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A pug sitting outside.

The essentials

  • An ancient breed — Pugs are among the oldest dog breeds and have a long and varied history with evidence suggesting they were first developed in China before spreading to other countries.
  • A royal companion — Throughout history, pugs have been adored by royals and commoners alike for being cute, affectionate, and loyal.
  • Hashtag-worthy — In the modern era, pugs continue to be among the most popular dog breeds in the world, with a large and devoted fanbase across social media.

Pugs have been a beloved breed of dog for hundreds of years, and their popularity remains as strong as ever. Whether it’s their distinctive appearance, charming personalities, or celebrity fans, there’s no denying that pugs continue to capture the hearts of dog lovers across the globe. In this article, we’ll explore the history and popularity of the breed, from their royal beginnings to their modern appeal.

400 B.C.: The pug in ancient China

In 400 B.C., pugs were already popular pets in ancient China, where they were bred as companions for the ruling elite. They were one of three small, flat-faced dog breeds established by the Chinese: Shih-Tzu (lion dog), Pekingese, and Lo-Sze (pug, also known as Foo dog). Pugs were highly valued for their affectionate and loyal nature. They were also appreciated for their small size, making them very convenient to carry around in pockets or small bags.

According to historical records, pugs were so highly regarded in ancient China that they were often given lavish gifts and even had their own royal palaces. It is said that the emperor of the Han Dynasty brought pugs from China’s northwestern region as tribute to the royal court. The Ming Dynasty also had a strong affection for pugs, with many members of the Chinese royalty keeping them as pets.

The breeding of pugs in ancient China was a refined art. Breeders carefully selected dogs for traits such as round heads, short snouts, and large, expressive eyes. The pug’s coat was also carefully groomed and decorated with elaborate patterns and designs. Today, the pug remains a beloved breed in China and around the world, thanks in part to its rich and fascinating history.

The 8th century (732 AD): The Sichuan Pai in Japan

The popularity of the pug spread quickly through Asia during the 7th and 8th century. First, in Korea, and then in Japan where the beloved pups were offered as gifts from Korean envoys. The breed quickly became popular among the upper class in Japan and was treasured as a loyal companion and status symbol.

Before the arrival of “real” pugs, Japan had its own version of the breed, the Japanese Chin dog. To distinguish between the two breeds, Japan adopted the name “Sichaun Pai” for their new canine companions.

This was likely a way of emphasizing the breed’s origins and Chinese heritage, but there is some debate about its definition. Depending on the dictionary, Sichuan Pai either means “dog with short legs” or “dog with a short head.”

Today, pugs – known as Pagu in Japan – are so popular that there is a national holiday where owners dress their pups in headscarves.

The 16th century: Pompey and the House of Orange

In the 16th century, the pug played a significant role in European history, most notably in the House of Orange in the Netherlands. One of the most well-known pugs of this time was Pompey, the faithful companion of Prince William the Silent, who was the leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule.

Pompey was a loyal and devoted companion to Prince William, accompanying him everywhere and even warning him of an assassination attempt in 1572. According to legend, assassins hidden among the Spanish troops were attempting to sneak into the Prince’s tent. Pompey heard their footsteps and started barking. Another version of the tale says Pompey heard the soldiers and bit the would-be attackers, giving Prince William enough time to draw his sword and defend himself.

Pugs were highly valued and popular among the House of Orange in the 16th century, with many members of the royal family keeping them as pets. They were often depicted on the family’s coat of arms and, following Pompey’s heroism in 1572, they became the official dog of the House of Orange.

The 18th and 19th centuries: A member of European royal courts

During the 18th and 19th centuries, pugs continued to be a favorite breed among European royals. Catherine the Great’s aunt was said to have many pugs who all went with her to church. She was known for her lavish lifestyle, and pugs were often given as gifts to visiting dignitaries, so they became associated with the opulence of Catherine’s court.

Another notable figure who was fond of pugs during this time included Napoleon’s wife Josephine who had a pug named Fortune. According to legend, Fortune bit Napoleon on their wedding night.

