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The Queen's Dog
Queen Victoria of Great Britain with her pet dog 'Sharp' in 1867 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.  W. & D. Downey—Getty Images

Hundreds of Dog Breeds Compete at Westminster. Many of Them Share a History

Feb 10, 2017

On Monday and Tuesday, at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, more than 200 breeds of man's best friend will compete for the title of "best in show."

But, though those breeds may go head to head in the coming days, many of them come from the same place: most modern dog breeds can be traced to a gene pool that was created beginning in the 1850s, '60s and '70s, according to Michael Worboys, professor emeritus at the University of Manchester and a specialist on the social history of pedigree dog breeding in Victorian Britain.

Breeds like the golden retriever, poodle, pug, collie, Boykin spaniel, Boston terrier, Chesapeake Bay retriever and the Newfoundland dog are said to date back to this period—and there's a reason why it's that period in particular.

It wasn't as if keeping dogs as pets was something new. People have kept dogs for companionship for as long as modern humans have existed — perhaps as long as 16,000 years. But according to Worboys, some experts believe that as society became more urbanized and people became more distanced from nature, pets became more popular as one way of staying in touch with the natural world.

In the 19th century, as new ideas about Victorian family life formed, many believed that if children could be trained to take care of and be kind to their dogs, then they would grow up to be kind, responsible adults. Queen Victoria's devotion to her dogs — she is said to have rushed home from her coronation to give her dog Dash a bath — inspired many Brits to get pets. Sir Edwin Landseer's oil portrait Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1840-43), showing Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their young daughter, came to epitomize how dogs were increasingly being seen as just another family member. Before that, dogs were often tethered outside the home when they weren't needed for working or hunting.

Then, the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's treatise On the Origin of Species inspired scientists to apply his ideas about evolution to their own investigations of how change occurs in animals over time. This trend included research into the idea that a domesticated stock could be improved by only allowing the most aesthetically or behaviorally pleasing animals to breed. Darwin himself bred fancy pigeons because their generations are short enough for scientists to see change very quickly. Eventually, someone – historians can't agree on who — tried to apply this concept to dogs. "There’s sort of a broad impulse in Victorian culture on both sides of the Atlantic with the idea that you can improve things — people, roses, animals," says Katherine C. Grier, author of Pets in America and professor of history at the University of Delaware, who adds that this same impulse had a dark side, leading to eugenics when wrongfully applied to human beings.

As a result, dog breeds were separated and defined.

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But dog breeding was about much more than the cutting-edge science of animal genetics. Historians say that when dog shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show were established in the late 19th century, they were as much about the breeding and pedigree of the dogs' owners as they were about the breeding and pedigree of the animals. With the growth of middle-class culture from the 1840s to 1860s, dog shows became seen as a leisure pursuit for the upper middle classes.

Dog shows could "distinguish upper-middle-class promotion of dog breeding from working pursuits," says Philip Howell, author of At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain and a cultural geographer at the University of Cambridge.

Though some early dog shows allowed working-classes pet owners to compete and win prizes, those competitions often took place separately, "when all the good dogs had gone home," as Worboys puts it.

Women were snubbed too, so they started their own kennel clubs and shows for their lap dogs. This philosophy of sport is similar to the one that formed the basis of the first modern Olympics in 1896, inspired by a similar "snooty Victorian conceit," as TIME once put it, that aimed to maintain the barriers of class and prevent working-class men from competing against the aristocracy.

On the other end of the spectrum, some dog breeds could signify wealth and class. For example, the Irish wolfhound — which had died out before being revived in the 17th century as a symbol of Irish cultur e associated the growth of Irish nationalism — was linked in the minds of many to the aristocrats who maintained packs of hounds for hunting.

So perhaps it was no surprise that the American upper classes saw British purebreds as the best dogs out there. Though regional dog shows existed earlier, the turning point for dog shows in the U.S. was staged in Philadelphia for America's centennial, when hunting dogs and other dogs imported from Europe competed in 1876. The first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show kicked off the following year with about 35 breeds. Philanthropist J. P. Morgan made his first appearance at Westminster with collies in 1893. In fact, the Westminster Kennel Club is named after Manhattan's Westminster Hotel, where "sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments," according to a newspaper article quoted in The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster. "Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there and hired a trainer."

The class lines eventually blurred as purebred dogs became widely popular in the U.S. during the economic boom following World War II, marketed to Americans who had more dispensable income.

In recent years, however, the way dogs were bred in the Victorian era has become more and more controversial, given the inbreeding that can result if breeding is carelessly practiced and the health problems associated with that. At the same time, the urges that prompted the development of new kinds of dogs more than a century ago are still keenly felt: for example, two of the newest breeds to compete in this year's dog show — the sloughi, an North African hunting dog, and the pumi, an ancient Hungarian herding dog — arguably the same impulse seen in the revival of the Irish wolfhound, a growing trend toward framing little-known regional dog breeds as national breeds that can be thought of as "teeny-weeny little part of nationalism," Grier argues.

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