Rare Breeds

Canine rarities

Mountain Feist.
Vizsla, Australian Kelpie, Patterdale Terrier, Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, Treeing Walker Coonhound, Plott Hound.

Which of these dogs is recognized by the American Kennel Club? The United Kennel Club? Which is a rare breed? And why do we need rare breeds anyway?

AKC publishes a list of its top 10 breeds every year. In 1999, these breeds were, in order from one to 10 with their registration numbers for the year: Labrador Retriever (154,897); Golden Retriever (62,652); German Shepherd (57,256); Dachshund (50,772); Beagle (49,080); Poodle (45,852); Chihuahua (42,013); Rottweiler (41,776); and Yorkshire Terrier (40,684).

Most people familiar with dogs can recognize the top 10 breeds along with Dalmatians, Boston Terriers, Bloodhounds, and a few others with distinctive appearances. However, the bottom 10 AKC-registered breeds are unlikely to be familiar to more than a few dog owners let alone members of the general public. These breeds and their 1999 registrations are: Sussex Spaniel (86); Ibizan Hound (71); Dandie Dinmont Terrier (69); Sealyham Terrier (65); Canaan Dog (61); Finnish Spitz (58); Polish Lowland Sheepdog (54); American Foxhound (49); English Foxhound (40); Harrier (24); and Otterhound (17).

Few families ever see dogs of these breeds. They are tough to find at dog shows, and even though many of them make fine pets and performance dogs, they have so few litters each year – the Otterhound had only two registered litters last year – that puppies are very hard to find and even harder to buy outside the fraternity of breed fanciers.

Some of these breeds have reservoirs of populations outside the show dog fancy. Foxhounds that work at hunt clubs and Harriers kept as hunting dogs are not necessarily part of the registered numbers, but they are working dogs not likely to be available to pet owners. The Greyhound (in the bottom 20 of AKC breeds with 146 individuals and 24 litters in 1999(1)) is another breed that has a split population with a few dogs bred for the show ring and a completely different set of dogs bred to race.


“Rare” in “rare breeds” connotes nothing more than scarcity; it does not make a dog more valuable. Owners of rare breeds often sell their puppies for prices similar to those charged by breeders of popular breeds but they may be zealously protective of their breed and may question potential owners for their willingness to join a local or national breed club, exhibit the dog in conformation or obedience competitions, produce a litter if the dog is a top example of the breed, and become an ambassador for responsible breed ownership. (All responsible breeders carefully place their dogs in new homes, but breeders of rare breeds are even more finicky about where their pups go because they are guardians of a small gene pool and need to make sure that all breedable dogs are kept intact and that buyers understand the consequences of owning a pet that is also the repository of genes from that limited pool.)

Longevity is not necessarily an indication that a breed is common – or even relatively so. If 500 registrations and 100 litters are taken as arbitrary guidelines to determine rarity, 49 AKC breeds met the criteria last year. If 1000 dogs and 200 litters are used, 66 breeds met the criteria. Many of these rare breeds have long histories; of the bottom 10, the foxhounds date at least to the early 1800s, the Ibizan Hound can be traced back to dogs in ancient Egypt, and the Otterhound is mentioned in writings of 14th Century England. The Sussex Spaniel dates to the mid 1800s, and the Dandie Dinmont Terrier to the early part of that century. Among this group, only the Canaan Dog is a new breed, but it hails from feral camp dogs that have been around for centuries in the Middle East.

Why all the fuss?

Dog breeds developed in all parts of the world to do all kinds of jobs from bed warming in palaces and peasant huts, hunting vermin in farm pantries and barns, and driving livestock to market to hauling freight, watching over nomad camps, and retrieving quarry for hunters. The size, coat, color, temperament, and skills of the breed depended not only on the job to be performed but the environment in which it would be carried out.

