Where Do Breed Names Come From?

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My breed of choice, Australian Shepherds, didn't actually originate in Australia. Although there is much debate concerning the origins of the breed, the most generally accepted theory is that the ancestors of the first Australian Shepherds came to the United States during the western gold rush of the mid-1800s with Basque sheep herders from their homeland in Europe. Flocks of sheep were imported from Australia to feed the miners. Because the sheep came from Australia, the dogs were assumed to have originated there as well, and the name stuck.

Most dog breed names have more logical origins than do the Aussies. Many really are named for their country of origin, such as German Shepherds, German Shorthaired Pointers, Welsh Corgis, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Afghan Hounds. Rottweilers weren't named after a country; they got their name from a town, Rottweil, in western Germany. It's said that when the breed was in decline, a few surviving Rottweilers were found in this town and they became the foundation of a new era for the breed. Alaskan Malamutes, the strongest sled dog breed, are named for an Innuit tribe, the Malimiuts, in Alaska. The Chukchi people of Siberia first bred Siberian Huskies.

Some breeds get their name from physical characteristics. Papillons are an excellent example: The word papillon is French for "butterfly," and the breed's large upright ears, fringed with flowing silky hair, resembles the wings of a large butterfly. Basset Hounds got their name from their short legs; bas in French means, "low slung." German Shorthaired Pointers and German Wirehaired Pointers are differentiated by the differences in their coat types, and this is reflected in their names.

Some breeds were named for the person who originally developed the breed. One story is that the Scottish Duke Alexander IV of Gordon created Gordon Setters in the 1600s. The most famous instance of a breed being named after a man has got to be Doberman Pinschers. In the mid to late 1800s, Ludwig Dobermann created an intelligent working breed from German Shepherds, Great Danes and Pinschers. This breed eventually carried his name.

Breed names have been known to change, too. In most instances records simply show the change in name but don't tell us why it occurred. The Old English Sheepdog was originally known as the English Old-Fashioned Bobtail Sheepdog. One could surmise that the change was to shorten that long mouthful of a name. Maltese were originally known as Maltese Terriers, but became simply Maltese in the early 1900s. In this instance, perhaps the "terrier" was dropped because the Maltese was being shown in the American Kennel Club as a toy dog rather than a terrier.

One of the biggest name changes, and the most controversial, was with German Shepherd Dogs. German Shepherds originated in Germany, as their name suggests, and were developed to be an all-purpose working dog. They rapidly gained popularity with law enforcement and military personnel and were exported to other countries as premier working dogs. During and after World War I, many British dog enthusiasts and working dog handlers owned or were working German Shepherds, but the anti-German sentiment of the time carried through to anything German -- even the dogs. So German Shepherds in Britain were renamed Alsatian after the French region of Alsace Lorraine, which bordered on Germany. Although the name German Shepherd has re-surfaced, many British dog enthusiasts still recognize the breed as Alsatian.

As with so much of human history, much canine history has been lost. Written records have been damaged, and verbal histories have been forgotten. It's a shame, because some of the histories we do know are fascinating. It would be wonderful if we knew how some of our favorite breeds came into being and how they were named. But than again, mysteries are fun, too.