For hundreds of years, dogs have lived side-by-side with humans, not only offering companionship and unconditional love, but working alongside us, performing tasks suited to the inherent physical and mental traits of their breeds.
Throughout the history of canine companionship, humans have shaped and altered the physical appearance and attributes of dogs to make them most suitable to perform a specific task. By isolating desirable characteristics, such as size and weight, body and face shape, muscular structure, prey drive, coat texture, length, and color, humans have successfully created more than 300 distinct and unique breeds.
However, with the popularity of conformation and breed judging, many breeds began to be bred for physical appearance alone, with certain physical characteristics, even those that are a hindrance to performing the jobs they were once bred for, becoming more desirable and more important than the health, vitality, and quality of life of the dog.
In 1915, W.E. Mason compiled and wrote Dogs of All Nations, a book that detailed every variety of dog that was, at the time, being bred true to type and for certain attributes, most usually to perform a specific task.
Now, over 100 years later, many of the breeds described and illustrated in his book are barely recognizable due to breeding to enhance particular characteristics. Many of these once healthy, vibrant breeds now suffer genetic health complications, breathing problems, bone and muscular dysfunction, and more – all as a result of these breed “improvements.” With help from Science and Dogs, take a look at how your favorite breeds have changed in the last 100 years.
One hundred years ago, the Bull Terrier was quite different in appearance from today’s breed standard. Muscular and athletic, but slender at the waist, with a flat, wide, gently sloping skull, Bull Terriers were the embodiment of agility, grace, and determination, and were considered one of the easiest breeds to train and control.
Today’s Bull Terrier has a very distinct egg-shaped head and a thicker, no longer slender, abdomen. They commonly suffer from musculoskeletal issues like patellar luxation, heart and allergy complications, and, most commonly, compulsive behaviors.
Chow Chows of 100 years ago were bred with a medium or short, dense coat and a long, straight muzzle. An ancient Chinese breed, Chows served as a hunting, pointing or birding dogs for nobles.
Today, the Chow is drastically different, with a long, thick and dense coat and, most noticeably, a very short muzzle. Modern Chows have such deep-set eyes that their peripheral vision is greatly reduced. The breed are predisposed to certain musculoskeletal issues including hip and elbow dysplasia, gastric torsion (or bloat), and a variety of genetic eye disorders.
While Basset Hounds of one hundred years ago were similar in appearance, with short forelegs relatively long ears, and an elongated body, today’s Bassets are far more exaggerated than their ancestors.
Today’s Bassets have much shorter back legs, very long ears, excessively loose skin, and longer backs. Because of their enhanced physical traits, Basset Hounds very commonly suffer from osteochondritis dissecans, a painful joint disease that affects shoulders, elbows, and knees, as well as other serious musculoskeletal dysfunctions. Excess skin, especially on the face, has left these dogs with drooping lower eyelids and eyes that are prone to a variety of painful and serious eye conditions. The breed also requires extra care to prevent ear infection.
Boxers of 100 years ago were bred with longer rear legs and a longer muzzle. They were strong, athletic, and showed great endurance.
Today’s Boxer, however, has a muzzle so shortened they’ve been classified as bracecyphalic, or short-faced. Not only are modern Boxer’s shorter-faced, their muzzle is slightly upturned. The shortened muzzle leads to a host of complications including breathing issues and and difficulty regulating body temperature. These inherent issues have placed limitations on the breed’s ability to perform, particularly in warm and hot weather. A very deep chest and slim waist makes the breed susceptible to gastric torsion (bloat). Boxers are also one of the breeds that most often develop cancer.
One of the greatest examples of breeding for specific characteristics gone wrong, the English Bulldog today barely resembles his healthy, agile, and functional ancestors.
Modern Bulldogs suffer a host of diseases and complications as a result of breeding to enhance certain characteristics. Narrow nostrils and a longer soft palate creates the potential for severe breathing problems. Because of this, Bulldogs are highly susceptible to heat exhaustion. It literally requires incredible effort for the Bulldog to simply breathe normally.
Some of the major health problems the Bulldog is susceptible to are keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), ventricular septal defect, hip dysplasia, shoulder and patellar luxation, internalized tail, eye and skin problems, and many more. Many Bulldogs are physically unable to mate or to give birth without medical intervention.
Dachshunds of a century ago were considered to be much more functional, with longer legs and less elongated backs than their modern counterparts. Low to the ground and slender, Doxies were bred and used for chasing and exterminating badgers and hunting rabbits and foxes.
In addition to having their ears and muzzles elongated, modern Dachshunds have longer necks, longer backs, and shorter legs than their ancestral cousins. As a result of these characteristics, Dachshunds are at huge risk for intervertebral disc disease, and are susceptible to spinal damage and resulting paralysis.
Like the English Bulldog, the German Shepherd is another breed that has suffered greatly at the hands of breeders of the last century. Once a medium-sized dog, about 55-pounds, with a straight back and long, sturdy legs, the modern German Shepherd Dog is drastically different in size, appearance, and gait.
Today’s GSD’s are much larger in size and stature, considered a large breed at about 85-pounds. Their backs, no longer straight, are extremely sloped. Their rear legs, which once stood tall and sturdy, now appear as though the back legs are always bent at the knee. As a result of musculoskeletal changes, German Shepherds are highly susceptible to hip and elbow dysplasia, gastric torsion, and a host of other genetically predisposed health issues.
Pugs of a century ago were smaller than today’s Pugs, with more proportionate legs and a less extreme flatness to the face.
According to Science and Dogs, the Pug is another extreme brachycephalic breed and it has all the problems associated with that trait – high blood pressure, heart problems, low oxygenation, difficulty breathing, tendency to overheat, dentition problems, and skin fold dermatitis. The highly desirable double-curl tail is actually a genetic defect, in more serious forms it leads to paralysis.
St. Bernards have always been large in size and stature, but the face shape and coat have changed quite a bit over the last century. Once bred for working, today’s St. Bernards are seldom put to work as their shortened face and muzzle makes breathing and regulating body temperature too big a burden.
Modern day St. Bernards suffer from major health problems including canine hip and elbow dysplasia, gastric torsion, osteosarcoma, serious eye conditions, and other genetic issues. They can also be prone heart conditions, diabetes, seizures, and skin conditions.
Commonly referred to as the Sheltie, Shetland Sheepdogs of 100 years ago were much smaller than their modern descendents, usually weighing between 7 and 10 pounds. Also unlike modern Shelties, they had only medium length fur and a wider, shorter muzzle.
Bred to be considerably larger, today’s Shetland Sheepdogs weigh around 20 pounds and have much longer fur. Parents of modern Shelties are advised to routinely check the health of their dog’s eyes, hips, and thyroid, as the breed is now genetically predisposed to certain diseases and ailments in these areas. Breeding has also created what is known as a “double-merle” in this breed, an often lethal result of breeding two merle coated dogs together which almost always results in blindness, deafness (or both), and other serious health issues.
Although many modern dog breeds are drastically different than their ancestors, that isn’t to say that all breeding is bad and must be stopped. Reputable breeders will consider their dog’s health and vitality above breeding for extreme physical characteristics. However, until conformation and breed judging includes health and genetics as part of their criteria, we’ll likely continue to see drastic, life-threatening changes to our favorite breeds over the next 100 years.