Most dog breeds were developed in isolated regions, before inter-city and inter-regional travel were commonplace. Thus different types of dogs were developed in different areas even though they did the same job. Although the jobs of many breeds have disappeared and the jobs of others have changed, dogs of many breeds created as hunting companions still work in the field as hunting companions and hunt trial competitors. Because each breed was developed from local stock to work in local terrain, cover, and weather, this vast group of spaniels, retrievers, setters, hounds, terriers, and other breeds and types of dogs includes many coats, colors, and skills dependent upon the region of origin, the type of quarry to be tracked and retrieved, and the preferences and prejudices of their creators. In other words, the Pointer of England is different than the pointers of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and the breeds developed to hunt deer or wolves are different than the breeds developed to hunt rabbits or foxes or pheasants.

For different reasons at different times and places, some breeds caught the fancy of some individuals or groups of people. If the Queen of England(2) or the King of France(3) took a shine to a breed, its popularity was assured, at least in the short term. Breeds also waxed and waned in popularity as social and economic conditions changed, as new international markets opened, and as armies and pioneers conquered new lands.(4) Today dogs are rarely used to pull carts of goods to market, gather fishing nets, rescue drowning sailors, guard the king’s forests from poachers, or keep kitchens and shops free of vermin, so many breeds that had those jobs have faded almost into oblivion. Some rare breeds were never widespread in their country of origin or in the US, but they are loved and appreciated by core groups of show dog breeders or by admirers who want to maintain their working abilities.

In recognition of the dedication of breeders and the skills of uncommon breeds, UKC already lists many of these obscure dogs among its more than 300 breeds. Esoteric names such as Coton de Tulear, Caucasian Ovcharka, Krasky Ovcar, Braque du Bourbonnais, and Basset Bleu de Gascogne grace the UKC breed list.

AKC has recently started the Foundation Stock Service, a program to help breeders of rare breeds to initiate the process for breed recognition by the registry. This list can be located on the AKC website; it includes the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, the Belgian Lakenois, Black Russian Terrier, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier, Peruvian Inca Orchid, Sloughi, and many more.

Although the popular breeds reached that status because they have characteristics that endear them to many families or meet some other need for large numbers of people, the rare breeds shouldn’t be left out of consideration simply because they are uncommon. (On the other hand, they should not be chosen simply because they are uncommon either.)

As the world gets smaller, rare breeds of dogs become more accessible to the average American. The thrill of owning an unusual dog, the surge of pride that comes when a stranger stops to admire the animal, and the warm feeling of being one of the elite when expounding on the history and value of the Argentine Dogo, Japanese Shiba, or Catahoula Leopard Dog on the end of the leash captivates those who search for the unusual.

The chance to be in the spotlight with a rare breed is irresistible to many. Its a good thing, for without those folks, many breeds of dogs would be found only in history books.

There are more than 300 breeds of dogs in the world. Fewer than 150 are recognized by the American Kennel Club and an additional handful are fully recognized by the United Kennel Club. Many of the AKC breeds can be considered rare, but since they are part of the "official" dog scene, they are seldom so categorized. Yet those who own Sussex Spaniels, Otterhounds, American or English foxhounds, Harriers, or any of a couple of dozen other AKC breeds realize that they have a precious treasure in their kennels and homes.

UKC registers some breeds that AKC does not. Toy Fox Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers,and Jack Russell Terriers participate in UKC conformation shows.

Many breeds not registered by AKC are truly rare. Others are merely unusual. The Shar Pei, recently recognized as the 134th breed, was rare but it is no longer. Forty years ago, the Akita was recovering in its native Japan and rare in the US; today it is the 37th most popular AKC registered breed. The Shiba Inu, another Japanese import, is gaining popularity for its medium size and its resemblance to the Akita.

The Dogue de Bordeaux developed a following after one of the breed appeared in a movie, and a number of Eastern European breeds have arrived in the US to seek their fortunes after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The Caucasian Ovtcharka from the USSR, the Polski Owczarek Nizinny and the Tatra Sheepdog from Poland, and the Slovak Tchouvatch and Cesky Terrier from Czechoslovakia are beginning to be noticed by American breeders.

South America has contributed the Argentine Dogo and the Fila Brasiliero from Brazil. Portugal's Castro Laboreiro; France's Pyrenean Shepherd and Beauceron; Mexico's Xoloitzcuintli; Israel's Canaan Dog; the Lapphund, Vallhund, Buhund and Karelian Bear Dog from Scandinavia and our own Chinook are also gaining attention.

