After kicking off 2021 by welcoming the Mudi and Russian Toy, the American Kennel Club now recognizes 199 dog breeds. [Editor’s note: As of July 2022, we’re up to 200 with the addition of the Bracco Italiano.]
That’s a quantum leap from the nine charter Sporting dogs—the Pointer; Chesapeake Bay Retriever; Clumber, Cocker, Sussex, and Irish Water Spaniels; and English, Gordon, and Irish Setters—first admitted into the registry in 1878. But it represents only a bit more than half of the 350 or so breeds recognized by other registries around the world. To complicate things even further, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other identifiable breeds that have not been formally recognized by any of the world’s international canine organizations, ranging from the almost extinct Rampur Hound of India to the bamboo-tailed Chongqing Dog of China.
Why such a discrepancy? The answer, it turns out, has more to do with people than it does with dogs.
A breed that is officially recognized by the American Kennel Club is able to compete fully and at the highest levels in AKC-sanctioned dog shows, and it has one designated national “parent club” that is the sole steward of its standard—the official breed description used as a blueprint by breeders and judges alike. As a result, it’s not enough for a breed to simply exist in order to be recognized: There has to be more than a handful of them in the United States. So, for example, while the Galgo Español has hunted hare in the countryside of its native Spain for millennia, there are not enough in the United States to even form a national club. (And geography has nothing to do with popularity: The AKC recognized another Spanish breed, the Spanish Water Dog, in 2015.)
The First Step Toward AKC Recognition
Acknowledging that rare breeds would benefit from a running start at the complicated process of recognition, the AKC in 1995 created the Foundation Stock Service, or FSS, which allows aspiring AKC breeds to maintain a studbook and participate in AKC companion events such as agility, obedience, rally, and tracking. Currently, there are 81 breeds in the FSS, from the critter-treeing American Leopard Hound to the sled-pulling Yakutian Laika.
As the first step toward AKC recognition, FSS is also the simplest: A breed club does not have to exist, or there can be multiple ones, and a request to enter FSS can even be made by an individual. That said, the breed in question must be recognized by a legitimate foreign or domestic registry. If not (and if the breed was developed in the United States), it must have a documented history—including pedigrees—that goes back at least 40 years.
To protect breeds that are already AKC recognized, FSS will not accept any dogs that result from crossing two AKC-registrable breeds. Nor is FSS open to breeds that are a variation of an already established breed, such as the white German Shepherd Dog, which has been recognized as the Berger Blanc Suisse by the FCI. (An exception to the rule is the Miniature American Shepherd, recognized in 2015 because the Australian Shepherd Club of America supported the formation of a new breed based on its undersized dogs.)
The Final Step Before AKC Recognition
Once a breed has gotten some steam, the next—and final—step before AKC recognition is the Miscellaneous class, which currently contains nine breeds. Not surprisingly, the criteria at this stage becomes more exacting: To move to Miscellaneous, a breed must have a minimum of 150 dogs with three-generation pedigrees in its studbook, a viable breed standard, and one club that will represent the breed as its “parent club” in the United States.
“We’ve learned from experience, and the program continues to evolve based on that,” says AKC’s vice president of sports service Mari-Beth O’Neill, who oversees the progress of breeds through FSS and Miscellaneous. Conflicts between rival clubs are one reason why breeds that request Miscellaneous status must have a functional parent club that is approved by the AKC Board of Directors, as well as documentation that its members have voted for the move. “We provide a path that will both educate clubs and their members on how to interact with the AKC, and be able to then stand on their own and hold AKC events in the future,” O’Neill explains.
Fashioning a workable standard is another challenge, especially when a breed’s FCI standard must be adapted to fit AKC’s guidelines. Some breeds have lengthy written standards with complex or archaic language and intricate measurements. Disqualifications, too, can be a particularly sticky wicket: In AKC standards, disqualifications are always concrete and measurable—falling short of or exceeding certain heights or weights, for example, or the presence of a disallowed color. If documented by three separate judges, an AKC disqualification effectively ends a dog’s ability to be shown. By contrast, FCI standards typically have a greater number of disqualifications, which are sometimes subjective, and their impact on a dog’s career is not as dire.
The canine culture in a breed’s country of origin can be another stumbling block. Some European breeds—German-derived ones in particular—require breed wardens to approve a mating and then after whelping to identify those puppies that can potentially be bred. In other breeds, dogs must acquire hunt titles or pass temperament tests before being cleared for breeding or showing.
“Oftentimes Americans who want their breed to move forward here want the blessing of the country of origin,” O’Neill says. “But in the United States, our premise is freedom of choice,” which makes predicating a championship on anything other than the show ring problematic. Instead, clubs are encouraged to incorporate breeding restrictions or title requirements into their codes of ethics, which precludes the AKC from having to police them.
How Long Does it Take?
How long a breed stays in Miscellaneous can vary wildly. The Peruvian Inca Orchid—a diminutive, hairless South American Sighthound—has been there for a decade, with little sign of being ready for recognition anytime soon. By contrast, the Biewer Terrier—pronounced “beaver,” a particolor Toy once referred to as “the German Yorkshire Terrier”—had more than 1,000 dogs in its studbook in 2020, permitting its parent club to apply for full AKC recognition after only six months in Miscellaneous. Other requirements for leaving Miscellaneous behind are having a reasonable number of club members in good standing as well as ten dogs owned by members with Certificate of Merit titles, which are earned by showing in the Miscellaneous class offered at AKC shows.
As with any paradigm shift, not everyone embraces AKC recognition. Many rare breeds have cultivated a low-key breed culture that revels in a “best-kept secret” sensibility; recognition invariably raises a breed’s public image and the level of competition, and brings a sometimes unwelcome influx of new owners and breeders. Because most rare breeds are overwhelmingly owner-handled, the impact of professional handlers—especially in terms of over-the-top grooming in coated breeds that require a natural or rustic presentation—are a frequently voiced concern.
Some changes, however, are very much for the better. Because AKC judges do not tolerate poorly socialized, unstable, or aggressive dogs, recognition invariably results in improved temperaments across the board. Some naturally reticent breeds, such as the Azawakh, which was recognized in 2019, require judges to modify their exams to be less intrusive and more respectful of the breed’s disregard for strangers. Others, such as the Fila Brasileiro—a Bloodhound-evoking mastiff developed in 18th century Brazil for its fierce guard-dog temperament—are so incompatible with AKC sports and events that they will likely never seek, much less achieve, recognition.
O’Neill notes that newly recognized breeds are a natural conduit for bringing fresh faces into the sport of dogs, and “we encourage new people to join an all-breed club if they aren’t already involved.” There they will meet experienced and encouraging mentors who will help them learn the AKC ropes—if, that is, the humans in their breed community are willing to sit, stay and play nicely with each other.