Ask My Vet: Why do certain breeds look the way they do?

Ask My Vet is a series based on questions I have—and maybe you do, too—about dogs. Katniss’ veterinarian, Dr. Katharine Kennedy of Arbor Animal Clinic here in Austin, provides answers and expertise as a part of this series.

Question: Why do certain breeds look the way they do?

Dr. K: In a word, artificial selection, the hallmark of human domestication. Our favorite English naturalist, Charles Darwin, is most famous for his theory of natural selection: the survival and reproduction of individuals due to different advantageous traits they possess. For example, the giraffe with the longest neck will be able to reach the most food, so it will survive to produce more offspring. The OTHER point he elucidated was that there are two types of selection: natural and artificial.

Humans have drastically altered the planet with the results of their artificial selection. We have chosen to breed the most productive plants to produce large quantities of edible food. We have bred the choicest livestock to produce delicious meat. And we have also purposefully bred our best friend, the dog, to be an ideal coworker and companion. To tend our livestock, we chose dogs that are intelligent, highly energetic, and have a strong pack mentality resulting in breeds like border collies and German shepherds (pretty flattering qualities—right, Katniss?). To hunt animals that eat our crops and cattle we bred dogs with an excellent sense of smell (hound dogs), dogs swift on their feet with a strong drive to catch prey (greyhounds), and even long and short dogs to climb in to holes and dens (dachshunds). We have also bred dogs to retrieve food for us, such as Labradors, spaniels and standard poodles. YES! The poodle was originally bred to retrieve birds shot over water. And his famous poodle haircut was meant to keep his joints warm but not impede motion in the water.

We have also bred dogs for no other purpose than our own enjoyment: Pomeranians, Labradoodles, shih tzus, Cavalier King Charles and Chihuahuas, to name a few. And yes, we have purposefully bred dogs specifically for the purpose of fighting: bulldogs, bull terriers, akitas and shar-peis, for example. Not all of these were specifically bred to fight other dogs. Some were bred to fight in battle or to hunt dangerous game—such as lions, boars or bears—or to protect their owners in the home or in the field.

If you will allow me to nerd-out here for a second I must say that just recently, an article was published in the New York Times suggesting that dogs domesticated themselves in a sort of coevolution or mutualistic relationship with humans. The theory proposes that by pairing with humans, dogs can obtain more food for less effort and thus survive longer to perpetuate their genetics. I interpret this to mean that humans are suckers and dogs know it! At least The Fabulous Miss Penny Lane knows it, and I have a feeling Katniss may be in on her secret, too.


*“The Big Search to Find Out Where Dogs Come From” James Gorman 1/18/2016


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