Perhaps the most unusual of the rare breeds are the New Guinea Singing Dog and the Malaysia's Telomian Dog. These primitive breeds were discovered in remote jungle countries, and they may contribute to our understanding of the development of the dog as a domestic animal.

The New Guinea Singing Dog is similar to the Dingo of Australia, and may have been a progenitor of that canine. The singing dog probably developed from the extinct Tengger Dog of Java, an ancestor of the Shiba, Akita, Chow Chow, and other Oriental breeds.

Each of these dogs was developed in its native land for a purpose. They watched or herded the flocks, hunted a variety of prey from vermin to bears, kept a watchful eye on the homestead, provided draft power for early civlizations, or were employed in a combination of those jobs. Not only do they maintain these skills today, but they tend to be healthy and hardy, with little contamination by the genetic abnormalities that plague the more popular breeds.

Many of these breeds have a small, active corps of breeders and fanciers dedicated to preserving the gene pool. In some cases, the breed club tightly controls the breeding plan, assuring that only the best examples of the breed is reproduced.

But there is irony here; the dogs will only be saved if people know about them, buy them, and breed them, but popularity exacts a price. Genetic abnormalities begin to creep into a breed, owners decide they'd like to show off their breeding programs in the show ring, and breeding for show can lead to production of dogs that do well on exhibit but have lost the purpose for which they were developed.

For example, the AKC registers more than a dozen breeds of herding dogs but the only working sheepdog breeds in the US are the two whose parent clubs have fought AKC recognition in order to preserve the working qualities of their dogs. The Australian Shepherd breed club lost its fight. A splinter group of Aussie owners petitioned the AKC, and the breed was admitted to the registry. Border Collie clubs have mounted an active campaign to keep their breed out of AKC.

Finally, after years of work by owners of herding breeds, AKC has added herding trials to its repertoire, and attempts are underway to develop the herding instincts of the AKC registered breeds. Those who consider owning a rare breed must make their selection carefully, for many of these dogs may not make ideal family pets. And owners should be committed to the preservation of the breed, not just to the prestige of owning and breeding a rare treasure. The deterioration of the most popular breeds because of indiscriminate puppy mill and backyard breeding is deplorable and it is critical that rare breeds avoid this calamity.

The following capsule description of some rare breeds will give an idea of size, original purpose, and temperament.

To search for a rare breed, check out the AKC Complete Dog Book; the Simon & Schuster Guide to Dogs; The Perfect Match by Chris Walkowicz; Your Purebred Puppy by Michelle Lowell; various issues of the AKC Gazette and UKC’s Bloodlines; and browse the AKC and UKC websites for breed clubs. Be patient; unless a breeder happens to live in your area, it can be difficult to locate one who has puppies planned or on the way. Some people wait a year or more to get one of these dogs from a responsible breeder.

For further information on these and other breeds, contact the American Rare Breed Association, PO Box 75134, Washington, DC 20013; (202) 722-1232, and read Cathy Flamholtz's book A Celebration of Rare breeds. Capsule descriptions of dozens of rare breeds are included in Simon & Schuster's Guide to Dogs.

The following capsule description of some rare breeds will give an idea of size, original purpose, and temperament.

American Eskimo is a member of the Spitz family and resembles a fox-faced miniature Samoyed. They come in two sizes, 15-19 inches and 18-35 pounds, and 11- 14 inches and 10-20 pounds. They are agile, intelligent, and eager to please, but they can be yappy and demanding.

Beauceron is a large, powerful shepherd dog from France that looks somewhat like a Doberman Pinscher. It ranges from 25-27.5 inches at the shoulder and is either black and tan or harlequin in color. It is alert, courageous, intelligent, and strong and serves as a police dog as well as a herd dog.

Canaan Dog is a medium-sized dog weighing 40-55 pounds and reaching 20-24 inches at the shoulder. It is usually white with black markings or sandy in color. A native of Israel, it exists as a feral population and a domestic working dog in its homeland. The strong-willed Canaan is alert, independent, and territorial. Obedience training is necessary.

