The conventional story on the origin of the pug goes as follows:
The Chinese, who were well-known for breeding brachycephalic dogs, had several types of brachcephalic dogs when European traders arrived, first from Portugal and then the Dutch.
The Dutch in particular were taken by the little brachycephalic dogs, usually referred to as “happa dogs,” which they brought back to Europe.
The Dutch then developed their own strains of smooth-coated, brachycephalic dogs that then contributed to the toy griffons of Belgium and the brachycephalic toy spaniels of England.
So much were the dogs associated with the Netherlands during the period of the Dutch Republic, that they are were called “Dutch pugs.”
It’s really not clear how much of this story is true.
Initial genetic studies that examined the differences between breeds didn’t find the pug to be that closely related to the shih-tzu or pekingese. This study looked at only 100 genetic markers, so the results could have been biased. However, at the time, it was a revolutionary study that examined the differences between breeds.
However, a genome-wide analysis that examined 48,000 SNP’s found that pugs were most closely related the Brussels griffon, whose Petit Brabancon variety looks very much like a small pug (when its ears and tail are left intact). However, the study found that pugs and Brussels griffons did share a common ancestor with the peke and shih-tzu.
This latter study appears to confirm the claims in the conventional history of the pug. The pug would be more closely related to the Brussels griffon because both breeds would have descended from happa dogs that were imported at an earlier date than the time in which pekes, which were crossed with contemporary happas and Japanese chin, and shih-tzus arrived in the West.
However, another genome-wide study, which unfortunately didn’t include Brussels griffons, pekingeses or shih-tzus, found a close affinity between the pug and the Jack Russell terrier. This study examined an even broader sample of the genome than the earlier 48,000 SNP study. It looked at 170,000 SNP’s, which is the biggest sample of dog genetic material I’ve seen analyzed in any paper, but because it didn’t include pekes, shih-tzus, or Brussels griffons it’s pretty hard to say if Jack Russells and pugs are that closely related.
But it may be that the initial happa type came over in only limited numbers during the height of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, and Dutch and later English and Belgian breeders added small European breeds to the initial happa imports, increasing its leg length and creating the Brussels griffon.
Pugs originally came in many more colors than they do today, and it was only with the rise of the institutionalized British dog that the modern pug was developed, and it’s here that we can find accounts that are somewhat different from the official stories.
Rawdon Lee, the late nineteenth century dog expert, claimed that pugs were from “Holland,” which is a word that is sometimes used to refer to the Netherlands, even though Holland is only a region within the Netherlands. However, Lee also contended that the black pugs were from China.
On the origins of the non-black pug, Lee writes in his A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland (Non-sporting Division) (1894) that this type of pug was most likely from Europe:
The pug has never been claimed in this country [the UK] as a native breed, but was supposed to have been a native of Holland, and even to this day is sometimes called the Dutch pug. As it happens, at present more of them are with us now than is the case in any other country on the Continent, although the pug has a wide range, extending pretty much from the east to the west of Europe. In France and Italy it is a favourite with the ladies, and at one period of its existence, but for a short time only, it was known in the former country as the Carlin, owing to its black mask or muzzle, a name given it in honour of a popular harlequin named Carlin. This, of course, was but a passing fancy, and prior to Carlin’s popularity they had been known as doguins or roquets, but afterwards they obtained the commoner, if less euphonious name of pugs (pg. 254)
On the black pug, which has its own section, Lee writes:
Here is a new variety, which has certainly appeared and obtained identity as such within the past two or three years, although we must go back a little further for the time when a few specimens were occasionally exhibited in our show rings; these being the property of the late Lady Brassey, and they were first shown at Maidstone in 1886. Perhaps to form a direct contrast to these early specimens, some kind of an attempt had been made to produce white pugs; but herein success was not achieved, the nearest approach thereto being one that a couple of years ago was shown in New York, and another sent to the Birmingham show in 1892, by Miss Dalziel, of Woking, but neither was of that snowy whiteness which one would require, and both I should take to be more “sports” than anything else. Still I do not see any reason why white pugs could not be produced by judicious crossing with the palest fawn specimens, with a slight dash of white bulldog or bull terrier to assist matters. However, this is digression.
