Today, rare dog breeds are often treated like princesses – dressed in snazzy sweaters, carried around in designer purses and fed Puppy Prozac. But it wasn’t always that way! Throughout history, specialized dogs have been used for everything from rescuing travelers from the wintry slopes of the Swiss Alps to fighting in the gladiator ring to acting as a purgatory for wayward souls awaiting reincarnation. Maybe those funny looking dogs aren’t so silly after all…
1. Lhasa Apso
The Lhasa Apso’s flowing hair and big brown eyes may make them look pretty sweet…but these dogs definitely have a tough side; they’ve acted as guard dogs for the Dalai Lama and other important Tibetans since 800 B.C.E. Named after Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa Apsos use their keen sense of hearing to alert their family if something is amiss in the home.
Image: Dogs In Depth
The dogs are truly treasured in Buddhist culture, not only because they keep their family safe, but because Buddhists believe the souls of deceased lamas can reside in Lhasa Apsos while they are waiting to be reincarnated into a human body. Since it has been a Tibetan practice never to sell Lhasa Apsos (they can only be given as gifts), it wasn’t until the 20th century that the breed was seen by the western world.
The Komondor is a Hungarian breed of dog that has a very distinctive corded coat that closely resembles dreadlocks. Although their origins are debated, many believe this breed made its way to Hungary with the Cumans, a nomadic people that settled in Hungary and became the Magyars, the founders of modern Hungarian culture in the 12th and 13th centuries.
What is agreed upon about Komondors is that their exceptionally thick coat wasn’t just bred to look neat, but must have developed to protect the dog during very extreme weather conditions; their dreadlocks keep the Komondors warm during the winter and cool during the summer. Their coat also makes them ideal herding dogs: they can be outside on long cold nights to watch the herd (their cousin, the Puli, would watch during the day…see#10!), the thickness of the coat protects them from predators, and their light coloring allows them to blend in with the sheep and other livestock they were herding.
Image: DK Images
Sadly during World War Two, many of the dogs were killed because the Komondors were so protective of their families and farms, invading German and Russian forces were forced to kill the dogs before they could capture the farms. Today the Komondor has been declared a National Treasure of Hungary, and the breed is protected under federal law.
3. Portuguese Water Dog
Most breeders believe the Portuguese Water Dog originated in the Central-Asian steppe around 700 B.C.E. where they were bred in the rugged terrain to oversee livestock. From there, the theories begin to differ. One theory is that Berbers captured a few Portuguese Water Dogs during their conquests of the area and their decedents, the Moors, brought them to Portugal in the 8th century.
Image: Jumping Dog Photography
Although it’s up for discussion how they got there, once the dogs arrived in Portugal, their boundless energy and sweet temperament was put to good use as harbor dogs that collected broken nets for fisherman and delivered packages from one ship to another.
Image: A to Z Pet Grooming
Although the breed has always been popular as a family dog in Europe, it hasn’t always been so in the United States. But all that changed when President and First Lady Obama fulfilled a promise they made to their two daughters and adopted a Portuguese Water Dog puppy named Bo.
Image: The Portuguese Water Dog
4. Bedlington Terrier
The Bedlington Terrier is often described as a “lamb on a leash” because its unique blond, curly hair and soft round features give it an uncanny resemblance to the farm animal. Although it may look sheepish, the breed’s history is anything but. The Bedlington Terrier’s ancestors may have originated from Rothbury Terriers, dogs that were bred by gypsies that lived in the Rothbury Forest in England in the 18th century. In 1825, Rothbury Terriers caught the interest of Joseph Ansley of Bedlington England who bred the Rothbury Terriers into the Bedlington Terrier that year.
Because Bedlington Terriers are incredibly fast and skilled trackers, they became exceptionally popular in the 19th century as hunting dogs. They were also used by miners working in the Bedlington Mining Shire as exterminators, since the dogs are so fast they were able to catch even the tiniest rats and vermin that plagued the mines.
5. Peruvian Inca Orchid Dog
The Peruvian Inca Orchid Dogs were prized possessions among Inca families living in Mexico around 750 A.D. Although the dogs were greatly beloved, their totally hairless bodies make them incredibly susceptible to sunburn, so they were not allowed outside during the day. Instead the dogs were exercised during the evening when, as some folktales say, nocturnal orchids were in bloom – hence their unique name.
Some breeders hypothesize that in the 16th century, Spanish explorers came across the dogs during their travels and adopted a few to take on their journey to Asia where the dogs were given as a gift to the Emperor of China. Those dogs were then bred in China and became the breed known as the Chinese Crested (check out #12…there are definitely some similarities!)