Queen Victoria of England was also a notable lover of the breed. Victoria adored pugs and it’s said she kept as many as 36 throughout her reign. The most famous of the grumble (yes, a group of pugs is called a grumble) was Olga, who had a distinctive black mask around her eyes. Queen Victoria was so enamored with her pugs that she became instrumental in the establishing of the British Kennel Club in 1873.

Pugs continued to be popular throughout the 19th century, with the breed appearing in popular culture, art, and literature. They were also kept as pets by commoners, but their popularity among royals helped to elevate their status and secure their place as one of the most beloved dog breeds in the world.

The modern-day pug 

The pug has come a long way from its royal roots in China. In 1885, the American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognized the pug and set the breed standard. Today, the pug is one of the most beloved dog breeds in the world.

Pugs are a whole lot of dog in a small package. Its great sense of humor, cute and comical appearance, as well as its affectionate personality, have made it a favorite with dog lovers everywhere.

One of the reasons for the pug’s popularity is its adaptability. They’re a good choice for small apartments, because they don’t need a lot of physical activity and don’t demand a lot of space. They are also happy to live with both individuals and families, making them great companions for people of all ages.

Another factor in the pug’s continued popularity is its intelligence. Pugs are known for being quick learners and eager to please their owners. This makes them well-suited for training and obedience work. Many pugs even excel in various dog sports, such as agility and obedience trials.

Despite their many positive qualities, pugs do have some health issues that owners should be aware of. They are a brachycephalic breed, which means they have a short snout and flattened face. This can lead to breathing problems, especially in hot and humid weather. Pugs can also be prone to certain health problems like hip dysplasia, third eyelid gland prolapse, and obesity if not properly cared for.

Overall, however, the pug remains a beloved and cherished breed. Its unique appearance, playful personality, and adaptability make it a great choice for anyone looking for a loyal and loving companion.

Frequently asked questions

What did pugs evolve from?

The exact origins of the pug breed are not entirely clear, but it is believed that they descended from small Chinese mastiffs, which were popular pets among the Chinese nobility.

The breed we know today as the pug likely originated in China during the Han dynasty. They were later imported to Europe by Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries and quickly became popular with various European royal houses.

How did pugs originally look?

Historical records suggest that early versions of the pug had short, flat faces and short coats, similar to modern pugs. However, they would have looked slightly different from modern pugs because they had longer legs and a more streamlined build.

As they spread throughout Europe by way of the Dutch East India Company, the pug was selectively bred to meet the fashion and aesthetic preferences of the time, leading to variations in the size, shape, and color of the breed. However, despite these variations, the pug’s distinctive features, such as its wrinkled face, large eyes, and curled tail, have remained relatively consistent.

What were pugs originally bred for?

The first pugs were bred to be lap dogs, providing companionship and entertainment for their owners. They were highly valued by the ruling elite – including Chinese emperors – and wealthy households because they were seen as symbols of status and prosperity.

As they were brought to other parts of the world, pugs continued to be bred for their companionable nature and playful personalities. They were especially popular with European aristocrats in the 16th and 17th centuries, who admired the breed for its loyalty, affection, and amusing antics. There’s no historical evidence that suggests pugs were used for any specific work or purpose.

What did a pug look like before selective breeding?

Pugs are believed to have descended from Chinese mastiffs which would have had a some differences in physical appearance. Over many generations of selective breeding, the breed developed its signature traits, including the short muzzle, wrinkled face, and curled tail. Early pugs may have had shorter coats than their modern counterparts and may have come in different colors.

Were pugs really used to take down lions?

There is no evidence to suggest that pugs were ever used to take down lions. Pugs are a small breed of dog and would not be capable of hunting or fighting large prey like lions. In fact, the breed was developed primarily as a companion dog and does not have a history of being used for hunting or other working purposes.

It is possible that this confusion came from the pug’s early origins when there were three dog breeds in ancient China that were considered pugs: the lion dog (shih-tzu), the Pekingese, and the lo-sze (pug).