Posts Tagged ‘dog breed origins’

Sagan German shepherd

If you were to ask the average person how to classify a German shepherd in terms of dog breed taxonomy, most would say it’s guard dog, putting it somewhere with the Rottweiler and the boxer. Others might think it’s a primitive breed and might classify it with the Siberian husky and the malamute.

Those with a bit more dog knowledge would p lace it with the Belgian and Dutch shepherds.

Indeed, if you were going to ask me where I’d classify German shepherds ten years ago, I would have placed them as the German variant of what became distilled from a German-Belgian-Dutch prick-eared, black-masked herding dog landrace.

DNA studies have changed quite a bit of our understanding of dog breeds and their origins. In the initial attempts to classify dog breeds using only mitochondrial DNA found that German shepherds clustered with the mastiff breeds.

However, more recent genome-wide analyses have revealed something rather unusual. German shepherds are not directly related to the Belgian herding dogs at all. Instead,  one study found that they they are most closely related to the Berger Picard, the Chinook, and the Peruvian and Mexican hairless dogs.

Initial studies of regional Italian herding dogs using microsatellites suggested a close relationship between those dogs and border collies.  However, more recent genome-wide analyses have placed the Italian herders much closer to the German shepherd dog. Indeed, the German shepherd is very closely related to Italian prick-eared herding types, such as the Lupo Italiano and the Cane Paratore. These Italian herders and the Berger Picard all fit in a single clade with the German shepherd.

These findings upturn our assumption that the Belgian and Dutch shepherds are that closely related to German shepherds– at least in the bulk of their DNA.

However, the initial genome-wide study that found a relationship between the Berger Picard and the GSD also found that there was some GSD in the various Belgian herders, including the Bouvier des Flandres.

That means that at some point in the development of those breeds, German shepherds or proto-German shepherds were crossed into them. Crossing German shepherds with the Malinois isn’t an uncommon practice in some working dog circles even now. Apparently, this practice was done more frequently when the breeds were not so defined as they are now.

And it should be noted that only tiny ancestry blocks from German shepherds into the Belgian breeds. The bulk of their DNA derives from very distinct dog stocks. The Belgian herding breeds are more closely related to British herders and Western sighthounds than they are to German shepherds.

These genome-wide studies have lots of interesting findings, including that xoloitzcuintli and Peruvian hairless dogs are almost entirely derived from European herding dogs and that their sister breed is the Catahoula. Because of this relationship to these Latin American dogs, the Catahoula is probably more derived from Iberian herding breeds than from French ones. It is likely that the hairless dogs of the New World are the originators of their hairless trait, but because it is conferred via a semi-dominant allele it was easily transferred onto a population that consists of dog of European origin.

The relationship between German shepherds and Italian herders is easily understood. German shepherds are heavily derived from Bavarian and Swabian sheepdogs, and Bavarian shepherds were often grazing their sheep in the Alps during the summer, as were the Italian shepherds. The dogs exchanged genes in those high country meadows, and their pups went onto found populations on both sides of the mountains.

This story fits the genomic data, but it make the Berger Picard a bit of an anomaly. Picardy is in the northeastern France, a long distance from the Alps. It would make more sense for this breed to be more closely related to the Belgian shepherds and the Bouvier, but it is not. The North European Plain is easier for dogs and their genes to flow across, but the Berger Picard is very close the German shepherd breeds and its Italian cousins.

I do not have a good answer for why this anomaly exists. I don’t know much about the Berger Picard or its history. Maybe it became a very rare breed and was interbred heavily with German shepherds, or maybe the region is very connected through markets to the Alps or Bavaria or Northern Italy.

Maybe someone can answer these questions for me.  It seems weird that the Berger Picard is so closely related to dogs that have origins in Southern and Central Europe rather than adjacent Belgium.

The evolution of herding breeds is complex. Apparently, having a dog with a wolf-like phenotype is useful for herding flocks. The Belgian shepherds apparently evolved their type independently of the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Italian prick-eared herders. Perhaps sheep just respect that look more, and it has some advantage in their management.

As we have seen, dogs can evolve very similar physical traits in parallel with each other, which is why we must always be careful when creating an umbrella classification for different breeds.

