When we think of small dogs, most likely we picture a gentle Maltese curled on a pillow or a Pekingese snoring peacefully on its owner’s lap. Quite a few small dogs were bred purely for companionship but some originally had other jobs that they performed. Of course, all small dogs, whether once owned by royalty or born in the fields, are companion animals. It’s just that the lapdogs wouldn’t think of getting themselves dirty doing something outside.
The small size of these dogs lent them to certain tasks as did their tenacity, ability to learn quickly and their attitude. Small dogs seem to try to make up for their lack in inches by developing colorful personalities and this helped them in many of the jobs they had. And, of course, their high level of cuteness was an asset in many things.
The Original Jobs of Small Dogs
Watchdogs: Small dogs have big barks and often a bite that goes with it. Some walked the tops of walls at night to warn their people if someone approached. Others were taken on trips to act as watchdogs. And some were expected to guard their lady’s chamber in the palace. Among those used as canine burglar alarms were the Affenpinscher, Miniature Pinscher, Brussels Griffon, and Pomeranian.
Ratters: Terriers were often used for ratting, as well as the digging out and killing of small game. But a few other breeds were also talented at this, such as the Min Pin. These dogs had to be extremely game and tenacious and able to work without instruction from their owner. Often the prey was larger than the dog. The terrier’s thick tail was bred so that the owner could pull it out of a hole when it refused to give up on its quarry. Some terriers used for this purpose are the Norwich, Australian and Border terriers.
Scenthounds and Sighthounds: The small dog versions of these AKC categories were used to track, follow and find small prey in groups. Because of this, these breeds today prefer to have canine companionship in their home. They’re also likely to take off after something in the distance. The Italian Greyhound hunted rabbits while the Dachshund was used to hunt badgers and the like (perhaps explaining their grizzly personality today).
Handwarmers: Who knew small dogs were useful in chilly weather? Or as a fashion accessory? Miniature Poodles were kept in the long sleeves of nobility during the Renaissance. They aptly became known as “sleeve dogs.”
Lapwarmers: Well, any small dog owner knows that their pooch is very useful for warming up the thighs. But some small dogs were used specifically for this purpose in chilly castles and on damp carriage rides. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is most noted for this.
War Dogs: Small dogs have been used in wars for ages. Their main purpose was usually to provide entertainment and companionship to the soldiers. These dogs were plucky, tough little canines whose breeding allowed them to be fearless in the chaos of battle. One Yorkie was even awarded a badge of honor for his role in WWII when he warned soldiers of oncoming shell attacks.
Show Dogs: Though all registered breeds can be show dogs, some small dogs were bred specifically for that purpose. One such breed is the Boston Terrier which was bred in America from the Bull and Terrier of England and the French Bulldog. These dogs were created with even temperaments, unlike their fighting predecessors, and were trained from the start to perform in the ring.
Performers: Organ grinders, gypsies and circus folk used small dogs to entertain the masses. These dogs had to be friendly, intelligent and highly trainable. They also had to stay focused despite loud clapping and raucous crowds. The Bichon and the Mini Poodle were very popular for this work.
Worshiped Beings: The cat seems to outweigh the dog in jobs of being the center of worship but some small canines were bowed to long ago. The Aztecs worshiped the petite Chihuahua and the Egyptians seem to have worshiped a primitive form of the Maltese.
We value our dogs today for the companionship they provide whether they are four pounds or 120 pounds, whether they were originally meant to kill rats or to sit on a throne. Those small dogs that were always considered purely companion dogs have had many more years to perfect their positioning on a pillow than, say, a terrier. But all small dogs make excellent lap warmers whatever their background.