It seems strange that with such a modern variety of dog there should be serious doubts about its origin, and there are certainly differences of opinion on the matter. On one side it is stated to have come from the North of China, and that Lady Brassey brought a specimen therefrom when she was touring round the world in her yacht, the ” Sunbeam.” Again it is said the breed first sprang up accidentally, it being a ” sport” produced in the north of London by one of the working fanciers in that locality, who had a particularly dark-coloured strain of the ordinary pug. Mrs. W. H. B. Warner, of Northallerton, at the close of 1893, showed a little black dog which she had brought from Japan, where it was said to be of a rare and choice breed. This is nothing else than a long-coated pug- i.e., pug in character and shape, but with a jacket such as is seen on a Pomeranian. But there is no reason to doubt that in the East there are as many varieties of the dog as we have here. However, it is only in place that this latest of importations should be mentioned here. In, however, suggesting that our black pugs may have come from some such dog as this, it must not be forgotten that they have very short and thin jackets, the antipodes of this little fellow of Mrs. Warner’s.
Personally, I believe there may be truth in both statements, that a black pug was accidentally produced, and at the same time a specimen or two had been brought from the East. Although Lady Brassey makes no allusion to a black pug in her published journals of the voyage of the “Sunbeam,” still I know as a fact that two or three similar dogs were on her yacht, but whether they were then called black pugs is another question. More likely they were known as Chinese pugs.
A writer in a recent number of Black and White says: “It is rather unfortunate that the late Lady Brassey should have allowed the origin of the new pug to remain a mystery, but there seems little doubt that it hailed from China, as in a weekly contemporary, only the other day, I saw a copy of an advertisement which had been appearing in the North China Daily News: ‘Lost, near the Hong Kong and Syezchen Roads, last evening, a small Peking Pug, black body and head, white paws. Anyone finding same will be rewarded on bringing it to Kelly and Walsh, Limited, Shanghai.’ The white paws were evidently uncommon, and were the lost dog’s distinguishing marks. I have also learned that a lady in the West End bought a black pug bitch from a sailor on one of the cargo ships just in the docks from China. Another lady at Willesden also bought one in the same way. This one was, however, unfortunately burnt in a fire, and before the purchaser had bred from her; but it is an undoubted fact that these pugs came off a Chinese vessel just arrived in port, and were sold to them as Chinese pugs. One lady describes hers as ‘very short in face, good curl tail, and a beautiful jet black’—a perfect pug in points. Again, I have heard of a ‘Chinese pug’ being bought at Portsmouth from a ship calling there.
The black pug is now a more cobbily and thickly-made dog than was the case three or four years ago; he is lower on the legs, and his head, face, and skull are more characteristic of our own pug dog, and he is likely in the future to breed quite as true to type as any other of our modern varieties; thus in due course he will popularise himself.
Although it was not until 1886 that black pugs first appeared at our shows, long before this time Lady Brassey had them at Normanhurst. A pair were given to a lady in Liverpool. Lord Londonderry was likewise presented with a specimen, and later I hear that Her Majesty the Queen took one, amongst her other canine companions, to Balmoral, on the usual royal visit to the Highlands. The royal pug, which bore the name of “Brassey” in honour of its donor, died at Windsor in 1891, and, so far as I can learn, not one of these four animals left any progeny behind (pg. 269-274).
Lee thought that the black pug was really quite distinct from the non-black variety. Not only was its origin in China rather than Europe, it was a very different in its constitution and health:
Mrs. Fifield and Miss “Mortivals” both accord the black pugs excellent characters. They say they are hardier than the fawn, especially when past puppyhood, and even when young they are not much trouble to rear. Oily food suits them best, and Miss “Mortivals” gives hers linseed once a week, it improving their coats and making them appear smarter and cleanlier than they would without it.
