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Elegant Saluki dog breed

The essentials

  • Sighthounds were likely the first domesticated group of dogs — While there is some debate, it’s generally accepted that ancestors of the modern Afghan hound and saluki were likely the first type of dogs to be domesticated by humans.
  • Folklore provides some hints about dogs’ origins — Cave paintings, illustrations from the Middle Ages, and quotes from famous historians and philosophers give researchers clues as to which dog breeds first came into existence.
  • Many popular dog breeds were developed during the Victorian Era — In centuries past, dog breeding focused primarily on developing domesticated canines to perform specific tasks, such as hunting or guarding. Breeding dogs based on appearance became the fashion during the 1850s and was heavily influenced by English royalty.

The American Kennel Club currently recognizes over 200 dog breeds. With more breeds joining the registry every year, it’s difficult to keep track of how long certain dog breeds have been around. While it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly which ancient breed is featured in historical notes and illustrations, detailed descriptions from days gone by give us an idea of at least which types of dogs existed first and can sometimes even reveal the origin story of a modern breed, or at least a predecessor.

The origin of dogs

Man’s best friend has taken quite the journey from the gray wolf to some of the tiny teacup and lap dog breeds we see today. While the exact timeline of their evolution isn’t known, the predecessors of some modern breeds like the Siberian husky existed in ancient times, at least 4,000 years ago. Meanwhile, others like the Biewer terrier didn’t come into existence until as recently as the 1980s.

Evolution of wolves to domesticated dogs

Scientists estimate that the domestic dog evolved from the gray wolf, or a combination of other wolf species, around a date of roughly 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. With such a broad range, we’re relying on history and DNA analysis to pinpoint exactly when certain breeds came into existence. Current DNA and fossil research suggests that at least two types of domesticated dogs existed before the Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago. These basal breeds would have been the predecessors to the Siberian husky and the Greenland sled dog, as well as Middle Eastern sighthounds, and the Basenji from Central Africa.

Regional variations in early dog breeds

Since at least two different types of domestic dogs have existed since the Ice Age, it’s difficult to determine whether they both were derived from a common ancestor at one place in time, or if they evolved separately. Regardless, even though there are many different breeds today, the gene pool is considerably narrower than it was at the beginning of the domestic dog due to selective breeding.

As humans traveled across the globe, their dogs assisted them with tasks such as hunting, guarding, and keeping them company. Some dog breeds began as hybrids, as early breeders strategically mated dogs together to strengthen desirable traits. Other breeds may have had a more natural origin as they simply mated with dogs in a particular geographical region for a long period of time.

Determining the oldest dog breeds 

It can be difficult to say which dog breed is the oldest. The definition of a breed varies depending on the culture and breed organization.  For example, the Irish setter was first recognized as a breed by the AKC in 1878 and experienced a huge popularity boom during the 1960s. Today they are rather obscure, being overshadowed by the trending breeds of our time such as the French bulldog. However, the American history of the Irish setter is rather limited since that type of dog has existed in Ireland for hundreds of years.

Even within a given country, determining breeds and breed origins can be a tricky task. In the United States, the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club are considered the two main dog registries. However, both groups have different standards, which results in some “popular” breeds technically not being recognized by one or the other. Thus, a breed is often considered to have two beginnings: when it first becomes culturally acknowledged, and when it’s formally accepted by a major kennel club.

10 of the oldest dog breeds 

Our list includes some of the oldest dog breeds acknowledged culturally. Ironically, this means some of the breeds, such as the Xoloitzcuintli, may have been recognized as a more recent breed under the AKC, but have actually existed for thousands of years.  It’s also possible that the history and age of some closely related dogs that are similar in appearance could overlap, as cultural sources make it difficult to determine to which modern breed ancient writers were referring.

1. Basenji — The barkless dog of Africa

Recent DNA analysis has shown that the basenji rests near the base of the family tree for domestic dogs. While this small sighthound may be a rare breed in the United States today, they were trained as skilled hunters and warrior dogs in Central Africa for thousands of years. These hounds are often described as “barkless” but that doesn’t mean quiet. The basenji is known to “yodel”  or even scream at times. Their curled tail and white chest with red or black coat distinguishes their appearance from many other fellow hounds.

