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History of Small Dogs: Evolution, Jobs, Origins & More

Written by: Matt Jackson

Last Updated on May 28, 2024 by Dogster Team

Beautiful Chihuahua puppy on the bed

History of Small Dogs: Evolution, Jobs, Origins & More

Small breeds range from the feisty Chihuahua to the fun-loving Frenchie, with origins and uses as broad as the look and characteristics of the breeds in question.

If you’ve ever wondered why some dogs are lap dogs or want more information on the history and roles of small breeds, read on for more information.

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The Brief History

It’s perhaps surprising that scientists believe all small dogs have an ancestry that traces back to a single location and era. Specifically, the emergence of the IGF1 gene, which is responsible for the diminutive stature of some breeds has been traced back 12,000 years to the Middle East.

Researchers believe that the small size came as a result of the domestication of the Middle Eastern gray wolf, which is notably smaller than most other wolf species. The same research also suggests that big dogs, typically the size of Great Danes, were domesticated much earlier, with their history starting potentially some 30,000 years ago in parts of Europe.

Once smaller dogs naturally occurred, owners who preferred the small dogs would likely have bred them together, favoring smaller animals and eventually reducing the size even further.

Shih-tzu dog standing on tree trunk in forest
Image Credit: chaossart, Shutterstock

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The 8 Small Dog Jobs

As well as being used as companions for their owners, small dog breeds were intentionally bred as watchdogs, ratters, and even hand warmers. Others were bred as hounds, show dogs, and even as performers. Some of the most common jobs small dogs were bred for include:

1. Lapdogs

Nowadays, a lapdog is happy to spend time on its owner’s lap. Traditionally, though, the role of the lap dog was to keep the lap and the legs of its owners warm. Small dogs were preferred because it can be very uncomfortable to have a giant breed sprawled across your knees.

Lapdogs had to be friendly and comfortable being close to their humans, and the modern lapdog expects this constant companionship. As such, they can be demanding of attention and may suffer separation anxiety if left alone for long periods. Shih Tzus were bred as lap warmers and still do a very good job of it today.

shih tzu dog relaxing on woman's lap
Image Credit: Drazen Zigic, Shutterstock

2. Companions

Whether sitting in the sleeve, on the lap, or at the feet of their owners, a lot of small breeds were bred for companionship. Small dogs are good companions because they don’t take up a lot of space and they would have been unobtrusive for their owners, many of whom were royalty or upper class.

French Bulldogs were bred for this purpose and their amiable, loving nature has seen them become an incredibly popular species again.


3. Watchdogs

Small breeds can sit on their owner’s lap or by their feet without getting in the way. It makes sense that they would not only be used as companions but would be trained and bred to serve other purposes.

Breeds like the Affenpinscher and the Brussels Griffon were bred to be watchdogs. They couldn’t serve as guard dogs because they weren’t intimidating enough and wouldn’t be able to take action against intruders, but they would bark an alarm at the first sign of a threat.

Some modern-day small breeds can be quite vocal, and while this might be seen as a negative trait by some, it was essential for watchdogs.

brussels-griffon
Image Credit: otsphoto, Shutterstock

4. Ratters

Most terrier breeds were bred to hunt and kill rats and other vermin. Their small size meant they could get under obstacles, and some were even capable of getting into rat holes. Although called ratters, these breeds would hunt other vermin and were especially common in situations where grain and other foods needed to be protected.


5. Hounds

Sighthounds and scent hounds use their sense of sight and scent, respectively, to locate and hunt game. The size of the game can range from rats to foxes, but small hounds would have been used to tackle smaller game species.

Dachshunds were bred as scent hounds and were used to hunt badgers as well as other burrowing animals. Today’s Dachshund owners will attest to the fact they still attempt to burrow and dig at any opportunity.

Dachshund dog standing on pathway
Image Credit: Utekhina Anna, Shutterstock

6. War Dogs

When we think of ancient war dogs, we tend to think of Mastiff-type breeds that would have gone into battle alongside their soldiers. However, even small breeds have found utility during times of war. Small dogs can be beneficial because they are not viewed as a threat so tend to be ignored on the battlefield, and they can access areas that would be otherwise inaccessible to bigger dogs.

Breeds like Beagles, although not originally bred for this purpose, have been used to deliver messages during battles.


7. Show Dogs

Many companion dog breeds became popular as show dogs, and while it is possible to show any purebred breed in modern competitions, breeds like the Maltese are especially popular for this purpose.