Just because they look alike and have similar functions does not mean they are that closely related.


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One of the most bizarre breed origin stories claims that dachshunds came from Ancient Egypt.

I know this is an old theme on this blog, but I think I need to say it again:

Many  official breed histories are absolute bullshit.

Official breed histories are actually creation myths.

They orient the entire culture around the breed in question, for virtually all breeders use a sort “original intent” argument to justify what breed standards say and how they are interpreted.

Of course, this actually gives official breed historians an unbelievable amount of power over the breed.

So if an official historian wants a particular type of dog rewarded in the ring, the historian will promote that type of dog as the “original.”

I’ve done a bit of this on the blog, especially in the early days. I’ve since become a bit more nuanced, and I am open to greater diversity in type as being historically correct.

That’s actually a much healthier way of looking at all dogs, but as virtually everyone knows, dog shows and the dog fancy are not about diversity.

They are about conformity. They don’t call them diversity shows. They call them conformation shows. Conformation. Conformity.

So within official breed histories we have the corrupting forces of the origin myth and the power breed historians have to shape how dogs are bred.

And both of those forces have a tendency to Pravda-ize the way this histories are written.

Even the really good histories are like this. I really appreciate Richard Wolters’s historiography on the Labrador retriever, but I found it very breed blind and often dismissive of well-established historical facts– such as the close diplomatic relationship between Portugal and England/UK– for my taste. My biggest complaint is that he fails to realize that St. John’s water dogs were not Labrador retrievers as we know them today and that all the retrievers that were developed in Britain were derived from this stock– not just the Labrador retriever.

But if well-researched history can have these problems, sloppily researched ones are far worse.

And they are even for so if the sloppiness comes from some sort of conscious or subconscious agenda on behalf of the breed historian.

Chinese crested dogs probably have the worst example of this problem.

The official story says these dogs were carried on the Chinese junks. They were used for rodent control, and when the sailors were too far from land to get provisions, they ate these dogs.

Never mind that there virtually no evidence for this claim.

However, there is plenty of evidence that these dogs originated in the United States in the twentieth century.

But the official breed historians and virtually all fanciers of this breed still adhere– almost like barnacles– to the Chinese junk story.

It is a junk story. I will give them that.

The only one of these bogus breed origin stories that has been debunked and has also been accepted by the vast majority of the breed’s fanciers is the old story that golden retrievers are derived from Russian circus dogs.

Lord Ilchester, a nephew of Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, discussed part of the family retriever studbook in an article in 1952 issue of Country Life. This story was picked up a golden retriever historian named Elma Stonex, and she published the results of her research in a book. In 1959, the Kennel Club accepted Lord Ilchester and Elma Stonex’s work as the official history for the breed. The dogs are derived almost entirely from yellow or reddish wavy-coated retrievers, which were then heavily outcrossed to black wavy and flat-coated retrievers.

And the bogus creation myth was put to rest.

One still runs into people who still think that golden retrievers are Russian or derived from Russian circus dogs. It’s still a much more romantic than the real one.

To make things more complicated, a large percentage of dog breeds are said to be of ancient origin, when they probably are not.

It would be cool to think that the pharaohs hunted with dachshunds or Great Danes, but it’s not likely.

And it’s not what the genetic evidence suggests.

Dog people should be more concerned with what the facts actually are.

Once we get grounded in objective reality in this area, we can have a discussion about objective reality in others.

But we can’t if everyone wants to believe things for no other reason than they sound cool.

So if you’re going to tell me the origins of a dog breed, please provide evidence that is backed up with some sort of scientific evidence.

Gleaning breed origins from historical accounts– especially those from ancient history– is a very dubious undertaking, and dog historians would be wise to be careful in assuming any ancient origin for any breed from a passage in some ancient parchment or inscription.

But if people can’t figure out the origins of Chinese crested dogs, what hope is there for breeds that are at least several hundred years old?

Not much.

People want to belief the folktale.

They want to worship their breed through the creation myth.

And in doing so they train their minds away from objective reality and trying to figure what is actually true.

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The origin of the Dalmatian is still obscure and rests solely on suppositions.”– FCI Dalmatian Standard. The rule they are using is the more bizarre and incredulous the supposition the more accurate it is.