2. Saluki — The royal dog of ancient Egypt

Paired with their short coats and long, sleek bodies, the saluki’s wavy ears and plumed tails are even more stunning. This sighthound was a favorite hunting dog of Egyptian nobility. The Saluki thrived in the Middle East for thousands of years hunting large game like gazelles and small animals like foxes. They are closely related to the Afghan hound. Some studies have placed the saluki in Southeast Asia during the years 7000 to 9000 BC. Currently, the Guinness World Record recognizes the saluki as the world’s oldest dog breed.

3. Afghan hound — The exotic aristocrat of the Middle East

The Afghan hound’s angular muzzle and fine silky coat sets it apart from most modern breeds. Although unproven and hotly contested, there’s word that the Afghan hound is indeed the oldest dog breed in the world. Legend has it that they were the original pair of dogs aboard Noah’s ark. In their native area near modern day Afghanistan, they were prized by nomadic tribes and royals for their hunting skills, including their ability to chase hares and gazelles over cold, mountainous terrain.

4. Akita— The royal guard of Japan

Also called akita inu, this spitz-type dog has a fluffy double coat often tinged with red. Long associated with Japanese culture, akitas were a status symbol of wealth and prosperity. Ownership was restricted to the noble classes until the 1930s. Interestingly, the first akita inu arrived in the United States through Helen Keller, who was presented with an akita puppy during a tour to Japan.

5. Siberian husky — The ancient sled dog of the Arctic

The husky’s thick double coat protected them from cold Siberian winters where they sledded and hunted for food. They’re closely related to the Alaskan malamute and are often mistaken for them. While they likely had a common ancestor, they are distinct breeds due to their geographical location. The Siberian husky was developed mostly in Siberia while the malamute was mostly bred by the Mahlemut tribe in modern day Alaska.

6. Shiba inu — Japan’s historic hunting dog

The shiba inu looks in many ways like a miniature Akita. Weighing no more than 22 pounds, these majestic fox-red dogs hunted small game like birds and rabbits in brushwood. Interestingly, “shiba inu” actually translates to “brushwood dog” in Japanese. Like the Akita, the shiba inu possesses an independent spirit and may need extra training as a puppy.

7. Xoloitzcuintli — The hairless dog of the Aztecs

Resembling a hairless Chihuahua in a larger body, the low-shedding Xoloitzcuintli (show-low-etz-queent-lee) was named after the Aztec god with a dog head, Xolotl. In ancient Aztec culture, Xolos were often sacrificed and buried with their owners when they died. Today, they are one of the newer members of the American Kennel Club, having received formal recognition in 2011 in the Non-Sporting Group.

8. Shih tzu — The Asian emperor’s best friend

Tibetan monks developed many of our modern dog breeds such as the shih tzu and the chow chow in hopes of pleasing the emperor. The shih tzu was a successful breed that came to be seen as a status symbol of the nobility. If you were caught outside the emperor’s gates with a shih tzu, you could be executed. Their name translates from the Chinese word for “little lion,” which suits these dogs well. Their long hair or “mane” is often pulled back with a bow and they’re hailed as cute little lap dogs. However, anyone who has owned a shih tzu knows they can be a force to be reckoned with when they’re upset.

9. Maltese — “Ye ancient dogge of Malta”

Maltese and bichon-type dogs have existed in Europe for thousands of years. The Maltese was a popular breed among the upper classes and was known as the “Roman ladies’ dog” during the empire’s reign. With their small size and sweet temperament, it’s easy to see why this breed survived the fall of Rome and all of the historical atrocities since. Given their universal charm, Maltese have been best friends with famous figures on all sides of the spectrum, from Marie Antoinette to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine.

10. Pharaoh hound — The luxury hound of antiquity

With bronze red coats and wide erect ears, the intelligent Pharaoh hound graced the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years as a choice rabbit hunting dog. This favorite of Egyptian Pharaohs is also known as the “blushing dog of Malta,” and Phoenician traders bartered Pharaoh hounds as far as west as Britain. Despite being one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds, the first American litter was born rather recently in 1970.

