Intriguing Origins of the Oldest Dog Breeds
Dogs have been man's best friend for about 15,000 years. While every dog is descended from the mighty wolf, each is different in its own way, and most breeds still have the characteristics they had in their early origins.
If you've ever wondered why your Poodle takes to water so quickly, your Yorkie likes to chase small animals in your yard or your Pug sits on your feet, they were actually bred for these purposes in their earliest days. Even though your dog is now more companion animal than working dog, they’re still acting on instinct.
Intrigued? Check out the fascinating origins of some of the oldest dog breeds.
The Pug was a favorite of royal households in ancient China dating back as far as 400 B.C. Those fierce-looking lion dogs you've seen in statues are generally believed to be Pugs who were bred to keep their royal owners warm by sitting on their feet or laps. Some were said to have even been guarded by soldiers — such was their status in royal circles.
The Dutch East India Company brought Pugs to Europe through Asian trade routes in the 16th century, and the breed became hugely popular in Europe amongst nobles. Notable Pug owners include Prince William of Orange, Marie Antoinette (pictured), Napoleon, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill.
Pug Breed Summary
Temperament: Charming, Mischievous, Loving
Height: 10-13 inches
Weight: 14-18 pounds
Life Expectancy: 13-15 years
* Breed information was sourced from theAmerican Kennel Club.
This breed's origins are lost to history because the first Beagles went extinct at the turn of the 20th century. The first dogs that were known as Beagles were said to be hunters in Greece in the fifth century B.C. They were tiny, only standing 8- to 9-inches tall, and were small enough to fit in hunters' pockets, hence the nickname "pocket Beagles."
However, as hunting grew more popular, bigger dogs were desired. Pocket Beagles were bred with larger hounds in the 18th century to give us the Beagle line that we know and love today.
Beagle Breed Summary
Temperament: Friendly, Curious, Merry
Height: 13 inches and under, 13-15 inches
Weight: Under 20 pounds (13 inches and under), 20-30 pounds (13-15 inches)
Life Expectancy: 10-15 years
St. Bernards hail from the similarly named Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland, which is a route in the Western Alps that is located 8,000 feet above sea level. As with most mountain routes, it was dangerous for trekkers in the years before paved roads. In 1049, an Augustine monk named St. Bernard de Menthon founded a monastery and hospice there as a refuge for travelers stuck in the snowy pass.
By the 17th century, St. Bernards — descended from Asian mastiff breeds brought to the area by the Romans — were companions to the monks living there, and saved many a traveler's life from treacherous weather conditions. However, they did not wear brandy barrels around their necks as is widely believed. Those were the invention of an artist named Edwin Landseer and first appeared in his 1820 painting, “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.”
St. Bernard Breed Summary
Temperament: Playful, Charming, Inquisitive
Height: 28-30 inches (males), 26-28 inches (female)
Weight: 140-180 pounds (male), 120-140 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 8-10 years
The tiny Chihuahua hails from Mexico and is believed to be a descendant of the Techichi, which was a larger version of the breed of Chihuahua we know today. The Techichi was the dog of the Toltecs who flourished in Mexico before being conquered by the Aztecs in the 12th century.
In Aztec society, the dogs were seen as sacred by some and a food source by others, and by the time Spanish conquistadors came on the scene in the 1500s, the Techichi was thought to be lost. However, a smaller version of the dog flourished in remote villages and was officially discovered in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the mid-1800s. Its popularity increased from there.
Chihuahua Breed Summary
Temperament: Charming, Graceful, Sassy
Height: 5-8 inches
Weight: Up to 6 pounds
Life Expectancy: 14-16 years
Pit Bulls were first seen in England in the early 1800s and were a cross between bulldogs and terriers. They really gained popularity among the lower classes as a form of entertainment in a game called bull-baiting, in which the dogs would be pitted against a bull until it collapsed or was injured. After 1835, when the sport was outlawed, the dogs became ratters and were also pitted against each other.
Pitties came to America with an influx of immigrants from the British Isles in the mid- to late-19th century. Once in the U.S., they became working dogs and had vital roles in protecting homesteads and herding cattle. Due to their gentle nature with humans and children, in particular, they became a well-loved member of many a family (even though their reputation would have people believe otherwise).
Pit Bull Breed Summary
Temperament: Confident, Smart, Good-Natured
Height: 18-19 inches (male), 21.5-23.5 inches (female)
Weight: 55-70 pounds (male), 40-55 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 12-16 years
This adorable dog is more robust than it looks. The Dachshund, with a breed name that roughly translates to "badger dog," has been around for about 600 years and was developed as a digger that displaced errant badgers from their dens. The breed has even been known to work in packs as a hunter of wild boar.
They have long been a national symbol of Germany but fell out of favor in the U.S. in World War I and World War II due to that association. American owners referred to them as "liberty hounds" during that time.
Dachshund Breed Summary
Temperament: Friendly, Curious, Spunky
Height: 8-9 inches
Weight: 16-32 pounds
Life Expectancy: 12-16 years
The true origins of the Dalmatian are unknown. Spotted dogs were described on the majority of continents and appear everywhere in ancient artworks from Italian frescoes to Egyptian paintings. They are said to have been first seen with Romani gypsies in a region of Yugoslavia called Dalmatia.
In earlier times, Dalmatians were coach or carriage dogs. Their job was to trot alongside a carriage to protect its occupants from bandits. This is also how they morphed into firehouse dogs in the U.K. in the 1800s. The dogs helped clear the way for firefighters by running alongside their horse-drawn coaches. When those were converted to fire trucks with engines, they stayed on as a symbol of firefighting heroism.