6. Neapolitan Mastiff
It takes a pretty fierce dog to be the pet of ancient Romans, but the Neapolitan Mastiff was up for the challenge- these beefy dogs are just as strong as they look! The Neapolitan Mastiff came from the Tibetan Mastiff, the most ancient dog breed in the world, and was probably brought to Greece from Asia around 300 B.C.E. The Greeks then introduced the dogs to the Romans who prized the breed for its ferocious strength and used Neapolitan Mastiffs as guard dogs and fighters in their gladiator rings.
There is also some historical evidence that the Neapolitan Mastiffs fought along side the Roman Legion. Fitted with spiked harnesses, they were trained to run underneath enemy horses…disemboweling them!
7. Chow Chow
The Chow Chow has been identified as one of the oldest breeds in the world, and first domesticated four thousand years ago in Mongolia. Soon after, it was introduced to China where it was given the traditional name, Songshi Quan, which translates to “puffy lion-dog.” Historically, Chow Chows were used as general-purpose family dogs in China, assisting in hunting, protecting farms and herding. But since “chow” is Chinese slang for “eat,” it is possible that their more modern name Chow Chow could mean they were considered edible, and there is some suspicion that the dogs were bred for their meat.
Outside of China, the dogs have enjoyed meager popularity, except during the 1920s when President Coolidge had a black Chow Chow named Timmy, and Chow Chows became the dog-de-jour for the flapper crowd.
Image: Martin’s Chow Chow
8. Norwegian Lundehund
The Norwegian Lundehund is one of the rarest breeds in the world, and with so many unique characteristics, it’s no surprise these guys are few and far between. Lundehunds have been used to hunt puffins on the Norwegian shore since the 1600s, and the breed developed some pretty interesting characteristics: Lundehunds have six toes on each foot, a neck that can turn 180 degrees and bend backwards so the dog’s forehead can touch its back, ears that can close up completely to protect against dirt and moisture, and the flexibility to lie flat on their bellies with their legs sticking out.
Image: Dries Smulders
Sadly, because of a combination of small birth rates (the females only have one or two puppies per litter), distemper (an often fatal, incurable virus), and advances in puffin hunting, there were only six Lundehunds left in the entire world in 1963. But after careful breeding, the Norwegian Lundehund’s numbers have steadily risen and now there are approximately 1500 in the world.
9. St. Bernard
The St. Bernard is a large hearty dog that has been living in the Swiss Alps since ancient Romans brought its ancestors there thousands of years ago. Named for the monk hospice Great S. Bernard Pass, St. Bernards performed fundamental duties for the monks, farmers, and dairymen of the Alps in the 17th-20th centuries, including hauling goods, herding livestock and protecting farms.
Image: PP from Fin
But most famously, the dog’s fantastic sense of smell and warm fur coat made it able to perform daring alpine rescues, tracking lost or stranded travelers for miles in horrible weather conditions. The most famous alpine rescue St. Bernard was named Barry, and he is credited with saving between 50 and 100 people during his tenure as a rescue dog. Barry was so beloved that after his death in 1814 a monument was erected in his honor in the Cimetière des Chiens, a dog cemetery in France, and his body was preserved and is on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Although St. Bernards are no longer used for rescue work, they do still hold the world record for heaviest dog – a certain show dog, Benedictine, weighed in at 343 lbs!
Does the Puli look familiar? It’s a cousin breed to the Komondor, and it sports the same signature dreadlocks, except usually in black. These guys have similar origins to their cousins as well, but developed much smaller bodies than the Komondors. The two different sizes allowed the Komondors and Pulis to pack a one-two punch when it came to herding together.
The smaller, less imposing Pulis would keep an eye on livestock during the day, while Komondors would rest and watch over the house. Then at night they would switch places, and the heartier Komondor would stay out in the cold night with the livestock while the Puli would sleep in the house with its family. Often, if the Puli sensed danger, it would signal to the Komondor to do its dirty work because it was better equipped to fight wolves or intruders.
11. Chinese Crested
The Chinese Crested’s unique hair pattern and interesting facial features have sparked heated debates over its origins. Some breeders agree with the theory discussed above that the Peruvian Inca Orchid Dog is indeed the ancestor to the Chinese Crested. Others think Chinese traders captured African Hairless Terriers to kill rats on their ships and then distributed them throughout the world (on accident and through trade). These dogs then mated with other South and Central American hairless dogs, creating the Chinese Crested.
Although its origins are mysterious, one thing rings true: these little guys can be really ugly! The Chinese Crested reigns supreme in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest – six out of the last seven winners have been Chinese Cresteds.