Dogs have been inhabiting England for a long time. Dame Juliana Bernes composed the first known printed list of breeds in 1486, in her treatise The Boke of St. Albans. For the next two weeks, let’s talk about the popular dog breeds of the Regency era (there is so much information, it needs to be split into two posts).
Dogs during the Regency period were prized less for their looks and more for their abilities, somewhat the opposite of modern tastes. There are always exceptions to the norm, such as the surge in popularity of toy-sized breeds as lapdogs during the Regency, but for the most part, the value of Regency era dogs lay in their skills versus their cute faces or pretty coats.
Dogs were officially registered and codified during the Victorian period, and suddenly their place in families shifted to that of hobby and pet. The Industrial Revolution not only lessened the need for human workers instead of machinery, it all but eliminated the dog as a worker. They were no longer employees, and suddenly became esteemed property, something to be displayed and bragged about like a piece of art, their lineage passed down like a favorite piece of heirloom jewelry.
While the names of the breeds from the Regency era are familiar, some of their features are very different. The Victorians developed specific rules for how each breed should look, and records were kept to help owners breed desired traits and weed out the “inferior” ones – sometimes to the detriment of the health of the dogs.
I’m going to list the popular Regency era breeds in alphabetical order, mostly for my benefit, so I don’t forget any. And for the purposes of these two posts, I will include graphics of the breeds as they looked during the early 19th century, not as they are now.
A dog. CANT.
The English Bulldog
These stout dogs were originally bred to help butchers control livestock, such as horses, cows, and boars. They were strong and fearless…which unfortunately led to a barbaric practice called “bull-baiting,” where the dog would seize the ring in a bull’s nose and either pull him to the ground in victory, or die trying. The “sport” was outlawed in 1835; with the loss of its job and money-making in the bull ring, these 80-100 pound dogs moved indoors. Selective breeding gradually gave rise to a shorter, squattier, gentler dog. It also changed the shape of the breed’s head, from a dog that resembled a mastiff with a large head and short muzzle, to one whose lower jaw protruded prominently and whose nose is shallow and upturned, giving his face a “smushed” quality.
The name Collie likely derived from a combination of the dialectal coaly, meaning “coal-black,” and the Middle English colfox, “coal-fox,” a variety of fox with tail and both ears tipped with black. Collies of this era were also known as sheep dogs, and were intelligent, friendly, and energetic. They came rough-coated, with long and thick hair, or smooth-coated, with shorter, fine hair. One used to have to go to Scotland to see this breed until about 1800, when Englishmen imported the beasties to herd their sheep and cows. Upon her first visit to Scotland, it was said that Queen Victoria saw a Collie at work and was so impressed by his cleverness that she became a veritable patroness of the breed, leading to their popularity as pets. Selective breeding during the Victorian era gave rise to the lighter brown and white colored coat of today’s Collies, where the barest hint of their ancestors’ black coloring can be seen around the ears and undercarriage.
Although there is an area in Yugoslavia known as Dalmatia, it’s unlikely the name of the breed derived from there: tomb paintings in ancient Egypt revealed spotted dogs trotting alongside chariots. The popularity of the breed, and accompanying documentation in word and art, dates from 1800s England. Dalmatian simply means spotted dog, and more specifically distinctive black and white spotted dog with a short, glossy coat. They were medium-sized, lithe, and speedy dogs capable of great endurance, their strong and muscular physiques giving rise to extremely active natures. They were natural carriage dogs, accompanying horses on the road, with their speed and stride allowing them to keep the pace of travel. Dalmatians would overnight in the stables as both watchdogs and companions to the horses. This breed’s propensity to love to travel made it extremely popular with the English aristocracy, who called them Coach Dogs, and who often found it safer to leave their property in the care of Dalmatians rather than coachmen.
According to the Georgian Index:
It is a trick of thieves who work in pairs for one to distract the coachman while the other sneaks around to the rear and steals whatever robes and other valuables he can lay his hands on. I never lost an article while the dogs were in charge, but was continually losing when the coachman was in charge. (Woodcock)
Fun Fact: Dalmatian puppies are born solid white; their spots develop at three to four weeks of age.
The Great Dane
This breed was so named in 1774 when French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, saw a large dog while traveling in Denmark and erroneously assumed it was a breed native to that country. His name, “le Grande Danois,” or Great Dane, took hold. However, in the middle of the 16th century, documents show that these brawny, long-legged dogs, a cross breeding of English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds, were imported from England to the continent. Germans even called them English Dogges, and they became popular in that country for hunting wild boar, bear, and deer by day, and sleeping in their master’s rooms at night. Known as Kammerhunde, meaning “Chamber Dogs,” they were veritable kings of their castles, wearing gilded collars and protecting their owners from assassins.
But none of these countries may know the origin of these giant canines. Ancient frescoes from Tiryns, dating back to the 14th–13th centuries BC, show large Boar Hounds on the hunt.
These dogs were everywhere throughout all time.
Great Danes are one of the tallest breeds, but not quite as tall as we think of today. Both males and females weighed over 100 pounds, and their coats were short and light in color, with darkened muzzles. Author Sharon Lathan writes that Great Danes “were physically strong, brave, powerful hunters, quick and deadly, and very aggressive. Much different from the typical Great Dane’s temperament today, the gentleness bred into them in more recent decades.”
