Here Comes the Plott Hound

How new breeds make it into the Westminster dog show.

Bling, a Bedlington Terrier. Click image to expand.
A Bedlington terrier competes in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Four breeds of dogs will be competing for the first time in this year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: the Tibetan mastiff, the Beauceron, the Swedish vallhund, and the Plott hound. What does it take for a new breed to enter the competition?

Lots of organization and lots of dogs. To get a new breed into the canine pageant, its fanciers must petition the American Kennel Club, the organization in charge of the show. The club keeps a registry of recognized dog breeds in the United States and sets the rules for adding new ones. (Including the four named above, the club recognizes 157 types of dog; in contrast, the world canine organization, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, recognizes more than 300 breeds.) Approval for a new breed takes several years and depends on the total number of dogs in a given breed and the collaborative effort of its fanciers.

First, the fanciers list the breed on the AKC’s Foundation Stock Service, a record of purebreds that aren’t yet eligible to compete in the organization’s shows. To do this, owners and breeders must form a breed-specific club and come up with a breed standard—a written description of the animals’ temperament and physical characteristics. They must also register their pooches by listing the parentage of each dog. The FSS list today includes 61 breeds, like the Spanish water dog and the Catahoula leopard dog.

Then the fanciers must show that the breed club has more than 100 members, that there are at least 300 dogs in the United States with a pedigree going back three generations, and that the dogs are located throughout the country (as opposed to in just one region). It takes a while for some breeds to reach the necessary population size. The black Russian terrier, for example, was bred as a guard dog by the Soviet army; very few owners can handle the dogs’ strong personalities. Once a breed meets these requirements, the dogs can start to compete in some AKC events as members of the “miscellaneous class.”

Finally, a breed can earn full recognition after it’s reached a certain level of show activity—usually one to three years in the miscellaneous class. It took the Tibetan mastiff just two years to move from the miscellaneous category to the recognized registry, but other breeds don’t make as smooth a transition. Fanciers may fight over whether their breed should even seek AKC approval, for fear of making the dogs too popular and so attracting unscrupulous breeders. The Cavalier King Charles spaniel spent about 30 years on the miscellaneous list for this reason; it was eventually recognized in 1995 by the AKC despite protests from its club. The Redbone coonhound has remained in the miscellaneous class for about five years because members of the breed’s club are mostly interested in performance events, which don’t require full status, as opposed to conformation events (i.e., dog shows), which do. There was even a coup in the case of the Australian shepherd a few decades ago; one faction secretly—and successfully—applied for AKC recognition.

It’s also possible for the same breed to have two competing clubs. In that case, the fanciers might argue over which one gets to represent the breed in the AKC. This has complicated things for the Jack Russell, which actually wound up as two breeds in the AKC: the Russell terrier, which hasn’t even made it to the miscellaneous class yet, and the Parson Russell terrier, which was recognized in 1997. Decisions about the breed standard also incite some serious kennel club politicking; in the case of the Dogue de Bordeaux, which will be fully recognized this summer, the fanciers couldn’t agree on whether to include physical flaws in the official description of the dogs. (Standards changes are always contentious, even for fully recognized dogs, since it means that some dogs will no longer be show-quality. The Chihuahua Club of America has been embroiled in a debate over whether to disqualify dogs with a blue merle color pattern; the pug’s organization wants to allow only dogs with fawn or black color.)

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mary Curtis and Cecilia Charles of the Black Russian Terrier Club of America, Martha Feltenstein of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, Mari-Beth O’Neill of the American Kennel Club, Darlene Petralia of the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, and Bruce Sussman of the Glen of Imaal Terrier Club of America.