Mrs. Fifield writes that “the black pugs differ materially from the fawns; firstly they are not so susceptible to cold. The prettiest sight I remember was seeing the delight of an exquisite litter of black puppies in their first snowstorm; they simply revelled in it. They are much more tenacious in affection, for, while the fawns freely make friends, no enticements will induce the blacks to leave their owners, and, although very timid, they are wonderfully intelligent and easily learn tricks. They are cleanly in their habits, but, whilst the fawns are proverbially greedy, the blacks are extremely dainty feeders. A combination of such excellent traits makes them the most perfect companions ladies can possibly wish for.”
I think I have produced sufficient evidence to satisfy carpers that no wrong has been done in introducing in this volume the Black Pug as a distinct variety. The evidence of those who keep him proves this, not only because the blacks are, even in disposition, unlike the fawns, but because the former breed equally true to type as the latter
So far as the points and description are concerned, excepting in colour the two should be alike, but whether by introducing the “fawn” strain one or two of the distinguishing traits in the blacks may be ultimately lost is a question upon which there may be two opinions. The blacker the black pug is the better; he should be free from white, and any brown or bronze tinge is a very severe handicap when being judged in the ring (pg. 277-278).
By Lee’s account, one could have made the case that the black pug should have become its own breed. However, there likely weren’t many of them in the UK at the time, and it may have been impossible to create a breeding program for them without having to include some “native” non-black dogs as outcrosses. Black is a dominant color, though, it would have been fairly easy to get it established within pugs with just a few crosses to these anomalous black dogs from China.
It’s very likely that these black dog do descend from animals brought over from China. They would have been of the happa type, though with longer legs and less extreme conformation than the European pug. These dogs likely were breeding with very little human intervention– and very little inbreeding– and it would not have been a surprise that they would have been a bit hardier than the show pugs in England at the time.
It would have been very interesting if the black pug had been established as its own breed. From what Lee suggests, it would have been fairly easy to make the case that these dogs were quite distinct from the European pugs of the time, and thus, they were in need of their own registry.
In the end, it seems fairly clear that the history of the pug involves dogs from both the East and the West. The landrace of small brachycephalic dogs that is still quite common in parts of China was cleaved off through importation of some individuals into the West and then “improved” through the judicious addition of small European dogs. And then there was at least one other wave of later importation from the East, which introduced the black color into the breed.
In this way, the history of the pug most closely resembles that of Labrador retrievers, which were initially derived from smooth-coated St. John’s water dogs that were imported from Newfoundland. The strains that gave us the modern Labrador were kept by the Dukes of Buccleuch in Scotland and the Earls of Malmesbury in England through much of the nineteenth century. In the 1880’s, the two lines were merged and then augmented with more imports from Newfoundland.
Both of these breeds were refined in the UK, even though at least some of their ancestry could be traced to other parts of the world.
Indeed, the UK is the FCI patron country for both the pug and the Labrador retriever. If it had not been for British dog breeders, neither of these dogs would exist in its current form. Pugs would still be a variable type of dog in Europe, and the Chinese landrace of small brachycephalic dogs would still exist as it does today.
So the pug is a creation of the British dog fancy, even though it has origins in other parts of Europe and in China.
Some may think that my analogy that compared the pug to the Labrador retriever is incorrect.
The fairer comparison is the basenji.
Basenjis were imported from Central Africa in several waves, but it wasn’t until 1990, when the studbook accepted 14 imports from the Congo, that the brindle coloration was added to the breed.
The black pug, one might argue, is similar to the brindle basenji in that a color from the country of origin was added from a later import.
However, I think this is a false analogy.
Pugs, unlike basenjis, were not kept in closed registries when they were initially brought to Europe. They were heavily outcrossed to indigenous European breeds, which likely created the Brussels griffon as we know it today. It also could be a source for some of the brachcephaly that exists in English toy spaniels– which is a great historical irony. The toy spaniel was associated with the Stuarts, who worked very hard for a more powerful monarchy in England, and the pug was associated William of Orange, who overthrew the last Stuart king, James II, to begin the Glorious Revolution. William of Orange was a Dutch statholder, and it was the Dutch who introduced pugs to England during this time period.
The pugs that existed in Europe from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century would have been very different from those in China– much more so than Western basenjis are from those in Africa.
So the pug is truly an invention of East and West, while the basenji is still African.