Their luscious coat and attentive nature mean they are easy to train, and they love the attention show dogs receive.

Maltese dog sits on a blanket and looks at the camera on a picnic in a park with sunlight
Image Credit: Tanya Dol, Shutterstock

8. Performers

Dogs have long kept people entertained with their often peculiar and sweet behaviors, but before the days of TV and game consoles, dog shows were even more popular.

Breeds that were bred for this purpose had to be smart, agile, and able to concentrate even with loud noises and large crowds of people around them. The Bichon Frise is a good example of this type of breed.Dogster_Website dividers_v1_Jan 18 2024-01-TEST

The 5 Most Popular Small Dog Breeds

1. Pug

The Pug is instantly recognizable thanks to its bulging eyes and lolling tongue. It is friendly, playful, and alert, making it a great choice of companion dog breed. This ancient breed is somewhat prone to health conditions thanks to its brachycephalic facial features, but that hasn’t seen its popularity dwindle.

Pug Pingese mix walking indoors
Image Credit: Joshua Minso, Shutterstock

2. Yorkshire Terrier

Yorkshire Terriers have beautiful long coats and sweet but fearless temperaments. They do maintain some of that terrier temperament, which means they make good watchdogs, and they enjoy playing, especially if the games involve chasing balls or small toys. The Yorkie does require a lot of grooming and can suffer separation anxiety, however.

Yorkshire Terrier dog standing outdoor
Image Credit: Nneirda, Shutterstock

3. Chihuahua

The Chihuahua is the epitome of a companion dog. The breed typically follows its owner everywhere and can get very upset if it is left out of activities. They don’t require much exercise thanks to their tiny size, but what the Chihuahua lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality and bravado.

A Chihuahua will not be afraid of tackling a much larger dog.

Chihuahua dog in woman hands
Image Credit: Anton Pentegov, Shutterstock

4. Maltese

The Maltese is a very popular show dog, thanks to its beautiful puppy dog eyes and stunning coat. It is a lapdog, but it also has plenty of energy, so it is a fun dog to live with. The Maltese doesn’t require too much exercise, but it does need regular grooming to keep that white coat looking its best.

And this is another small breed that won’t usually back down from much bigger dogs.

maltese dog barking
Image Credit: Mary Rice, Shutterstock

5. French Bulldog

The French Bulldog has become one of the most popular breeds of dogs thanks to its adaptability, size, and its friendly, playful temperament. It is seen as something of a comedian and is always up for entertaining its humans with its enjoyable antics.

french bulldog standing on grass
Image Credit: Olga Aniven, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Is the Smallest Dog Breed?

The Chihuahua is widely recognized as being the smallest dog breed in the world, weighing 6 pounds and measuring 9 inches. The breed is fun and enjoys companionship, but it is not recommended for families with small children because its tiny frame is easily injured.

When Were Dogs First Domesticated?

Exactly when dogs were first domesticated is not clear, but it is known to have been more than 30,000 years ago. This means that dogs were domesticated before horses and cattle. The original domesticated canine was the wolf, but over time, domesticated wolves became the dogs we know today.

Do Small Dogs Make Good Pets?

Small dogs can make excellent pets but as is true of any breed, they are not always the ideal choice for all potential owners. It is true they usually require less exercise than their bigger counterparts, but many small breeds were bred as companions which means they need near-constant companionship. Some also suffer a greater likelihood of ill health and physical conditions that arise as a result of their size.

Always research a breed before getting one as a pet, to ensure that it is suitable for you and your lifestyle.

woman with her french bulldog outdoors
Image Credit: Irina Kozorog, Shutterstock

What Is Small Dog Syndrome?

Small dog syndrome occurs when a small dog uses a combination of potentially overbearing characteristics to make up for its lack of size. It tends to be characterized by excessive barking and potentially even aggression.

Small dog owners should ensure their dogs are well socialized with other dogs, as well as people, and they should have obedience training, to help minimize potential problems.Dogster_Website dividers_v1_Jan 18 2024-01-TEST

Conclusion

Like other breeds, small dogs originally stem from wolves, but it is believed they originate with the Middle Eastern gray wolf, which is smaller than other species.

Over time, breeders further reduced the size of the breeds by choosing smaller and smaller examples, until we were presented with Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers, and other tiny pups.


Featured Image Credit: Krakenimages.com, Shutterstock

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