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.”
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.
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.”
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.
The so-called “top dogs” became commodities, bought, sold and hired out for stud duties, often for very high amounts.
Entirely new breeds were also created as breeders began to genetically modify their pups.
Through cross-breeding programs, they found they could highlight the most desirable attributes — and sift out undesirable ones.
“In the very first edition of Walsh’s book on the dog there were 27 types of dog,” Professor Worboys says.
“By the time you get to 1900 there are 80.”
Today, according to the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, the international peak body for dog breeders, there are more than 400 recognized breeds of pups.
Bringing back the dead
Other breeders brought back dogs that had been lost to history.
This was the mission of Scotsman George Augustus Graham, who sought to genetically recreate the Irish wolfhound, which had gone extinct around 1720.
“To the Victorians, the Irish wolfhound was a beast of legend,” Professor Worboys says.
“In the mid-19th century Graham traveled around Ireland collected dogs that people said had Irish blood, although they didn’t look like the wolfhound.”
Graham took the dogs back to his estate in Gloucester and tried breeding them.
But he had little success — most of his collected pups were infertile or refused to breed — and decided instead to start from scratch.
He imported a crop of Scottish deer hounds, said to appear as miniature versions of the Irish wolfhound, and mixed the breed with a great dane to give it some size.
Then, a Tibetan mastiff and a boxer were brought into the mix.
The resulting mongrel, which bore some resemblance to the illustrations of the lost breed, was called the Irish wolfhound.
It has now been embraced as a pure-breed.
“Around Dublin the Irish wolfhound is on all the buildings as the iconic national Irish dog,” Professor Worboys says.
“And the current one was invented by an Englishman from Scottish, Danish, Tibetan, and Russian stock.”
The wolfhound is not alone in its mongrel heritage.
The golden retriever was produced by mixing yellow-coloured retrievers with a tweed water spaniel, and inbreeding their litter.
a matter of fashion
If the working-class dog show was the birthplace of the dog breed, its cradle was the British aristocracy who began to buy dogs not for retrieving, herding or shows, but personal fashion.
“At the end of the century there was a fashion for Russian dogs bought solely to sit of the lap of a lady called lap dogs,” Professor Worboys says.
“The main thing they wanted was a loving dog that would put up with being carried around in a handbag and eating funny foods and all the rest of it.”
The idea of breeds also appealed to the socially stratified sensitivities of the upper class who saw themselves, like their dogs, as being the product of a finer genetic lineage.
“The upper classes defined themselves as ‘dog lovers’ who were themselves of the right breeding, to use their parlance,” Professor Worboys says.
“And if you look at Victorian dog books, they have the pedigrees of dogs laid out in the same way that pedigrees of aristocratic families that were laid out.”
Dog owners today still covet the pure-breed as the supreme pup. Breeds like the chow chow can fetch up to $10,000 per dog.
So next time you pat a royal corgi or throw a ball for a labrador, perhaps spare a thought for those who invented it.
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