Dalmatian Breed Summary
Temperament: Dignified, Smart, Outgoing
Height: 19-24 inches
Weight: 45-70 pounds
Life Expectancy: 11-13 years
The Affenpinscher is a German breed that originated around the 17th century. Also known as a monkey dog due to its primate-like expression, the dog was originally a ratter that sought out rats, mice and other small vermin from granaries, stables and homes.
These fierce little dogs didn't make it to the U.S. until about 1936 but have been well-loved family dogs ever since. They’ve also become a force to be reckoned with in competition.
Affenpinscher Breed Summary
Temperament: Confident, Famously Funny, Fearless
Height: 9-11.5 inches
Weight: 7-10 pounds
Life Expectancy: 12-15 years
The Rottweiler's ancestry lies in the days of the Roman empire and early Asian mastiffs. After the Empire's collapse, the dogs made their way to Germany and worked in the town of Rottweil herding and protecting cattle from rustlers.
After railroad cattle cars became the norm in the early 1800s, the dogs found new life as guard dogs for personal homes and the police. They were also some of the first service dogs that spent their early days guiding the blind.
Rottweiler Breed Summary
Temperament: Loyal, Loving, Confident Guardian
Height: 24-27 inches (male), 22-25 inches (female)
Weight: 95-135 pounds (male), 80-100 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 9-10 years
Frenchies are not as French as much as they are English — they, too, began their existence as English Bulldogs. Lacemakers wanted a small dog to warm their laps, and when their industry moved to France during the Industrial Revolution, the dogs went, too.
They served as ratters for a time, then became a favorite of high society where they continued their reign as adorable companion animals.
French Bulldog Breed Summary
Temperament: Adaptable, Playful, Smart
Height: 11-13 inches
Weight: Up to 28 pounds
Life Expectancy: 10-12 years
Poodles also identify strongly with France, although they have their roots in Asian curly-coated dogs. The German strain of Poodle is most like the dog we know today.
“Pudel” means puddle and describes the dog's prowess for water. Poodles are excellent companions for hunting fowl, and their Poodle "cut" — balls of fur around the joints and tail — was meant to keep them warm while submerged.
Standard Poodle Breed Summary
Temperament: Active, Proud, Very Smart
Height: Over 15 inches
Weight: 60-70 pounds (male), 40-50 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 10-18 years
The Yorkie is a younger breed that's only about 150 years old, but it’s packed a lot of living in its short existence. This adorable family companion began its life as a ratter in mines and as a hunter of badgers and foxes.
Yorkies made their way to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century and quit their working-dog day jobs to become both family favorites and society dogs. Former President Richard M. Nixon even had a Yorkie named Pasha in the White House during his administration.
Yorkshire Terrier Breed Summary
Temperament: Affectionate, Sprightly, Tomboyish
Height: 7-8 inches
Weight: 7 pounds
Life Expectancy: 11-15 years
The Golden is a relatively new breed. Hailing from Inverness, Scotland, it first appeared between 1840 and 1890 and was developed by Dudley Marjoribanks, the first Lord Tweedmouth, who was looking for a dog suited to the wet climate and rough terrain.
He bred his "yellow" retriever with the St. John's water dog, the tweed water spaniel (both extinct), Irish setters, bloodhounds and wavy-coated black retrievers. Goldens made their way to the U.S. in the early 20th century and have been a favorite family dog ever since.
Golden Retriever Breed Summary
Temperament: Friendly, Intelligent, Devoted
Height: 23-24 inches (male), 21.5-22.5 inches (male)
Weight: 65-75 pounds (male), 55-65 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 10-12 years
Siberian Huskies’ ancestors hail from northeastern Asia and date back about 4,000 years. They first lived with the Chukchi people as sled and companion dogs. As the Chukchi increased their hunting area, the husky evolved to carry bigger loads over more massive expanses of land in colder weather.
Because the Chukchi were so isolated, the breed remained pure for generations — not becoming well-known until the early 20th century. They not only still serve as sled dogs in Alaska and northern Canada, but they are also wonderful companion animals everywhere else in the world.
Siberian Husky Breed Summary
Temperament: Loyal, Outgoing, Mischievous
Height: 21-23.5 inches (male), 20-22 inches (female)
Weight: 45-60 pounds (male), 35-50 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 12-14 years
They may have been the favorite breed of Queen Elizabeth (pictured), but they are working dogs at heart. Corgis, as we know them today, come in two different varieties — the Pembroke Welsh Corgi and the Cardigan Welsh Corgi — and have different ancestries.
The Cardigan, with its tail and round ears, is the older of the two, having first appeared in Wales around 1200 B.C. The Pembroke, which has no tail and pointy ears, hails from Belgium. When King Henry I invited Flemish weavers to live in Wales in the 12th century, they brought their dogs with them. As working dogs, Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis herded cattle, guarded farms and served as ratters.
Welsh Corgi Breed Summary
Temperament: Affectionate, Smart, Alert
Height: 10-12 inches
Weight: Up to 30 pounds (male), up to 28 pounds (female)
Life Expectancy: 12-13 years
This cute toy pup is one of the most ancient on our list and started appearing in texts and pictures around 6,000 B.C. Despite its name, there is no proof the dog hails from Malta — it's more probable that it comes from South-Central Europe and descends from the Spitz. (It likely made its way to Malta through trade routes.)
Maltese have always been popular and well-loved — they were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians and mentioned by the great minds of Greece and Rome in their writings, including Pliny the Elder and Aristotle.
Maltese Breed Summary
Temperament: Gentle, Playful, Charming
Height: 7-9 inches
Weight: Under 7 pounds
Life Expectancy: 12-15 years