Four Periods of the American Purebred

Four Periods of the American Purebred

Pictured Above: Painted by Robert Lougheed, this idyllic scene of three Poodles, a boy and a bicycle exemplifies mid-century America’s idyllic relationship with the purebred dog. Artwork courtesy Man’s Best Friend: National Geographic Book of Dogs, Revised Edition.

Our Relationship With the Dog Is Generational

America has always been a nation of dog lovers. Even before the Founding Fathers declared independence from the British Crown, people from all strata of society were putting the domestic dog to good use in the New World. Out of necessity, the citizenry found innovative ways to utilize the skillset of its canine collaborators. And as the country evolved from a colonial backwater into a nuclear super power, the role of the purebred dog changed with the times. Formally, America’s purebreds have served as loyal hunting partners, devoted social workers, companionable competitors and even media darlings for 135 years. Unofficially, we have enjoyed their company for even longer. Since the American Kennel Club was founded in 1884, our relationship with the purebred dog has been influenced by sweeping social changes and technological advances. Each generation of dog lovers has enjoyed its favorite breeds, influenced by the forces of migration, war, politics, celebrity, commerce and consumerism. As my recent articles in SHOWSIGHT have examined, America’s devotion to the dog can be divided roughly into four separate periods: Sporting & Non-Sporting (1884-1923); Puppies & Veterans (1924-1963); Good Dogs & Bad Owners (1964-2003); and Rescue & Preservation (2004-present). Each period represents a generation of American dog lovers and the unique relationship that each has shared with the purebred dog.

1884-1923 (Sporting & Non-Sporting)

The first purebreds recognized in America were nine breeds of bird dogs that hail from the British Isles and Ireland. In short order, AKC registration was open to a growing number of British and Continental breeds of the Mastiff-type and companion breeds from Britain, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Initially, a breed was classified as Sporting or Non-Sporting. The Sporting designation was reserved exclusively for bird dogs and a few hunting Hounds. Pointers and Setters were among the first breeds to be registered and considered the best suited for the upland conditions found in North America. Several Spaniel breeds found favor in the dense underbrush of America’s woodlands, as did the Chesapeake Bay Retriever and Irish Water Spaniel in the nation’s waterways from coast to coast. The formality of the fox hunt was cultivated in the Mid-Atlantic States just as it was transformed in the South and Southwest into a nocturnal pursuit. The Greyhound found its footing as a courser on the Great Plains and as a racer in California, and the Beagle proved unstoppable here, there and everywhere. As the nation continued to expand, shooting became a national pastime and the Sporting breeds flourished. Not to be outdone, Non-Sporting breeds proved every bit as appealing to a growing number of Americans who wanted a dog for the home. By the turn of the last century, Poodles and Pomeranians were pushing the gun dogs hard for the public’s attention. Rough and Smooth Collies were particularly appealing in those days, as was the Airedale and the Smooth and Wire Fox Terriers. No less irresistible was the Boston Terrier that found support from its namesake city to the San Fransisco Bay. Interestingly, the Non-Sporting breeds in America differed little in type from their Old World cousins during this period. By contrast, many of the Sporting breeds had already begun to diverge along separate lines. As the 20th century dawned, performance on the bench became every bit as important as performance in the field. Though market hunters and sporting gentlemen managed to keep the instincts alive in these breeds, the American public was clamoring for companionship in the purebred dog.

1924-1963 (Puppies & Veterans)

The first half of the 20th century witnessed colossal upheavals in American society and around the world. Two global wars and the Great Depression threatened Western civilization and the future of many dog breeds in Britain and Europe seemed uncertain. Thanks to the courageous actions of our servicemen and women, peace prevailed and many of the honorably discharged exchanged their military rifles for a shotgun. Hunting upland birds and waterfowl required a competent bird dog and many GIs chose a flushing spaniel or retriever as a partner. Others pursued Field Trials with the pointing breeds and setters. Post-war America brought about a period of unprecedented prosperity in the United States. This greatly expanded the middle class, increasing demand for a registered dog as both partner and playmate. Returning soldiers, sailors and marines married quickly and started families in unprecedented numbers. Purebred dogs were increasingly welcomed into the home as a status symbol of sorts. Many veterans wanted a breed that they encountered overseas, but their Baby Boomer children simply wanted a puppy. As a result, AKC registrations grew and the number of recognized breeds expanded to include many that had been unknown outside of their home countries. German Shepherd Dogs, Dachshunds and Miniature Schnauzers are just a few of the breeds that experienced a surge in popularity during the post-war era. However, it was one of the breeds first recognized in the United States that caught on with Americans during this period. The Cocker Spaniel had been a favored hunting companion for decades, but a rapidly changing society transformed this effervescent bird dog into the ultimate show dog and playmate. Millions of Americans wanted a Cocker and the demand led many to produce puppies bred for aesthetics rather than for performance. In 1946, the AKC officially recognized the (original) English Cocker Spaniel and the (American) Cocker Spaniel as two distinct breeds. The dog-loving public had spoken. For 17 straight years, the American version was the nation’s most registered dog. Other breeds were favored during this period too, of course, and many were given a boost in popularity thanks to an ever-expanding media. Beagles, Cairn Terriers and Collies were favorites during this period thanks, in part, to Snoopy’s character in the Charlie Brown comic strip, Toto’s appearance in The Wizard of Oz and Lassie’s long-running film and television career. The media’s influence on popular culture was in its infancy, and the purebred dog was positioned front and center. American prosperity would continue, but its future would become less certain in the years to come.

