One of the most interesting things about trying to classify different dogs in terms of their ancestry and relationship to other extant breeds is how much cultural prejudices come into play.
I can’t think of a better example than the Rottweiler.
In North America, Rottweilers are “tough guy dogs.” In the 1990′s, they were the second most popular breed in terms of AKC registrations. And there were plenty of nasty Rottweilers running about attacking people– even though uncontrollable aggression is actually a major fault in this breed.
If you were to ask they average North American what the Rottweiler’s closest relatives are, I’m sure you’d get someone saying that they are definitely related to “pit bulls.” Others might say boxers.
Still others– who are bit more informed– would say Dobermanns. Of course, this is kind of right. Dobermanns are thought to have a tiny bit of Rottweiler ancestry.
But that doesn’t mean that the Rottweiler is most closely related to the Dobermann.
If Dobermanns have just at bit of Rottweiler ancestry, the bulk of their ancestry is actually non-Rottweiler.
Furthermore, classifying Dobermanns is very difficult. As a modern breed with a wide variety of ancestors, it is virtually impossible to get them to fit into any sort of grouping of related breeds. Some claim that they are molossers, but others claim they are the biggest of all pinschers.
So let’s leave the Dobermann out of our analysis, and look at what the genetic literature says about the ancestry of Rottweilers.
Rottweilers were included in the 48,000 SNP study that revealed that dogs were most closely related to Middle Eastern wolves.
It also looked at dog breed relationships, and the results were a bit surprising. Retrievers and Newfoundland were closely related, but they didn’t fit with the other gun dog breeds. They fit with what might be called a “mountain dog clade” that includes the St. Bernard, the Great Dane, and the Bernese mountain dog.
And according to this study, the closest relative of the Rottweiler is the Great Dane.
It is also closely related to two Swiss “mountain dogs”: the Bernese mountain dog and the St. Bernard.
The relationship with the Great Dane suggests that the ancestral German boarhound was drawn out of the common working “mastiff” of Europe.
Throughout Europe, there were always mastiff-type dogs hauling carts. The ancestral type of this sort of dog would have probably looked like a trekhond or “Belgian mastiff.” These dogs varied greatly in appearance, but even in Belgium, some looked more like Great Danes and others like Rottweilers or Swiss mountain dogs.
My guess is that if the Rottweiler’s genetic material were compared to the other Swiss mountain dogs– of which there are four breeds– the Rottweiler would fit nicely in that family of dogs.
Two of these mountain dogs (Sennenhund) were primarily used as cattle-herding dogs, which was one of the original functions of the Rottweiler. These two dogs are smaller than the Rottweiler, but they originated in areas of Switzerland that are adjacent to Germany.
Furthermore, Rotweil was actually part of the Swiss Confederacy. It was never accepted into the full nation of Switzerland, but the city remained closely linked to Switzerland, which lies just to the south.
My guess is that trade between Rottweil and Switzerland meant that the Sennenhund-type of dog would eventually become established in Rottweil. The dogs may have driven herds of Swiss cattle into the slaughterhouses of Rottweil.
Rottweilers became associated with the butcher shops of their hometown, for the butchers needed dogs that could herd cattle.
Yes, I mean herd. Rottweilers are herding dogs. They are actually a well-known droving breed.
This differs very much from boxers and dogs of the bulldog family. These dogs may have started out as herders, but as time progressed, their main function was to grip and bait cattle.
And you’ll note on that phylogenetic tree that the bulldog and English mastiff family is very different from this mountain dog clade.
This should tell us that mastiff-type dogs have been derived from different stocks and at different times. The old claim that they all descend from the Tibetan mastiff has yet to be proved and is very unlikely.
People need to be careful when trying to classify dog breeds. There is actually quite a bit of convergent evolution through artificial selection in dogs, which is why we have rose-eared greyhounds having virtually no common ancestry with tazi/Saluki/Afghan hound family. Dachshunds are not closely related to terriers from the British Isles, even though they have a similar function.
If one didn’t know Rottweil’s history, it would be easy to make the claim that Rottweilers were German pit bulls or giant black and tan boxers.
They are actually derived from the working mastiff-dogs of that region.
They are not in the bulldog family.