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How the Victorians engineered the dog breeds we love today

The Victorian era gave the world everything from photographs to radio, the bicycle, X-rays and even postage stamps.

But perhaps one of its most lasting inventions was one that didn’t save lives, advance economies or connect people.

It gave us the dogs we love today.

Michael Worboys, an emeritus professor at the University of Manchester who has traced the history of dog breeds, says pure-breed pups are products of the industrial revolution.

“The changes wrought on dogs in the Victorian era were revolutionary, as was the very adoption of breed as way of thinking about and remaking varieties of dog,” he says.

“For most of history what dogs did counted more than [how they] looked.

“[That was] until the Victorians started to develop competitive dog shows and produced the kind of dogs that we know today.”

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Before the mid-19th century dogs were named for the task they would perform, rather than any defining characteristic.

If it retrieved it was a retriever; if it was able to round up sheep it could be called a sheepdog; if it guarded it was a guard dog.

“The types of dogs that existed were bred to do particular tasks, like to collect game that had been shot or to protect sheep from wolves,” says Professor Worboys, author of The Invention of the Modern Dog.

a golden retriever looks towards the camera with a tilted head
Dogs were once named for the task they performed — like retrieving.(Unsplash: John Price)

That began to change in the 1830s, when the macabre sport of dogfighting was finally outlawed in Britain.

Fighting dog breeders suddenly had a surplus of pups, and a horde of gamblers were looking for a new sport to lay their money down on.

These circumstances gave rise to the idea of ​​the dog beauty contest, which usually popped up in the bars and clubs of working-class Britain.

“What they were looking for was the dogs that looked the most aggressive or that had the most beautiful coat,” Professor Worboys says.

Vital to these contests was a man named John Henry Walsh.

Walsh, a doctor turned sports journalist, organized the first Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship in 1877, but also produced a series of books which laid out the rules for all Victorian sports.

In the fold was the all-important dog show; the rules accompanied by a series of books that set out the standards for modern dogs.

The true English pug, for example, should be “of a fawn colour, devoid of any smut approaching blackness [and] a coat that is sleek, shining and soft to touch.”

A sketch of a greyhound and a pug
A greyhound and a pug as pictured in John Henry Walsh’s book.(Extract from Dogs of the British Isles)

Professor Worboys says the categorization system was typical of the Victorian era, a period of industrialisation, standardization and product differentiation.

“There were any number of types of dogs around for millennia, but they were only standardized 150 years ago,” he says.

The classification system, and increasing competition at the dog shows, fueled a quest to create the purest of the pure-breeds.

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