooses a dog. My brother’s family is a couch potato family that wants a house dog, they got a Lab. I told them it would not be a good match but they wanted a Lab. In this instance, had they listened they would have been much happier with a cat or perhaps a mellow breed. My breed needs lots of exercise and has a strong hunting instinct and can’t be trusted off leash. We knew this going in and it is not a problem but for a person that wants short leisurely strolls, not the right dog. Some breeds are loud, some are independent, you need to know your own lifestyle and then find a breed or mix that fits into your life in order to be happy with your dog, so yes, breeds matter. Even in a “mutt”, one can usually tell somewhat the breeds behind the dog and it helps.

  9. Makes sense. I think dog breeding just for the sake of selling puppies and making money is unnecessary. But breeding for specific purposes can be a good thing if done with knowledge, care, and for the right reasons. I can see how certain breed traits in purebreds help people find the right dog for their lifestyle. Although, sometimes a breed mix helps to temper some of the stronger purebred traits. Pierson, for example, is probably part Border Collie but he doesn’t have as much intensity as purebred Border Collies. Oh, he’s smart and needs plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. But he is also quiet and calm for long periods without getting bored.

  10. Growing up we only had mutts. I didn’t think I’d ever have anything but a mutt. Having a purebred dog as an adult has changed that. I love knowing what I like in a dog and being able to be specific when I look. I love and hate that there are a ton of purebred dogs up for adoption. So while I love a purebred, I know I can adopt one. It’s all good.

  11. Julie Blackwelder says:

    I could probably write a book on my opinions on this, and on most points, I would probably agree with you that having separate breeds is important. BUT, until all of the shelters and all of the rescue organizations are empty, and there are no more strays or unwanted dogs, deliberately breeding more dogs is, in my opinion, a very selfish and arrogant act.

    I know, just my opinion, but the trips to my local shelter with my clients to help them rescue a dog is always very traumatic for me. I have saved countless numbers over the years, but I can’t save them all and I know their kill rate is well over 90%. I know that across the country millions die every year, unloved, and often suffer neglect, abuse, a life on the streets in fear and pain. I can’t reconcile that with deliberately breeding a litter, even to save the breed I love beyond all others.

  12. What an interesting post. I really enjoyed this. I own three northern breed mixes. I think breeds DO matter, but not in an elitist way. Like you stated, if you want a herder, a border collie is your best bet. I love that some dogs instinctually(?) have it in them to perform certain jobs, because we have created them that way. And that most of these dogs love what they are meant to do.

  13. I do think breeds matter…especially for those seeking specific traits in a dog…but mutts matter too. Where else can we find such unique friends to share our homes (and our hearts) with?

  14. Great post and great perspective. I think they’re important when looked at from the perspective that you shared. But when they’re exploited based on their breed or misused, I suppose my feelings change a bit and I wish they were all mutts so nobody could choose a breed to mistreat. But I do hope that we change the image that purebred dogs are better than mutts – thanks for your statement about the fact that they’re just as loving and are equally amazing companions.

  15. Very interesting take on breeds. I think whether breed matters or not depends on your personal preference and on what you might plan to do with the dog (i.e., hunting, herding, guarding, etc.). Some breeds are just better than others when it comes to certain things, but that doesn’t make them exclusive to that role.

    And, many breeds have two variations of them now – the one that is bred for a job and the one bred for show. Did you know there are two kinds of Border Collies? One has had much of the herding bred out of him and the other is bred purely for their herding genetics. I was speaking with Jasper’s herding teacher the other day and she said that if a BC is AKC papered they won’t even let them into herding trials because they know an AKC dog was bred for show and not for what they were originally bred for. Shetland Sheepdogs have suffered a similar fate.

    • Good point, Mel, about the different lines for showing and for working.

      In Golden Retrievers, the working lines tend to be more reddish while the companion (and dog show) lines tend to be blonde or cream colored. It’s interesting to see how easily even a novice can see the difference when the working qualities line up with a difference in color.

      • Callie, Shadow, and Ducky's Mom says:

        Pamela, I was not aware of the working lines vs pet/show lines color difference tendencies. That’s interesting. Shadow has more of the reddish tones to her coat while Callie has a true golden tone to her coat (which is mixing with white as she ages). And Shadow’s littermate, Emma, is as golden-toned as Callie. To look at Shadow and Emma you have only to look at the faces to know they are sisters but their coloring is different…and Emma loves being a couch potato where Shadow prefers action.

    • Love your answer Mel!

  16. I go back and forth on this, as I suspect a lot of us do. I would hate to see the variations of inborn skills die down. The natural ability to work and perform a job is just such a fascinating part of dogs. But the actual breeding is such an ethical morass–reduced genetic diversity, increased health risks–that it makes me really uncomfortable. I do wish function (in the sense of both health and in temperament) were more highly regarded in the purebred community at large.

    On the third hand, if I can have one of those, my rescued puppy has pretty big issues that a puppy from even a semi-decent breeder just wouldn’t have. I love Silas, but I wouldn’t wish a dog like him on the average pet owner.

  17. Fundamentally, dog breeds matter. Different breeds have different predisposition for certain tasks and activities. Of course, as we slowly turning them all into couch potatoes, it might not matter soon. But it would be pity. Different breeds can do so many wonderful different things.

  18. the golden retriever was bred to settle by your side quietly when the hard day’s work is over? 🙂 I think Hannah didn’t get that memo! It’s 8 pm tonight and she’s running around the house playing with Charlie, despite a long walk today and lots of play time hehe. Hopefully the ‘zoomies’ will be done soon.