How dog breeds functioned in the ancient world 

Before kennel clubs, selective breeding functioned mostly for practical purposes. Hard labor jobs such as pulling sleds, guarding livestock, and supporting hunters with their nomadic lifestyle could be performed by man’s best friend. Dogs were often selectively bred to retain traits favorable to those tasks. For example, the dachshund earned their long back through selective breeding for badger hunting. Having a sleek body and deep chest cavity was advantageous for the job because it allowed the dogs to pull in and out of badger burrows with ease.

Luxury lap dogs such as the Maltese and shih tzu gave seafarers and monks alike a special task to please their patrons and superiors. Although dogs were companions in the ancient world, they also functioned as important economical and class status symbols that gave people jobs and retained societal order.

How the oldest dog breeds became the modern breeds we know today

As more diverse types of dogs were discovered during the Victorian Era and technology rendered some canine jobs obsolete, breeding was no longer something people did to run the farm. Guard dogs were still bred for military and civilian use, but overall breeding for appearance and fun formed many of the new standards. Dog fanciers became in fashion and the first western kennel clubs formed during the late 1800s.

English royalty also played a huge role in modern dog breeding. From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth, the throne has a long history of improving and furthering existing breeds. For example, the Pembroke Welsh corgi was a relatively obscure farmhand until Queen Elizabeth brought them to popularity. Queen Elizabeth even accidentally created a new dog breed, the Dorgi, when her corgi illicitly mated with Princess Margaret’s dachshund in 1971.

The creation of kennel clubs

The American Kennel Club was formed in the United States during the 1880s, and remains the foremost canine registry in the country. Classic hunting sporting dog breeds such as the pointer were first in line for formal recognition. Even though they weren’t necessarily the most ancient dogs in the world, they were familiar to westerners. Ironically, some of the oldest breeds of dogs have been the slowest to gain recognition, such as the late arrival of the Xoloitzcuintli in 2011.

Conserving ancient dog breeds in the modern era

Kennel clubs set standards accounting for color, size, temperament, and many other traits that define a breed. Selective breeding and cross breeding is a careful attempt to retain desirable characteristics of purebred pups while ruling out harmful genetic mutations and diseases that can devastate a breed.

Since biodiversity protects the gene pool, new cross breeds such as the goldendoodle can be a sign of hope for the future of dog breeding. However, breeders should take care that their efforts are not swayed by trending “designer” breeds at the expense of a dog’s health and make sure that the desirable traits stay intact.

Frequently asked questions

Which is the oldest breed of dog?

The oldest dog breed depends on how you define it. By modern standards, most dog breeds didn’t exist until the last couple hundred years when dog fanciers formed kennel clubs and set breed standards. However, the basal breeds that provided the starting ground for different types of domestic dogs have existed for thousands of years. Thus, the sighthound and spitz groups were some of the first groups of dogs to become domesticated. The basenji, Afghan hound, and saluki are a few examples of some specific basal breeds in those categories, and could be considered the first domesticated dog breeds.

What is the oldest dog breed in the United States?

According to cultural history, the malamute is the oldest dog breed in the United States. This medium sized dog with a thick coat is the predecessor for many modern sled dogs. Derived from Siberian dogs who crossed the Bering Strait, the fluffy malamute was shaped by the Inuit people who lived in Alaska and were called the Mahlemut. Even though they are an ancient breed, the malamute didn’t join ranks with the AKC until 1935. The pointer technically became the first dog breed to be officially recognized in the United States when they were registered with the AKC in 1878.

What is considered the oldest dog breed in the world?

The Afghan hound often claims the title of the oldest dog breed in the world. However, it is closely contested by the Saluki and Greenland dog. The Guinness Book of World Records currently reports that the Saluki is the oldest breed, but a new genetic study says it might be the Greenland sled dog.  It’s important to realize that genetics vary through the ages due to breeding and other factors. Whatever the oldest breed was likely underwent changes over the years that make them look slightly different from their descendants that you might see today.