The Dalmatian is clearly a dog of the gun dog type. Some individuals can point, but this behavior is the exception to the rule. So perhaps its better to say that the Dalmatian is of a modified gun dog type.

Many theories exist about its history. One theory puts the origins of this dog on the Adriatic coast of Croatia in the region of Dalmatia. Another puts its origins in Ancient Greece, while another puts claims that India is this breed’s ancestral home.

The FCI’s official position at the current time is that the dog is Croatian. It uses the Croatian standard as its official standard, which is the rule in the FCI. The FCI uses the standard for the breed that is used in its history of origin.

I am skeptical.


There are gun dogs from Eastern and Central Europe. None of them are white.

The former Yugoslavia does have scent hounds.  Both breeds of Istrian hound are white. It plausibly could be an ancestor or close relative of the Dalmatian, and I suspect that it is a dog of this type mentioned by Jurij Dalmatin in the sixteenth century. Like many white dogs, it is not unusual for some darker “freckles” to be visable through its fur.

This dog is an Istrian smooth-haired hound. It is a white spotted hound from the Adriatic coast of Croatia, where the Dalmatian dog is said to come from..

This dog is an Istrian smooth-haired hound. It is a white spotted hound from the Adriatic coast of Croatia, where the Dalmatian dog is said to orginate.

It does look something like a Dalmatian, especially when you realize that Dalmatians sometimes have lemon spots.
But appearances aren’t enough to prove common ancestry. Remember, the Hovawart and Kuvasz look a lot like big golden retrievers, yet both of those dogs are in no way related to the golden retriever.
The blond hovawart looks like a golden retriever. However, it is a German guard dog. It can be used in various protection dog sports, and goldens cannot.

The blond hovawart looks like a golden retriever. However, it is a German guard dog. It can be used in various protection dog sports, and goldens cannot.

The further problem with the Dalmatian’s Croatian origins is that no one has found a direct link between the modern dog called the Dalmatian and any breed from that part of the world.
However, there is a link between this modern dog and a dog that was used in the eighteenth century in Britain. It followed coaches of gentlemen as a fashion accessory. The heavily spotted coat gave it some esteem.
It seems to me far more parsimonious to say that the Dalmatian’s origins are in Britain, and that its ancient origins are nice lore that gentlement used to impress their foppish friends. It sounds very like the story about the golden retriever descending from Russian circus dogs.
The breed has a great deal of similarities with British gundogs, especially the English setter and pointer. I’ve heard of them pointing birds and even mere feathers, just as these breeds do.  It is also similar to the bull and terrier breeds in that many Dals hate other  dogs, which certainly means that they aren’t that similar to any breed of scent hound, which are typically kept in packs. They are also very good ratters, just like the bull and terrier breeds are. Futher, not all Dalmatians are black or liver spotted, and not all Dalmatians are short-haired. A page on these dogs with atypical coat colors and coat lengths can be found here.
The FCI tried to change the Dalmatian’s origins based upon this information, but there was no documented proof of their British origins. However, the Croatian story appeared to have at least some documentation. And the Republic of Croatia threw a fit. Today, the FCI lists it as a Croatian breed.
But have a look at Bewick’s depiction of a Dalmatian from circa 1790. This dog looks like a cross between a pointer and a bull and terrier. The ears are like that of a modern Staffordshire bull terrier, which is really similar to the old bull and terrier type. The tail is long and whip-like, which is, believe it or not, a characteristic of the bulldog in the bull and terrier. The original bulldog had a tail just like this. The dog looks nothing like an Istrian smooth-haired hound.
However, until someone gets evidence beyond this speculation, we will have to deal with the Croatian origins story for the Dalmatian.
I do have readers of this blog from Croatia, which is very patriotic country. This aspect of the country makes sense considering its history as part of various empires and then part of the authoritarian socialist country called Yugoslavia.  However, I am just skeptical of this breed being Croatian.
The main source I am using for this infomation is The Illustrated Guide to Dogs of the World (1974)  by A. Gordrexon-Ives Brown, which is out of print.  It makes use FCI expertise, which, at the time, was beginning to question the Dalmatian’s origins.

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