My dog Radar is the only living example of the rarest dog breed in the world: the Greater Chicago Domesticated Shark Terrier. Of course, he’s actually a scrappy little bully mix of indeterminate origin, but it’s fun to imagine he came from a rare and prestigious lineage.
Every dog is unique, from the highest pedigreed show dog at Westminster to the most basic brown mutt rescued from the city shelter, but there’s something extra-special about rare dog breeds.
Because rare dog breeds are, well, rare, it can be tough to nail down specific numbers and rankings. With that in mind, we’ve gathered a diverse cross-section of the rarest dog breeds from around the world, most of which number fewer than 1,000 worldwide (compare that to hundreds of thousands of Labrador retrievers, the most popular dog in North America).
They the gamut from big to small, curly-coated to hairless, and ancient lineage to 20th century origin. The one thing rare dog breeds have in common is their scarcity: There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of some of the rare dogs on this list!
Originating from the Saharan desert in West Africa, the Azawakh is a tall, elegant sighound originally used as a guard dog and hunter. Like many rare international dog breeds, they are more common in their homeland, but still relatively unheralded in the U.S. and Europe. The Azawakh was officially added to the AKC in 2011. You can learn more about these long-legged beauties, including how to obtain one, from the American Azawakh Association.
The Canaan dog is one of the most ancient breeds in the world, with origins in the Middle East as far back as Bible times. Like many examples of “pariah dogs” (broadly defined as domestic and wild breeds that originated as scavengers at the edges of human populations), the Canaan is an intelligent and alert dog with a wedge-shaped head and a high, curly tail. Though the Canaan dog is the national breed of Israel, there are estimated to be just 2,000-3,000 worldwide. Learn more about the effort to preserve the breed’s lineage and legacy here.
The split-nosed Catalbururn, whose name literally translates to “fork nose,” are one of the must unique-looking rare dog breeds in the world. Their unusual appearance belies the darker side of rare dogs, as their split nose and wide-set eyes are a result of inbreeding from a very limited gene pool. Though catalburuns have recently gained some attention thanks to the sharing power of the internet, in fact, they are almost never seen outside their origin country of Turkey, where they are revered as hunting dogs.
A sledding dog developed in the early 20th century by arctic explorer Arthur Treadwell Walden, the Chinook is relatively new on the scene, but it’s still revered as the state dog of New Hampshire. These big, sturdy American dogs started as a mix between huskies and mastiff-like dogs, and were bred for strength and endurance. These days, they’re most often family pets. Learn more about Chinook dogs and how to get one from the Chinook Owners Association of America.
This ancient rare dog breed comes from the mountains of a Japanese island, where it evolved in relative isolation, making it a distinctly pure Japanese breed. The Kai Ken is recognized as a National Treasure in Japan, but remains exceedingly rare as a pet; according to the AKC, the first Kai Ken in America didn’t show up until the 1990s. This brindle-coated beauty is a natural hunter with tons of energy and is not suited fro the couch potato lifestyle!
The Mudi has its origins in Hungary (home of two other distinct and somewhat rare breeds, the mop-coated Puli and Komondor). Mudis, with their distinct curly coats, were likely “naturally occurring” shepherd dogs, adapting from wild populations to live and work alongside humans. These days, they still work as herding dogs and also make faithful companions, but they’re best for active homes—these guys like to work!
The Lundehund is an ancient Norwegian breed developed to hunt puffins and their eggs along rocky cliffs; the name literally means “puffin hound.” These cuties have several distinct features to help in the hunt, including six fully-formed toes on each foot, a neck that can bend backwards, incredibly articulated arm joints, and ears that seal themselves shut. Lundehunds were quite common in their home country up until the 20th century, when modern hunting practices led to near-extinction, but these days they number fewer than 2,000 worldwide.
Otterhounds were originally bred to hunt otters in Europe, and once otter hunting was outlawed, breed numbers dwindled. According to the Otterhound Club of America, there are fewer than 800 otterhounds left in the world, making them one of the most rare large dog breeds in existence. They make excellent family pets, but if you want one, you’ll need to seek out a reputable breeder: there are only 4 to 7 litters born each year in North America (check out a livestream of a recently-born litter here).
The Caucasian Ovcharka (also known as the Caucasian Mountain Dog or Caucasian Shepherd Dog) is one of the largest rare dog breeds in the world, hailing from mountainous regions of Russia and neighboring transcontinental nations. Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, these massive mountain dogs are no teddy bears: fiercely territorial, they were historically used to hunt wolves and bears. Ovcharkas don’t like strangers, and are most often kept as working guard dogs, though with proper socialization they can be loyal family dogs as well.
The Russian toy originated as an elite lapdog for aristocracy, and is not only one of the most rare small dog breeds (full grown, they never reach more than 6 pounds), but one of the rarest breeds in the world, period. According to the AKC, the Russian Toy faced near-extinction twice. and has only gained recognition outside of Russian in the past 20 years.
The Thai ridgeback is named for its country of origin and the pronounced ridge of hair growing down the center of its back in the opposite direction from the rest of its coat. One of only three ridgeback breeds in the world (the others are the more common Rhodesian ridgeback and the Vietnamese Phu Quoc ridgeback), the Thai ridgeback is another example of a “pariah dog” that has evolved without much human help. They make excellent guard dogs, but are not right for first-time dog people, as they retain many of their wild roots.
Also known as a Mexican hairless dog, the xoloitzcuintli (pronunced “show-low-etz-queent-lee,” but often shortened to just “show-low”) is one of the world’s oldest and rarest breeds. The AKC calls it “the first dog of the Americas” because it was one of the first dogs domesticated by human populations, and has existed in Mexico for more than 3,000 years. There are even statues erected in its honor! Xoloitzcuintlis are smart, loyal dogs who make good companions, but that hairless skin does require extra care in the form of sunscreen and moisturizer.
Now that you’ve gotten to know a few of the rarest dog breeds in the world, you may be wondering what it takes to acquire one of your very own. The fact is, the rarest purebred dogs almost never turn up in shelters, so if you’re interested in adopting one, your best bet is to find a reputable breeder through a national or international breed club. Acquiring a rare dog can cost anywhere from $1,000-$10,000 depending on rarity, lineage, and location.
Keep in mind, too, that most of these rare dog breeds were bred or developed for specific tasks, and as a result they can require especially careful training and care. Rare dog breeds aren’t for everybody (personally, I’m happy to stick with my scrappy little rescue mutt), but for the right people, they make distinct and wonderful pets.
Top image via Pets Adviser