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As 27,000 dogs and their owners descend on Crufts, the international showcase of canine perfection and confection, you may be wondering what exactly judges are looking for with their prodding, squeezing and general fussing and who decided what makes a pedigree dog perfect.

Historians at the University of Manchester believe they have discovered the first attempt to define a dog breed standard based on physical form, and in doing so found the first modern dog: a pointer called Major.

A description of the animal was unearthed in an 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. John Henry Walsh, who wrote under the pseudonym of "Stonehenge", took the system of giving scores for different parts of the body from pigeon fanciers, paving the way for the pedigree dog breeds we know today.

Stonehenge's method was developed to solve the bitter disputes over the seemingly arbitrary decisions of judges at dog shows, which were fast gaining in popularity. A dog might win a class at Birmingham one week and come last at a show in London a month later.

Following the first show of 1859, the owners of champion animals were increasingly able to command lucrative stud fees as well as cups and prize money of around five guineas.

In September 1865, Stonehenge published a classification for the pointer which gave its head and neck 30 points, frame and general symmetry 25, legs and feet 20, quality and stern 15, and colour and coat 10. A Mr H Gilbert, from Kensington, had sold the dog to a Mr Smith, of Tettenhall in Wolverhampton.

An article on a gordon setter soon followed along with others on clumber spaniels, norfolk spaniels, truffle dogs and fox terriers. Walsh's edited collection was published in 1867.

Professor Michael Worboys, who heads the University of Manchester's centre for the history of science, technology and medicine, said: "The standard set by Mr Smith's Major must surely be one of the most important milestones in the 6,000-year-old relationship between canines and man.

"As dogs came to be defined as 'breeds', they were bred for greater conformity to breed standards, which meant more inbreeding, and more health problems as dogs were bred from a smaller gene pool. Stonehenge's classifications set in chain a process where dogs were re-imagined, redesigned and remade."

Dr Julie-Marie Strange, of the university's school of arts, languages and cultures, said: "Stonehenge was so impressed by Major when he saw drawings of the dog and heard it had won a prize at a Birmingham show he devised the classification.

"There's a historical theme in the way many of these breeds were created: for example, though bull-baiting had been banned in 1830, the bulldog was bred to form considered to be ideal for grappling with a bull, for example, a protruding lower jaw to grab the soft nose of the bull."

"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.

Dr Neil Pemberton, who also worked on the project, said: "Though Stonehenge's classification isn't used today, its principle of defining a breed and judging by conformation will be the main criterion in the show ring at Crufts this week."
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