AUTHENTIC DOG BREEDS
"Can you tell me about authentic dog breeds?"
I have been asked this question many times. Unfortunately the answer is not short neither
is it exact. This is a short introduction with a pick 'n' mix of a few of the more important
dogs around in the period.
To start with we must look at the early history of dog breeding. The Egyptians were probably
the first to initiate selective breeding with a particular look and ability as the end result.
This was some two thousand years BC. The most notable of the breeds that survive today –
almost untouched – are the Pharaoh Hound and the Ibizan Hound. Both closely related
to each other and are often referred to as Baleric Greyhounds.
The Egyptians are also accredited with the creation of the Great Dane, although the pictures on
the temples and palaces of Assyrian Kings are probably Mastiff-Hound crosses, that later became
known by that name. Later in Greece, Aristotle wrote about dogs. In his texts he
gives an important insight into the idea of "breeds"; giving hounds and sheep dogs the same breed
name. Certainly in Greece, it would seem that dogs from an area were given a breed name
as an expression of quality rather than standardized looks.
The Romans too were fond of dogs (apart from the unfortunate festival in June) and, along with
the Phoenicians, helped move many dogs to different countries. The most obvious breed
linked with the Romans is the Mastiff – frequently depicted as a war dog complete with
spiked collar. A more unusual breed and probably the first terrier breed mentioned is
the Maltese; the Roman Governor of Malta is documented as having owned one. A further breed
also existing in the area at the time was the Italian Greyhound, which can easily be mistaken
for a Whippet (a breed which is not authentic). The Romans were probably one of the first
to acquire, out side of their native lands, the Saluki and the Sloughi (a depressed looking
Certainly many of the breeds made it to Britain with the Romans. However, once the invaders
left how long they would have survived is debatable. Certainly the more useful would have
been kept. Through the intervening years with such a small genetic pool the chance of
them remaining unchanged is non-existent. Climate and social status would also have
played a part, only the rich would have been able to feed a large Mastiff or keep a thin-skinned
Mediterranean hound alive during the winter. Britons of the time did not seem inclined
to be as selective about breeding as the Egyptians. When non-native breeds are mentioned
it is more a status symbol. These were usually given in pairs as gifts and there seems
to be no mention of unusual packs of dogs (e.g. Pharaoh Hounds). This would seem to
indicate that any puppies were crosses with native dogs, resulting in the generic Lurcher (a
hound/hound cross or herder/hound cross).
The types of dog used could be split roughly in to groups:
- Hunting dogs - those that were effective hunters either singularly or in a pack, using
sight only (gaze hounds) or using nose, ears and eyes.
- Sheep herding dogs - any dog that could be taught to round up livestock.
- Sheep guarding dogs - these are primarily large and possess the cunning ability to
blend in to a flock of sheep, consequently they are nearly always white and somewhat
- Guard dogs - large, often mastiff type.
Many of the dogs were dual purpose, being capable of doing more than one job, this is particularly
true of the Spitz types. Frequently surviving in a hostile environment they had to adapt to
live on little and do much.
Today's breeds that can trace their ancestry back to 'dark age' Britain and Northern Europe are few.
Even for some of these the claims are dubious. In this country the Deerhound and Irish
wolfhound are the most recognizable of the hounds. The only other dog written about, that is a
native breed, is the Corgi. In the Code of Laws written around AD 900 a cattle dog is mentioned
that fits the description. Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden have more breeds available
although these are predominantly of the Spitz type. They include:
- Icelandic Sheepdog Widely considered to be an ancestor of the Shetland Sheepdog.
- Norwegian Buhund Bu means farm or homestead. An all round herder/hunter first mentioned
in AD 874.
- Norwegian Lundehund or puffin-dog. This breed unusually has six toes and is thought to have
originated from Canis Forus rather than Canis Familiaris. There is a fatal genetic flaw
in this breed and it is unlikely that is will continue to be bred.
- Finnish Spitz A hunting dog with an ear piercing bark easy to locate in dense woodland.
- Finish Lapphund Cousin to the Swedish Lapphund. Both have a distinct collie cross look about
- Swedish Valhund Frequently mistaken for a Corgi and most certainly a close relation.
This Forest Dog was around in the 8th and 9th-centuries and exists today
with little change.
- Samoyed Probably the oldest of the Scandinavian types.
- Siberian Husky a product of rigorous natural selection. Through Belgium and France
there is little information on exact types; only the Belgian Shepherd, referred to as the Black
Dog of Belgium (probably meaning an ancestor of the Groenendael).
- Briard Very popular around 1,200 years ago and a big hit with the Mongolian invaders too.
- St Huberts Hound Modern day descendents are the Basset Griffon Vendeen and Griffon Vendeen,
Grand. (No exact dates available.)
Further afield there are many dogs of ancient origin that have not been mentioned such as the Komodor
and Puli from Hungary and Russia, thought to be descendents of the Aftschowka of Eastern Europe.
These deserve a mention if only for their naturally unique Rastafarian coat. They like many others are
unlikely to have made the journey to Britain. Very unusual dogs surely would have deserved a few
words in one contemporary text or another.
It is very important to remember that dogs then would not have looked then like they do today. They
have been selectively bred for hundreds of years and some breeds almost completely lost during the First
and Second World Wars have been recreated again (mostly the bigger breeds). Dogs for Regia's historical
period would probably had a distinct mongrel look about them compared to their modern day counterparts.
Size would also be different — in the main today's dogs are much larger.
If you want a dog that will fit in with Regia as an "authentic breed" (I use the term extremely loosely)
then the local library and internet are both excellent starting points. Do research your chosen
breed; no obviously New World breeds (Labrador, Chesapeake, Chihuahua), Oriental breeds (Chow Chow, Pug,
Akita) or modern breeds (Doberman, Pit Bull, Bull Mastiff, Whippet). Remember, hunting dogs
will chase, guarding dogs will want to protect, big dogs need a sizable house and bank balance, some
dogs are hard to train, etc. A perfect place to see the breed and talk to breeders is Discover
Dogs in London early November. Alternatively contact the Kennel Club,
they should be able to put you in touch with breed societies. I also have a list of breed advisers
published through Dogs Today. Also some dogs are not yet available in this country and some are
on the import register and are likely to be expensive or very hard to obtain.
In all honesty, after looking at current photos of the "authentic breeds", a suitable dog is most likely to
be found in a local rescue centre — that scruffy flea-bitten looking mongrel. The Kennel Club also
provide a Dog Rescue Directory complete with all the breed rescues and a few of the general rescues. I
have a copy along with a few more that are not listed.