Writing About Dogs

By Maeve Maddox

A question that appears frequently on language sites is, “How do you capitalize the name of a dog breed? For example, German Shepherd or German shepherd?”

My answer is, “It depends on your intended audience.”

If you are writing for a general readership, you may as well follow the recommendations of the AP Stylebook and capitalize only those parts of the name that derive from a proper noun, as in these examples:

German shepherd
Labrador retriever
Boston terrier
Dandie Dinmont terrier
Chihuahua
basset hound
dachshund
schnauzer
shih tzu

If you choose to follow a style guide based on the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook, you might reduce even more of the breed name to lowercase:

chihuahua
pekingese
rottweiler
weimeraner
german shepherd

If, however, you are writing for an audience of readers who know something about dog breeds, you will think twice about using the term “German shepherd.”

As one journalist who writes about dogs points out,

The official name of a particular herding dog is “German Shepherd Dog.” Capitalizing each word helps to make that clear. Saying “German shepherd dog” could refer to any German-bred herding dog. Or, a reader could wonder why the word “dog” was even included, as many people just say “German Shepherd,” leaving off the last word of the breed’s official name. –Susan Ewing, “AP Style doesn’t work for dog breeds,” The Post-Journal, Jamestown, NY.

A journalist following AP style would not capitalize basenji or every word in “Australian cattle dog,” but here are two extracts from articles written for publications aimed at dog owners:

Take Whisper, a 3-year-old Australian Cattle Dog. Her first owners had no idea she was deaf, so pegged her as a “stubborn puppy” for not coming when called.

First, the Basenji needs companionship and will not be happy left to exist on the fringes of your family’s day-to-day activities.

As might be expected, the AKC (American Kennel Club) capitalizes every word in the name of a dog breed.

In writing for a general audience, there’s no reason not to put generic words like spaniel, terrier, retriever, setter, and collie in lowercase, but an across-the-board ruling against capitalizing any word that does not derive from a proper noun has its drawbacks.

To be in strict compliance with AP style would I have to write, “black Russian terrier” and “west highland white terrier” instead of “Black Russian terrier” and “West Highland White terrier”?

What about “Cavalier King Charles Spaniel”? Should that be “cavalier King Charles spaniel”?

AP style regarding the capitalization of dog breeds provides a useful baseline, but writers need to be willing to temper the recommendation with judgment.

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2 Responses to “Writing About Dogs”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello Maeve:
    When I saw the title “Writing about Dogs”, I thought that you were going to deal with such things as, “Is a dog a he, a she, or an it?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    The problem with the names of different breeds or varieties of dogs extends to the Big Question of what to do with the names of different families, species, subspecies, and breeds of all of the animals and plants. For example, here is how I go at it: flying squirrel, moose, blue whale, Douglas fir, Burbank grape, sweet potato, Holstein cow, Pacific bottlenose dolphin, chimpanzee, gorilla**, Persian cat, Burmese cat, tabby cat, ocelot, giraffe, musk ox, field corn, English pea.
    **giving its family, genus, and species, we have the unusual zoological name of “Gorilla gorilla gorilla”.

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