Tuesday, April 23, 2013

(Wo)Man's Best Friend

A beautiful Pekingese
Dogs have been man’s best friend for millennia, working alongside their masters as guard dogs, hunting companions, protectors and herders among other things.  But what about woman’s best friend – the lap dogs?  Since I own the type of dogs that are small and decorative rather than useful, it made me wonder when our canine friends began to evolve into pure luxury items and why.

Obviously, they must have been bred for people who had lots of time on their hands and required them merely as play things or companions.  I thought perhaps they evolved to entertain spoiled, rich ladies such as Lady Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, whose Pug has no purpose other than keeping her company.  But when I tried to find out more about this subject, I read that recent genetic studies have shown that some types of lap dog have been around for almost as long as the working ones.  I have to admit this surprised me!

Tibetan Spaniels
Most lap dog breeds originated in the Far East and one of the oldest types around are the Pekingese, who seem to have been bred specifically to fit inside the sleeves of their Chinese owners.  Presumably they acted as portable heaters - much better than a warm brick which loses its heat very quickly!  (If I’d been a Regency lady I would have made sure I had a dog on my lap when travelling by carriage in winter, that's for sure).  These friendly little dogs are very docile and would be perfect for this task.  They are also ideal companions, affectionate and happy to spend time indoors, rather than walking briskly.

My dogs, Tibetan Spaniels, are closely related to the Pekingese and in old Victorian photos the two breeds look almost identical.  Although imported to England as lap dogs in the 1880s by the Hon. Mrs McLaren Morrison, the Tibbies were originally used by the Tibetan monks as guard dogs, so they did have some useful purpose.  Mine still fill this function, always alert and ready to challenge anyone who dares to approach our house (although once inside, they greet visitors with almost overwhelming friendliness).  The Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu,  Japanese Chin and King Charles Spaniel all come from the same background too, as does the Pug.

Hogarth and his Pug (photo from Wikipedia)
Just like the Pekes, Pugs are a very old breed, apparently brought to Europe by the Dutch East India Company and subsequently adopted as favourites by the House of Orange.  King William and his English wife Mary had Pugs and when they took over the English throne in 1688 they made these dogs very popular in the UK.  What was called a Pug then seems to have differed quite a lot from the dog we see now, however, as this Hogarth portrait shows!  The flat face we know and love is completely absent and was obviously bred into these dogs at a later date.

Since Lady Bertram’s Pug in Mansfield Park appears to be as lazy, selfish and useless as its owner, I suppose one can argue that lap dogs have no real value other than as status symbols.  Famous people like Marie Antoinette and Napoleon’s wife Josephine both owned such dogs, which to their detractors allegedly symbolized their idleness.  I prefer to think there was more to it than that.  To me, and the many other so called “toy” dog owners, they do have several very important purposes – to give you friendship, affection and companionship.  When I write, my dogs lie quietly by my side, happy to wait until I have the time to take them for a walk.  They greet me with enthusiasm whenever I return from somewhere and if I’m sad, they empathise and comfort me.  It must have been the same for bored Regency ladies and I can easily imagine a little lap dog would have enriched their lives.

As for me – I couldn’t live without mine!



Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I love your fluffy dogs, Christina. I'm sure the'd make wonderfully warm living muffs for cold days.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Lovely post, Christina. I write with a pug at my feet everyday (and under the desk is littered with balls, bones, feathers, leaves - whatever he has collected that morning!) Always think these breeds are big dog character in small packages - perfect writers' companions.

Christina Courtenay said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, I totally agree - they've certainly kept my feet warm this winter!

Kate - your pug sounds lovely and yes, they do have lots of character. Mine are convinced they're lions, I think :-)

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Just returned from a damp but exhilarating walk with my rescued whippet so your blog is very timely! Unfortunately whippets are lean and boney, so I suppose I should be happy that he is stretched out before the fire while I write, rather than on my feet :-)