The English Foxhound
The epitome of all English dogs, detailed records have been kept for this breed since the 1700s, when foxhounds were bred and pedigrees documented by the Dukes of Rutland and Beaufort, and Earls Fitzwilliam and Yarborough. Foxhounds were kept in packs, housed in kennels, and although treated extremely well, they were workers – hunters – and definitely not pets. It is believed that this breed resulted from the crossing of Southern Hounds with Northern Hounds to produce dogs with great noses and stamina, but little speed. To fix this, gazehounds (also known as sighthounds) from Northern England were added into the stock – likely Greyhounds or Whippets. To increase tenacity, some papers show the addition of Fox Terriers and English Bulldogs to the mix. By the middle 1700’s, the expert and indefatigable hunter known as the Foxhound was born. They are one of the few breeds who look relatively the same then as now.
Like Dalmatians, Greyhounds seem to have been around in ancient Egypt, where their likenesses were frescoed on tomb walls. As such, the breed has been forever associated with nobility and rulers; for hundreds of years, only aristocrats and royals were allowed to own them. They were originally bred as hunting dogs, and could reach such speeds that few prey could escape. Their long and slender legs, sleek lines, and deep chest combined with keen eyesight to make them a formidable chasing machine. The winter sport of coursing – releasing hounds (in pairs, in Regency England) into an open field to chase flushed game – was a signature pursuit for Greyhounds, where competition was fierce and highly organized in a group structure:
The rules for membership in all of the coursing clubs was based on the rules Lord Orford had established for the Swaffham Coursing Society. Membership was only open to gentlemen, and was limited to twenty-six members at any time. Each member of a coursing club typically owned, bred and trained his own greyhounds which were then matched at coursing meetings….The essentials of any coursing meeting were a series of matches, each of which comprised the pursuit of a hare by a pair, or brace, of greyhounds….The greyhounds were judged on both speed and skill in their pursuit of the hare. One of the reasons hares had become so popular for coursing was that in addition to being very fast, they were both clever and agile. They seldom ran a straight line, and could turn quickly and unexpectedly to evade the pursing hounds. The “turn” was a coursing term which indicated the hare had turned at not less than a right angle, while the “wrench” was the term for a turn of less than a right angle. The greyhounds were judged on how well they anticipated and responded to the movements of the hare along the course. There were points awarded if one of the a greyhounds caught and killed the hare, but those points were awarded to the dog who had done the most to make the kill possible, even if that dog had not actually made the kill. More often, however, the hare escaped, or was caught up by one of the spectators after the match and set free, if she was considered to have provided especially good sport.
~from The Gentlemanly Sport of Coursing at The Regency Redingote
The English Mastiff
The first printed list in English of dog breeds, from the The Boke of St. Albans, included the Mastiff (see the third line in the graphic excerpt from the book at the top of this post). This breed has been in England so long that it was theorized to have been brought over by Phoenician traders in the 6th century B.C. Before selective breeding began in the Victorian era, Mastiffs were described as “vast, huge, stubborn, ugly, and eager, of a heavy and burdensome body” (John Caius), and “warlike dogs” (Christopher Merret).
When Sir Peers Legh was wounded in the bloody Battle of Agincourt in 1415, it was noted that his Mastiff stood over and protected him for many hours as the battle raged. The dog was returned afterward to Legh’s home, Lyme Park, and was the foundation of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs. The modern Mastiff breed, codified during the Victorian era, was based on this 500-year-old line. (Lyme Park, Jane Austen fans will remember, stood in for Pemberley, in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice)
Mastiffs showed bodies of solid bulk and broad skulls, and weighed between 150–250 pounds. Although bred for several generations to hunt wolves and fight in blood sports, the breed’s temperament has always been documented as both brave and docile, and perfectly tuned into the action at hand. Sydenham Edwards wrote in the 1800 Cynographia Britannica:
What the Lion is to the Cat the Mastiff is to the Dog, the noblest of the family; he stands alone, and all others sink before him. His courage does not exceed his temper and generosity, and in attachment he equals the kindest of his race. His docility is perfect; the teazing of the smaller kinds will hardly provoke him to resent, and I have seen him down with his paw the Terrier or cur that has bit him, without offering further injury.
Next week, the rest of the popular breeds of the Regency era. Stay tuned!
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- According to Business Insider, most dog breeds emerged from a shockingly recent moment in history.
- We should be ashamed: “How man has changed his best friend: How 100 years of intensive breeding has left some dog breeds unrecognisable – and in pain,” via The Daily Mail.
- A post for another time, but a really good article to read: Coach Dog vs Carriage Dog … Do You Know The Difference?
- Check out all of Sharon Lathan’s post on Dogs Essential for a Regency Era Hunter.
- English Foxhounds are fascinating little terrorizers of vermin.
- I cannot recommend Mimi Matthew’s concise The Care and Kenneling of 19th Century Foxhounds and Sporting Dogs enough if you need to know anything about this pastime.
- You’ve heard of fox hunts, but what of The Gentlemanly Sport of Coursing?
- If you’re feeling up to it, channel your inner Chaucer and attempt to read The Boke of St. Albans for yourself. Beft Wifhes.
- Read up on the fascinating and distinguished history of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs.
- The Georgian Index has a nice post outlining various breeds of the era.