Pug Origin: What Were Pugs Bred for?

Pugs. You know them when you see them. Is it a Boxer? Is it a Pekingese? No, it’s a Pug! Short legged, small and stocky but full of personality. A bulldog that never grew up. Or maybe there’s more to them than that. What were Pugs bred for? Maybe they were actually bred with a purpose…

So, what were Pugs bred for? Pugs originate from China where they were bred for food. NO, NO! They were bred to be companion animals to the Emperors and other rulers! After they were brought to Europe, they continued to be bred for lapdogs.

Pugs may seem to be nondescript little fellows, but they were the favorites of the elite classes of many countries over the last centuries. They appear in paintings, literature, and in history as well, usually as little heroes.

What Exactly are Companion Animals?

The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) states that the term “companion animal” is preferable to the term “pet” as the latter does not adequately describe the range of relationships that may exist between humans and the animals which are kept.

The  American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) defines a companion animal as:

“Domesticated or domestic-bred animals whose physical, emotional, behavioral and social needs can be readily met as companions in the home, or in close daily relationship with humans.”

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has put down guidelines for vets on how to assess and advise on welfare for companion animals because the companion animal segment of their profession has grown so much.

They state unequivocally that animals are sentient beings and therefore their welfare goes beyond feeding, watering, and preventing pain.

And What About Lapdogs?

The term originated at the end of the seventeenth century and became generally known throughout the eighteenth century as these dogs became more popular.

Today, lapdog is a generic term and does not feature as a group in the American Kennel Club (AKC) list of dog breeds or The Kennel Club in the UK.

Some dictionaries specify that a lapdog is a dog small enough to lie in a lap.

Thanks, Captain Obvious!

That said, in 1756 the father of modern biological binomial classification, Linnaeus gave the lapdog a species name Canis melitaeus.

Later it was established that all domestic dogs are the same species Canis familiaris.

The designation Canis lupus familiaris that crops up sometimes and attempts to indicate the common heritage of dogs and wolves is not recognized by The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

The Earliest Pugs

It seems to be pretty much agreed that Pugs originated in China.

The Chinese also bred 2 other kinds of short-nosed dogs namely the Shih Tzu (Chinese Lion Dog) and the Pekingese.

The first Pugs were called Lo-sze. They were recorded from China as long ago as 663 BC.

The oft-touted reference to pugs being mentioned in the writings of Confucius is a long shot. Did he mention “short-mouthed dogs”?

Not if you bother to search in the actual Confucius text archives. The phrase does not appear in any one of the Four Books or the Five Classics.

What you do get in these texts are references to dogs being bred for food and several pointers as to the correct way of preparing dog flesh.

Don’t read it if you have a dog, even a Pug.

…especially a Pug.

Some say this was also the dog on which the Foo Dog statues were modeled but in fact, Foo dogs are “stone lions” – shishi – not dogs.

Pictures also show that as recently as 200 years ago Pugs did not look like they do today. So while they may look a bit like a Foo Dog now, they certainly did not when those statues were first created, maybe around 208 BC.

Pugs, as well as Pekingese, probably originated from the now-extinct short-coated Chinese Happa dog. A stuffed one can be seen in the Rothschild Zoological Museum, Tring, England.

Where did the Bulldog Appear?


The Pug is not, repeat NOT, related to the bulldog.

It is most certainly not a cross between a Pekingese and a Bulldog as some bloggers blithely state.

Do your research, people!!

*drops mic*

Pugs Out of China

Not quite Out of Africa (apologies to Karen Blixen), but Pugs came a long way from China to where they are today.

(Which is everywhere.)

They were brought to Europe by the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Companie) who were Dutch traders. They quickly became very popular with the wealthy classes and started to appear all over, usually dressed up, beribboned, and what not.

Were Pugs actively bred to be lapdogs?

Breeding records do not go back that far, but certainly, that is what they were mainly used for.

Some references are made to Pugs being used by the military as guard or tracking dogs in the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the book from which this quote is taken (according to Wikipedia) is not available to check online, there is a study that found that Pugs do better at a scent test than German Shepherds.

Does this mean they are now considered for breeding as K9 dogs?

No, sadly not. They just don’t have the scare factor.

Famous Pugs

There are a few stories that are associated with Pugs that are universally told:

  • A Pug named Pompey saved the life of the Dutch Prince of Orange when he was on campaign against the Spanish in 1572. Did the Pug become the National Dog of the House of Orange after that? One Dutch source confirms that they were, but just for a while. By the way, a Pug is called a Mopshond in Dutch. The Raad van Beheer (the official Kennel Club of the Netherlands) has very little to say about the Pug. They could have used Pompey to breed guard dogs. Missed opportunity.
  • This same William overthrew his father-in-law James II of England in 1688 in collaboration with some British Parliamentarians. He thus became William the III and he and his wife Mary II apparently ascended the British Throne with a couple of Pugs decorated in orange ribbons.
  • Josephine de Beauharnais (her of “Not tonight, Josephine” fame) had a Pug named Fortuné who carried messages to her while she was in Les Carmes prison during the French Revolution around 1792. So you could say that although he was bred to be a lapdog, he was perfectly capable of being a messenger dog. He also bit Napoleon on the shin…..Chien! En bas!

Pugs in Books

The best-known Pug in literature is probably the one in Mansfield Park, written by Jane Austen.

The literary buffs say that Austen uses the Pug, that belonged to one of the main characters, Lady Bertram, to highlight issues like social class, women’s place in society, slavery, the laziness of eighteenth-century upper classes, and humanizing of lapdogs in general.

The dog’s name?


Some light fiction include Pug Hill by Alison Pace and Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe (Heartwarming Letters) by Jeremy Greenberg.

Not literature but a darn good read are the Pugs that feature in children’s books, “Captain Pug” and “Pugs of the Frozen North”.

There are also a series of Pug books by Aaron Blabey about the badly behaved adventures of Pig the Pug and by Kristen Otte about a pug named Zelda.

These pugs can do anything – lapdog? schmapdog!

Related Questions

Are there problems with breeding Pugs?

Yes. Many vets and organizations argue that the extremely flat face of the Pug, as well as the bulging eyes and the screwed tail should not be further propagated due to the health problems that result.

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