The World Canine Federation recognizes 350 unique dog breeds. In the U.S. The American Kennel Club now recognizes 209 breeds. That’s…a lot of dogs. To better understand each breed, humans have categorized them into groups based on the jobs they were bred (or born) to do. Generally speaking, you can learn a lot about a dog’s personality, activity level and trainability based on their group. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, some breeds have been recategorized over the years. No matter what, understanding dog breed groups helps us connect better with our canine companions.
The 7 Dog Breed Groups, Explained (So You Can Know Your Pup’s Secret Powers)
What are dog breed groups?
Dog breed groups are classifications based on dog jobs and personalities. Every breed recognized by canine clubs around the world either evolved to excel at certain tasks or was bred by humans to do so. The result is hundreds of distinct breeds who tend to fall into one of seven groups.
Most of the dogs in each dog breed group will have similar dispositions, physical capabilities and hard-wiring. However, there’s definitely variety in each group, as many similar breeds evolved to perform the same tasks in different climates or with unusual methods. Some breeds, like the Anatolian Shepherd, have been moved to different groups over time because they became more specialized in one area. Originally, Anatolian Shepherds were herding dogs but were re-classified as working dogs because they were so good at guarding homes.
The next time you watch The National Dog Show or Westminster, take note of the canine differences and similarities in each group! Every year at these shows, judges choose one dog in each group as Best of Group; those seven finalists go on to compete for Best in Show. This is why dog shows aren’t just beauty contests! Judges are trying to determine which dog is the most perfect specimen of its breed. They take into account the group and the jobs those dogs were meant to do. For example, Newfoundlands are sweet, friendly dogs who perform rescue missions and assist fishing crews on boats. A Newfoundland with an aggressive, unfriendly personality or without partially webbed toes will lose favor with a judge.
The 7 major dog breed groups in the U.S.
The seven major dog groups in the U.S. are Herding, Hound, Non-Sporting, Sporting, Terrier, Toy and Working. Initially, when the AKC got its start in 1884, it tossed all dog breeds into either the Sporting or Non-Sporting group. Over time, they became inundated with so many breeds, they developed a better system of categorization. In 1924, they added Working, Terrier and Toy groups. Finally, in 1983 the AKC gave Herding dogs their own designation.
1. Herding Group
General size: Medium to Large
Personality Traits: Friendly, obedient, intelligent, playful
Activity Level: High
Examples: Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Cardigan Welsh Corgi, German Shepherd, Puli, Spanish Water Dog, Belgian Malinois
Herding group dogs have one goal: keep the livestock in line. These dogs know how to use their natural herding instincts to corral sheep, cows, reindeer, goats and more, without devouring them as wolves might. Due to their demanding jobs, herding breeds have tons of energy. If you adopt one, be sure you know how to exercise them regularly throughout the day (otherwise they may tear your home apart). These dogs are also incredibly intelligent; they’ve learned how to navigate a field with tons of livestock, listen to commands from shepherds and make decisions about where to move next. This combination of energy and intelligence means they are terrific at obedience and agility training. They definitely feel strongly connected to their humans and don’t enjoy alone time. Another fun fact: Many herding dogs have long, shaggy coats that evolved to protect them from the elements.
2. Hound Group
General size: Medium to large
Personality Traits: Independent, strong-willed, vocal, serious, sensitive
Activity Level: Moderate to high
Examples: American Foxhound, Beagle, Whippet, Greyhound, Basset Hound, Saluki, Rhodesian Ridgeback
Unlike herding dogs, who can chase without killing, hound dog breeds were born to hunt. Scent hounds have incredibly powerful noses that can track anything you ask them to (and probably a lot of things you don’t ask them to). Sight hounds are known for their speed and ability to spot prey from great distances and run it down. Unsurprisingly, hound group pups have very high prey drives and may not do well with other small pets in the house. Since many hounds were bred to track game on their own (or at least until their human caught up), they’ve got an independent streak that may make training tricky. Though most hounds are medium- to large-sized, a few small breeds, like the Dachshund who hunted badgers, are considered members of this group.
