The pug is one of the UK’s most popular small dog breeds – and the third most popular overall. They are also a breed with a very long recorded history, going back for millennia to their origins in ancient China. However, the breed as we know it today bears very little resemblance to its ancient origins, and virtually the whole appearance of the pug has changed dramatically since their early formations, with most of this change occurring within the last century.
If you own a pug or are considering buying one, it is important to learn all about their core traits, temperament and health, in order to provide your dog with the best possible care. You might also be interested in learning more about the breed’s history and origins, which is what we will look at within this article. Read on to learn more.
The very earliest records of dogs of the pug type, and the likely foundations of the modern breed, mention an oriental breed called the Lo-Chiang dog, which appears in records from prior to A.D. 1,000.
The first formal records of the pug lineage of today come from the Imperial Court of the Song Dynasty, and pugs were prized as pampered pets within high-ranking Chinese families, including the Emperors’ households. The pugs of the day were themselves considered to be royal, and lived in luxurious quarters guarded by soldiers – something that today’s pugs have never forgotten!
Later, the popularity of the pug spread across Asia, including to Tibet, where pugs lived alongside of Buddhist monks in monasteries.
As early as the 16th century, pugs had already begun to make inroads into Europe and particularly, within the royal courts of Europe. They were the official dog of the House of Orange, and notably, a pug dog saved the life of a member of the royal family in 1572 by alerting his owner to a team of assassins that were approaching.
In 1688, what is thought to be the first pug to be brought into Britain accompanied members of the Netherlands royal family when they took the English throne, and at this point the pug may have also been bred with old-style King Charles spaniels, producing the modern breed’s core traits.
Because of their associations with royalty and luxury, pugs were in great demand across the UK and mainland Europe with wealthy, socially mobile families, and paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries depict pugs riding on carriages as far afield as Italy and Spain, wearing special coats to match the livery of the coachmen!
Interestingly, whilst we think of today’s pugs as lapdogs and pampered pets, they were also used at this time as watchdogs, guard dogs and even to track people and animals as part of military campaigns.
Pugs really began to catch the public’s attention in the UK during Queen Victoria’s reign, as she was a well-known dog lover who kept many pets of her own, and actually bred her own pugs too, favouring fawn and apricot colour variants. Queen Victoria’s interest in dogs is also credited with helping to establish the Kennel Club, which today, is a world-renowned umbrella authority for dogs and dog breeds.
Descendants of Queen Victoria continued to display a passion for pugs, including King George V and King Edward VIII, the latter of whom famously abdicated the throne in order to marry divorcee Wallace Simpson, and Simpson and the former king lived out their lives with a large pack of pugs that they treated as their children.
Because pugs have such a high-profile history among royalty and prominent members of society, records and paintings of pugs over the last couple of hundred years remain extant, and give an indication of how much the breed has changed over the course of the last couple of centuries.
18th and 19th century paintings of the pugs of the time show the breed having longer, leaner limbs than they do today, as well as longer muzzles. In the middle of the 19th century, more pugs from China were brought to the UK to meet demand, and the appearance of these pugs was rather different to the UK’s previously imported dogs already, with both shorter legs and a shorter muzzle, although this change was not highly acute.
Interestingly, black pugs only really began to be seen in significant numbers in the UK towards the end of the 19th century, and British aristocrat and pug enthusiast Lady Brassey is largely credited with this.
Pugs during the first half of the 20th century maintained strong associations in people’s minds with royalty and luxury, and so were seen very much as dogs of the rich and something to aspire to.
However, as the ownership of dogs as pets rather than simply for working roles became more widespread, the demand for lapdogs and the possibility of pug ownership became open to ever-more people, and the breed’s numbers grew significantly.
Both the first and second World Wars had a negative impact on pug breeding programmes and breed development – as was the case with virtually all pedigree dog breeds in the UK – but unlike many other breeds, the pug’s future existence wasn’t really acutely threatened due to a huge fall in numbers.
The trend for breeding pugs with shorter legs and a shorter muzzle originated with the second-wave of Chinese import dogs in the 19th century, but it is only when dog showing as a hobby really took off in the UK in the 20th century that we began to see acute changes happen to the breed within a relatively short period of time.
Modern pugs are much shorter legged and flatter faced than their historical ancestors – even the moderately changed second-wave Chinese variant. They also have more bodyfat too, and a more acutely curled tail. The degree of exaggeration of the shortness of the pug’s muzzle is something that is continually evolving, and today, dogs with virtually flat faces and extremely narrow nares are not at all uncommon.
However, these traits have a range of negative implications on the breed’s health, and a high degree of exaggeration causes problems including brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome or BOAS, a higher risk of overheating, eye damage, and a range of other issues too that can compromise the dog’s quality of life and longevity.
The Kennel Club’s breed standard and showing guidance for judges states that overly acute exaggerations that are harmful to health should not be rewarded in the show ring – but this does not always happen in practice, and among pug buyers who don’t intend to show, demand for very flat-faced dogs with narrow nostrils is still high.
If you are considering buying or adopting a pug, ensure that you choose one whose face is not dangerously flat – and that was produced by a responsible breeder who undertook the appropriate health tests on their parent stock before producing the litter.