Akbash Dog is an ancient flock guardian from Turkey, measuring from 28-32 inches at the shoulder and weighing from 90-120 pounds. Females are a bit small than males. They are white and are probably related to a number of other large, guradian dogs from Europe and Asia Minor. They are graceful and impressive in appearance and are loyal, intelligent, and independent in temperament.

Catahoula Leopard Dog is a native American developed as a hunter in Louisiana. Medium-sized, it measures 20-26 inches at the shoulder and weighs up to 90 pounds. The breed name comes from its unique leopard-spot pattern overlaid on a background of almost any color or marking. The Cat is affectionate, devoted to children, and a good watchdog.

Argentine Dogo is a composite dog developed in Argentina in the early 20th Century from 10 different breeds. Boxers, Great Pyrenees, Pointers, Irish Wolfhounds, and others were crossed on the basic bulldog stock of the Cordova for courage and the Great Dane to temper aggression and add height. A big game hunter, he also serves as a protective guardian and household pet. He is white, stands 24- 27 inches at the shoulder, and weighs 80-100 pounds. Obedience training is necessary.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a small dog, weighing 13-18 pounds and standing 12-13 inches tall. It is a happy, affectionate, friendly pet originally bred as a companion to royalty.

Chinook is often considered the rarest breed. In 1986, only 82 individuals remained, and only 17 females and 28 males were considered suitable for breeding. Developed to pull sleds during Alaska's gold rush days, the Chinook is hardy, intelligent, and durable. It is a medium-sized dog weighing from 50-95 pounds with bitches smaller than males.

Dogue de Bordeaux , the French mastiff, is a large dog weighing at least 100 pounds and standing 23-26 inches tall. He is agile for his size, loyal, and protective. Because of his calm demeanor, he can be kept in an apartment.

Finnish Spitz is a lively dog with a big dog character in a small dog body. It is alert and independent but loves attention and needs lots of exercise. He weighs 23-30 pounds and varies in color from pale gold to deep red.

Australian Kelpie is an alert, active herding dog from down under. It needs lots of exercise if it doesn't have a flock to herd. A medium-sized, muscular dog, the Kelpie measures 17-20 inches at the shoulder. He comes in a variety of colors, including solid black, solid red, fawn, red and tan and black and tan.

Swedish Vallhund is a low-slung cattle herder and watchdog weighing less than 30 pounds and standing 12-16 inches at the shoulder. It is active and energetic and needs lots of exercise.

Telomian was discovered in the wilds of Malaysia and brought to the US in 1963 by scientists who controlled the breeding program in the breed's early years here. Considered to be the "missing link" between the Basenji and the Australian Dingo, the Telomian is similar to the Basenji in appearance and temperament. A watchdog, hunter, and companion to the aborigines in Malaysia, it is an affectionate pet, agile and adept at climbing, and a good watchdog. Obedience training is recommended as the dog can be difficult to train.

New Guinea Singing Dog was discovered in a feral state in its native land in the 1950s. Developed as both a hunter and as a source of meat for the natives, the Singing Dog is independent, an escape artist, and a fierce fighter. Although they are gentle, playful, and friendly with people, few will tolerate an adult dog of the same gender. Their name derives from their whale-like singing done each morning and evening. Ranging from 13-17 inches tall, the Singing Dog is colored in shades of red, tan, brown, or black, with white markings.

* The Miscellaneous Group is a catch-all category of dog breeds not granted full recognition by AKC. Breeds enter this group prior to achieving full recognition and assignment to one of the registry's seven accepted groups.


1. 146 dogs, 24 litters in 1999 – AKC Gazette, March 2000, Volume117, Number Three

2. Queen Victoria was among the many royal admirers of the Italian Greyhound, and she greatly loved her little Pomeranian. Elizabeth II, Britain’s current queen, is very fond of Pembroke Welsh Corgis.

3. King Louis XIV of France was an early admirer of the Papillon; King Henry III loved the Bichon Frisé.

4. Purebred dogs were frequently given to kings, queens, generals, and noblemen and ladies of the court as gifts to cement new-found friendships between nations. In many cases, these breeds became established in their new land, were recognized by national registries, and began careers as show or working do.


Norma Bennett Woolf

This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.

We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!

Contact us