3. Non-sporting Group
General size: Varies
Personality Traits: Loyal, loving, charming
Activity Level: Varies
Examples: Boston Terrier, Dalmatian, French Bulldog, Shiba Inu, Standard Poodle, Bichon Frise
These dogs are a motley crew of canines who don’t totally fit into the other six categories. Some breeds have outgrown their original roles (like Bulldogs who were bred as fighting dogs) while others never had specific duties to begin with (Chow Chows had various roles as hunters, workers and guard dogs in the centuries they’ve been around). For the most part, non-sporting group dogs are now considered companion animals first and foremost. This means lots of loyalty, affection and obedience. Note: Sometimes loyalty means protectiveness and territoriality!
4. Sporting Group
General size: Medium to large
Personality Traits: Family-friendly, obedient, sweet, athletic
Activity Level: Moderate to High
Examples: Golden Retriever, Irish Setter, Cocker Spaniel, Brittany, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, English Springer Spaniel
Since humans and canines have joined forces, they’ve gone hunting together. Sporting group dog breeds are known for retrieving, pointing and setting, as you’ll note from many of their names. When guns were invented and hunters began relying on a good shot to catch game, sporting dogs really came into their own. Setters and pointers are like scent hounds in that they sniff out birds and indicate where their human hunter should aim. Retrievers can swiftly pick up fallen birds without destroying them. Spaniels know how to scare game out of the brush, giving hunters prime targets. Many sporting dogs have water-repellent coats because of their work in lakes and swampland.
5. Terrier Group
General size: Small to medium
Personality Traits: Stubborn, charming, feisty, clever
Activity Level: High
Examples: West Highland White Terrier, Russell Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, American Staffordshire Terrier, Cairn Terrier
Terrier group breeds are often referred to as “scrappy,” and it’s easy to see why. These goofballs were bred primarily to dig up and scare away rodents like rats and badgers. All except two originated in the British Isles, which means their coats evolved to withstand the blustery, chilly and wet weather of that region. If you notice a terrier relentlessly chasing something small, it’s their instincts kicking into high gear. Known for being confident despite their smaller stature and determined to make a name for themselves, terriers can be stubborn and tricky to train. Several, like the Bull Terrier, were developed by humans to fight, but today have become beloved household pets.
6. Toy Group
General size: Small
Personality Traits: Loyal, affectionate, territorial, alert
Activity Level: Low to Moderate
Examples: Pomeranian, Chihuahua, Pug, Yorkshire Terrier, Papillon, Pekingese
The only thing all toy breeds have in common is their tiny size. These are lap dogs, folks. Many see themselves as big dogs who guard their homes with regal confidence, but they are in fact teeny tiny. Some were born this way while others were bred over time to be companion animals. In fact, many small breeds were status symbols for royalty throughout history. Toy dog breeds enjoy attention, give affection freely (to their one favorite human) and are ideal for apartment people. They also live longer on average than large breeds. Though small pups are often seen as yappy barkers, this is a trait like any other (we’d argue hounds are more vocal than toys!) that can be curbed with proper training. Finally, if you’ve got kids and are in the market for a toy breed, make sure it's one known for being kid friendly.
7. Working Group
General size: Large
Personality Traits: Loyal, independent, protective, strong-willed, sweet
Activity Level: Moderate to High
Examples: Bernese Mountain Dog, Akita, Boerboel, Giant Schnauzer, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Mastiff
Say hello to some dogs who love a long day of work. Working group breeds have been around forever—some for millennia—as right hand help to humans in need. They’ve been known to haul loads on farms, pull sleds in the dead of winter, guard homes with their lives and so much more. Naturally, they are large, muscular and fearsome. With their families, however, working dogs are absolute sweethearts. They’re loyal to a crazy degree and will protect you at a moment’s notice. This is why they need firm, clear training very early on. Since working breeds are also highly intelligent and independent, they need parameters within which to operate. Many work alongside soldiers, security officers, farmers and people with disabilities. Honestly, what can’t dogs do?