The dog in the depiction above is Major.
Historians at the University of Manchester believe he was the first “purebred” dog in the sense we understand it today.
The Daily Mail reports:
A Pointer called Major has been identified by historians as the first ‘pedigree’ dog.
The team, from the University of Manchester, found a description of the dog in an 1865 edition of the Victorian journal, The Field.
It is believed that this was the first time that an attempt had been made to define a dog breed standard based on the animal’s physical form.
John Henry Walsh, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Stonehenge’, paved the way for the pedigree dog breeds we know today by creating a system of giving scores for different parts of the dog’s body.
His aim was to solve the bitter disputes that were brewing over the seemingly arbitrary decisions of judges at dog shows which could see a dog win a class one week and then come last the next.
Before the 1860s, types of dogs were defined by what they did, not how they looked.
Pointers were gun dogs, valued and bred for their ability to find game and, though a recognisable type, came in a variety of sizes and colours. But in the show ring they were expected to have a defined shape that aspired to the ideal set out in the breed standard.
Major signalled a new age where dogs were increasingly bred for their form and from their pedigree.
The emphasis on conformation to breed types spread rapidly to other countries, where British dog shows were emulated and British dogs imported as foundational breed stock.
Major was in essence a type specimen on which a breed standard was drawn.
Breed standards were created to stop two real problems that happened in the early fancy: fights over what the one true type was and to maintain continuity of type, which changed rapidly from year to year to meet the caprices of the judges.
Now, it’s certainly true that dogs that belong to a closed registry breed that have a defined standard do indeed change type rather rapidly, but before breed standards were invented, they changes were dramatic. One year only black and tan drop-eared collies could win, then then next only those with Roman noses and prick ears and sable coats could.
The pointer is derived from pointing breeds from Spain that entered the British Isles following the Spanish War of Succession.
They became popular among the landed gentry, who often crossed the dogs with foxhounds to add speed and endurance.
And because they were the possessions of the gentry, they became bred for style.
It certainly true that the dogs were bred for work, but they were also bred to look nice while they were working.
The average person had no use for this animal. In Britain, the pointer was only ever expected to point. They were never trained to do anything else, which is one reason why virtually all English pointers, even trial stock bred in the US, are not particularly well-disposed to retrieving. The only purpose this pointer breed ever had was to freeze in a stalking position whenever its nose indicated birds were near.
In countries with a more egalitarian hunting culture, like what became Germany after 1848, the pointer breeds were made far less specialized. They were bred for the average hunter, who couldn’t afford to keep big packs of hunting dogs. The commoner hunter had to worry about dog taxes, and it made more sense to have a dog that could hunt down wild boar, point pheasants and partridges, and retrieve shot game.
But in the British context, a shooting estate had to have many different dogs, each trained in a division of labor system, with spaniels flushing, pointers and setters indicating, and retrievers marching at heel with the shooting party, ready to be sent to fetch what was shot.
Thus, it would make perfect sense that the first modern purebred dog would have been a pointer.
The first conformation show ever held was at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859, six years before Stonehenge would turn Major into a type specimen. The only dogs shown were pointers and setters.
It makes perfect sense that these dogs, which were used only by gentlemen to do very esoteric work on shooting estates, would be the first dogs that would be bred for a conformation show.
Their actual work was work that only the really wealthy could appreciate or afford to indulge in, and it’s really not a big leap for breeding a strain of dog that does nothing but point birds to breeding a line of dogs solely for what they look like.
Major was not of an exaggerated breed, and the dogs bred to look like him were not exaggerated at all.
However, when the notion of breed standards became deeply entrenched in the fancy, dog breeders decided they were sculptors of canine flesh and began producing all sorts of bizarre shapes to meet the standard.
This is where the insanity began.