1964-2003 (Good Dogs & Bad Owners)

By the sixties, Americans had enthusiastically embraced the registered dog’s predictability and understood the value of having a faithful friend that was also well-behaved. Dog shows flourished in large cities and in rural settings. Attendance among spectators was high, especially at bench shows where dog lovers could get up close and personal with a purebred and engage with the exhibitors. However, the 1960s and ‘70s was also a time of sweeping economic and social changes. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 signaled an end to the innocence of the 1950s. The anti-war and civil rights movements challenged American identity as did the rise of a counterculture that was keen on social revolution. For many dog fanciers of the day, the predictability of the dog show calendar offered a safe haven from the tumult. When the American Kennel Club Centennial Dog Show and Obedience Trial was held in Philadelphia in 1984, the dog sport in America was as strong as it had ever been. Registrations continued to grow as did the number of show-giving clubs. Obedience continued to draw entries at most shows, promoted by the phenomenon of the celebrity dog trainer thanks to the miracle of cable television. But many challenges lay ahead for the sport. When Agility burst onto the scene in the 1980s, its fast pace signaled a steady decline in Obedience entries. Likewise, entries at Conformation shows could not keep up with the proliferation of events. Though exhibitors had more shows to enter, fewer and fewer majors were on offer. And as entries fell, so too did the numbers of actual dogs competing. But the greatest challenges to beset the dog sport were, perhaps, due to the creation of the World Wide Web. When this web browser was offered to the general public in 1991, it ushered in the Information Age that was to become the primary tool used by billions of people around the world to search for information For dog fanciers, the Internet signaled an end to the AKC’s
dominance as a registry. Online “registries” were soon indistinguishable from the real thing and they also provided a place for mixed-breed dogs. Puppies of dubious parentage were soon marketed as “purebred” and the general public couldn’t tell the difference. The era of the Designer Dog had been born, and as the sport continued along a predictable course it was faced with even greater challenges in the New Millenium.

2004-Present
(Rescue & Preservation)

No one could have predicted the magnitude of changes brought about by the Internet. Its omnipresence in all aspects of our lives has literally changed how we do things—including breeding and showing purebred dogs. In the span of about 20 years, everything changed. Newspapers have been replaced by newsfeeds and shopping apps are the new shopping malls. Cars talk, but teenagers don’t. Instead, they text. A lot. The mobile phone has become both telephone and typewriter. It’s also become a tape recorder, alarm clock and camera. Thanks to cell phones, everybody is now an expert photographer, dietician and navigator. (Why bother to learn where you’re going if you’ve got a GPS to tell you how to get there?) The amount of information that’s available at our finger tips is astounding by any measure. But it’s also troubling in many ways, particularly for activities and industries that are rooted in the system of gaining knowledge through experience that can then be passed on to the next generation. Such is the case with the sport of dogs. It’s no secret that today’s experienced breeders are finding it difficult to mentor younger people whom they view as “know-it-alls.” But whose really to blame? Millennials hardly resemble previous generations. Today’s junior handlers were born in the 21st century and they’ve always had access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. They’ve also only ever experienced a world at war. They grew up during the Great Recession and many have experienced the pain of losing their family home or watched helplessly as a parent succumbed to drug addiction. Some have lived-it-all every bit as much as they know-it-all. Though some senior members of the fancy bemoan the failings of today’s youth and long for days gone by, the future of purebred dogs in America depends on utilizing the skillsets of every generation of dog lovers. Senior breeders have a lifetime of experience and wisdom to share, whereas juniors easily embrace emerging technologies and can use them to promote our cause. Think of the excitement that could be generated on social media if every junior posted a “selfy” with his or her dog on the same day. Imagine how many Facebook users would see those pics if we all shared them on our pages. The impact could counter some of the anti-purebred rhetoric that’s been gaining traction ever since Hurricane Katrina made news back in 2005. Those images of dogs being pulled from floodwaters encouraged viewers of cable TV to jump on the “rescue” bandwagon. Together with the doodle craze, the rescue thing could only exist in a world where someone in New Hampshire can learn about a dog in need in New Orleans. Oh, wait! That’s this world. Technology has made it possible for breeders to preserve, protect and promote their dogs by reaching billions of Internet users in real time. If rescue organizations and breeders of Schnoodles can connect with potential puppy people, why haven’t breeders of purpose-bred dogs been able to do so with equal success? Could it be that we’ve been too busy yearning for the nostalgia of past generations that we’ve allowed the future of purebred dogs in America to become uncertain? 

(Sporting & Non-Sporting)

Time Period: 1884-1923

Human/Canine Bond:

Based on Hunting

Reference Book Title:

The Sporting Dog

Subject: Sportsman’s Guide

Author: Joseph A. Graham

Year Published: 1904

Most Popular Breeds:

Collie, Boston Terrier, English Setter

(Puppies & Veterans)

Time Period: 1924-1963

Human/Canine Bond:

Based on Service

Reference Book Title:

The National Geographic Book of Dogs

Subject: All-Breed Encyclopedia

Author: National Geographic Society

Year Published: 1958

Most Popular Breeds:

Beagle, Chihuahua, Poodle

(Good Dogs & Bad Owners)

Time Period: 1964-2003

Human/Canine Bond:

Based on Competition

Reference Book Title: No Bad Dogs

Subject: Dog Training

Author: Barbara Woodhouse

Year Published: 1982

Most Popular Breeds:

Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, Doberman Pinscher

(Rescue & Preservation)

Time Period: 2004-Present

Human/Canine Bond:

Based on Empathy

Reference Book Title:

101 Salivations: For the Love of Dogs

Subject: Dog Photography

Author: Rachael Hale

Year Published: 2003

Most Popular Breeds:

Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Beagle

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