The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes 150 of those breeds, but how many other rare dog breeds do you know? You might know what an English Foxhound is, despite the fact that it's the least popular AKC breed, according to the organization's statistics for 2006. But have you ever actually seen one outside of a hunt scene? And what about the next three least popular: the Harrier, the Glen of Imaal Terrier and the Otterhound?
In 2006, the AKC registered 123,760 Labs and only 23 Harriers (Harriers look kind of like big Beagles or little Foxhounds). Besides the Harrier, 13 other breeds registered fewer than 100 individuals in that year. If each of those breeds were a species, they'd be on the endangered list. They're far less common than the designer dogs touted as being so unique these days.
Many of the rarer breeds are, in fact, endangered. Responsible breeders won't breed unless they have proper homes waiting, and because so few people have even heard of these breeds, there's no demand for them. As fewer dogs are bred, the gene pool shrinks, and the possibility of cementing in undesirable traits, such as hereditary health problems, increases. Some breeders resort to multiple-sire matings, so they can breed a female only once but to two unrelated sires, in an effort to perpetuate as many bloodlines as possible through as few puppies as they can. The parents and puppies are then DNA tested to match the proper sire to each pup.
But why are these dog breeds rare? In some cases, such as with Foxhounds, the statistics are misleading. Most Foxhounds are kept as members of hunting packs, not pets, and are registered with separate Foxhound registries. In other cases, such as with the Glenn of Imaal terrier, the breed is a new face in this country.
Sometimes such rare dog breeds will catch on and scale the popularity charts; sometimes, they won't. Media exposure and the cuteness factor are big determinants of that. There are also breeds that are difficult to keep: The Komondor, which looks like a giant mass of white dreadlocks, presents definite grooming challenges.
But what about the Canaan Dog, a breed that is healthy, smart, biddable and easy to keep? Only 147 were registered in 2006. Its problem is probably that its looks, while handsome, are somewhat nondescript, not unlike a dog you could adopt from the shelter. Other breeds, such as the Pharaoh Hound, are beautiful, distinctive and healthy--but still in search of admirers.
If you're looking for a dog that's a little out of the ordinary, look further than the AKC's top 20. With so many breeds out there, chances are that you can find one of the less common breeds that just might be a better fit to your lifestyle. At the same time, you may be helping to keep a breed from becoming extinct.
To view the AKC registration statistics: http://www.akc.org/reg/dogreg_stats.cfm
To visit the American Rare Breeds Association: http://www.arba.org/
To find out more about non-AKC rare breeds: http://rarebreed.com/
To compare all AKC breeds, consult Barron's Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds, by Caroline Coile.