What is a Landrace Dog Breed?
To begin with, what is a dog breed? We often answer this question with a list of breeds recognized by an organization such as the AKC. However, the simplest definition comes from the global Food and Agricultural Organization, which once said a breed is what a group of people in a specific area say a breed is. This definition also comes very close to describing the term landrace as it applies to dog breeds. The common definition of landrace breed is a locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal that has developed over time, both through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism and through isolation from other populations of the same species.
Historically, my breed, the Kangal Dog, is an old landrace breed. It is still not a modern, highly standardized breed. Kangal Dogs are also not cookie cutter dogs, who appear remarkably physically alike. The Kangal Dog was selected by humans over time to perform a valued function through specific traits in a geographically area, not to adhere to a strict written standard of appearance created by a kennel club. In this case, the Kangal Dog was selected by shepherds as a livestock guardian working within specific pastoral practices and in a certain geographic area. Its most important feature was – did it have the required behavioral, physical, and temperamental characteristics to effectively guard livestock? Function is the reason for the breed’s very existence.
Landrace breeds, whether livestock or dogs, are generally more diverse in appearance than standardized breeds because function and hardiness are always more important than a very specific appearance. Different distinctive physical types, sometimes highly regional, also very frequently exist within the same landrace breed. Pedigrees may exist in either oral or written form but there is no organized group guiding the selection of dogs based on a written standard or central registry of pedigrees.
Function in a working livestock guardian does guide physical appearance. A LGD must be swift, agile, powerful, and hardy enough to live outdoors and work long hours. Working livestock guardians are not overly massive or heavy, which would limit this ability. They are also not overly small because they must be able to confront large predators. A durable and weatherproof coat is also functional since these dogs must live and work outside in all seasons. Shepherds may have strong preferences for general appearance, generally to help identify the dogs but sometimes related to the stock they are asked to protect.
The transition to a standardized breed begins when an organization or association decides on a standard description of its breed. Dogs who meet this newly written standard are entered in a registry. Eventually only dogs bred from registered, pedigreed parents can be entered, whereupon the registry is closed. The resulting animals, bred from two registered parents, are considered purebred. It is possible to preserve different types within a standardized breed but frequently only one type emerges as the ideal image of the breed. The loss of different types within a breed is also, unfortunately, linked to loss of genetic diversity.
The reality of human nature means there are often disagreements about preferred type or types within a breed. Different groups will have strong opinions about a single “correct” type. Opinions about type also change over time, just as standards are rewritten over time. Splits can occur between “working” and “show” types in a breed. Disagreements can also lead to the formation of different clubs and different written standards, which we see across livestock and dog breeds. Interestingly, as we have seen in many livestock breeds, these different clubs often come back together over time and embrace a more inclusive standard and acceptance of different types within the breed, rather than see their breed split into separate small groups with little ability to have a strong voice for their breed or possessing a healthy genetic pool.
A standardized breed can also change when breeders begin to select for a different function, behavior, or temperament; fail to continue selecting for a working function; or begin to select for a very specific appearance. Working breeds can easily lose their functional abilities if breeders choose to emphasize appearance over other traits. Unfortunately, specific physical traits can also be overemphasized, leading to extremes in appearance that are often counterproductive to good working abilities or health.
A standardized breed can develop genetically based health issues unless great care is given to maintaining a diverse gene pool. Using too few dogs or lines for breeding or favoring popular sires contributes to this problem even in very popular breeds. However, it can be devastating in a rare breed, resulting in a high level of inbreeding.
One way to prevent this is by consciously choosing to maintain diversity in appearance and types within the breed by purposefully breeding and preserving different examples of types or appearances. Livestock geneticists highly advise the use of a broad range of sires rather than just those with a very specific appearance or production trait. The same is true for dogs. This is the reason that care needs to be taken to write a standard for the breed that encompasses this traditional diversity in appearance, size, and type.
Another extremely powerful way to foster a healthy genetic pool for a breed is to maintain an “open” registry. An open registry continues to admit unregistered dogs that meet the breed standard. Some working dog organizations do have open registries and accept diverse appearances and types. This infusion of new genetics is essential to fostering a healthy gene pool while still maintaining the traditional breed function and appearance.
Photo credit: Chomar by Banks Mountain Farm