Understanding American Kennel Club (AKC) Breed Groups

Breed classifications are like the genome project of the canine world, a road map that informs dog owners of what they can expect when their puppies grow up.

The American Kennel Club is the country's largest breed registry, issuing the standards that define breeds. The AKC's list of pure breeds contains detailed information on everything from appearance to attitude, offering a virtual life story for your pet. With the recent addition of several breeds to the Miscellaneous class, the AKC recognizes over 150 individual breeds and 162 varieties in all (a variety is a subsection of a breed; for example, the dachshund breed has three varieties: smooth, longhaired and wirehaired).

What Is a Pure Breed?

A pure breed is defined as a group of dogs that, when bred with their own kind, will produce their own kind. Purebred dogs allow owners a large degree of long-term predictability that does not exist with mixed breeds or mutts, says Nancy Matlock of the AKC. "Even if you are very sure of what two dogs created the mix, you don't know what may have been behind them," she says.

The AKC method of classifying a breed has less to do with a dog's physical characteristics than the purpose for which he was originally bred. For that reason it lists seven distinct categories into which all breeds fit: sporting, non-sporting, working, hound, terrier, toy and herding. There is also a miscellaneous class, which is treated as a temporary stepping stone for newly accepted breeds. Eventually, miscellaneous breeds are placed into one of the seven distinct categories.

Herding dogs are used to move herds of livestock and need lots of exercise. Hounds are used for hunting by sight or smell and should not be allowed off leash. Sporting dogs are bred to hunt birds and require an active lifestyle. Terriers are bred to hunt small vermin. These dogs have a tendency to dig and love to chase.

Toy dogs are bred for their diminutive size and have a variety of exercise requirements. Non-sporting dogs are a diverse group with various functions. The one thing they have in common is that they are usually not used to hunt game. Working dogs are just as their name implies; these dogs are used to pull carts, guard people and property and search and rescue.

Miscellaneous dogs are those dogs that have recently been accepted by the AKC and are waiting to be designated a category. Miscellaneous dogs can enter AKC competitions but cannot receive championship points.

Do Your Homework

Do the specifics of a breed matter to families who usually choose a pet based on which dog they first fall in love with? Yes, says Matlock. "Who doesn't love a puppy face? It's so easy to fall in love with," she says. "But we'll live with a puppy for a few months. We'll live with an adult for hopefully many years. Find out what you are going to be spending your lifetime with, not what you will be spending the first few months with."

Researching the characteristics of your chosen pet can ensure that you select a dog suited to your lifestyle and environment. "It gives you what's behind your dog or breed, so you can know what kind of things to expect," Matlock says. "When you're dealing with a pure breed you have a much surer prediction of what you will be dealing with when the dog is an adult. You have a better prediction of not only the appearance of the dog but his behavior and some of his natural instincts."

That is when breed descriptions become more than mere words on paper. Such information is crucial if, for example, you don't have a large suburban space for a dog to wander freely. The natural instinct to simply select a small dog can lead to trouble down the road if you have not paid attention to the animal's specific requirements. Choosing a beagle, with his sturdy, proud bearing might seem logical. But think again.

"The beagle is a dog people might think of as on the smaller side, but let's think about what the dog was bred for," Matlock says. "He's a little hunter, bred for racing around. So he's a pretty busy kid. If we are willing to provide the activities he needs, then he could accommodate an apartment life, but just because he's small he's not going to be a couch potato."

Size, after all, isn't everything. Studying the different breeds might direct an urban dog lover to, for example, the Newfoundland, a heavily-coated breed, which is larger than a beagle but not as active.

Given that pure breeds come armed with a catalog of dependable characteristics, their purchase price is usually higher than that of a mixed breed. But, Matlock says, "there is no difference in long-term expense. It's simply taking good care of your family pet."
For more information, check the American Kennel Club Web site: www.akc.org