Dog lovers are lucky: our canine companions come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes. In recent decades small dogs have become quite popular. These diminutive pups tug at our heartstrings, fit in our purses, and sleep on our laps. The question is: why are they so small? And could they really be descended from wolves? We’ve got your answers.
The science behind small dogs
Scientifically speaking, canines have a “slippery genome” in their DNA that allows for faster mutation and adaptation.
This helps explain why we have both oversized Irish wolfhounds and tiny teacup Chihuahuas. Evidence suggests development of smaller dogs began 12,000 years ago in the Middle East when our dog-loving ancestors bred and domesticated four-legged friends.
These dogs trace their heritage to the smaller, Middle Eastern gray wolf. Before that, evidence suggests canines were predominantly Great Dane-sized to face their environment and survive.
How humans helped create small dogs
It’s not arrogant to say, then, that human interaction—domestication, loving care, and protection—is what’s led to many variations in size and cuteness.
Without the need to adapt body, mouth, or limbs to face the harsh rigors of the wild on their own, our dogs have adapted instead to companionship.
To fit the needs and desires of that relationship, smaller dogs were selectively bred together, or crossbred with smaller dogs, to achieve changes over time. As Discovery.com suggests, now it’s survival of the cutest.
Origins of popular small dog breeds
Where did your small dog come from? Let’s take a look at the origins of some of the most popular small dogs:
American Cocker Spaniel
Spaniels were Spanish hunting dogs back in the 14th century, then brought to America in the late 1800s and developed to be a smaller and distinct breed of their own.
Rough-coated terriers were brought from England to take care of snake and rat problems Down Under. After being crossbred with other terriers, the Aussie came into its own.
Greek historian Xenophon describes a beagle-style dog in Treatise on Hunting in the 5th century B.C. Miniature sizes were developed by medieval times and even called “glove beagles,” as they were small enough to hold in your hand. Our modern beagle turns up in the 1800s.
This poofy pooch descended from the water spaniel and sailed the high seas of the Mediterranean in the 1600s. Sailors viewed the bichon as good luck, and a great companion.
Combine an English bulldog with an English terrier and this Boston breed resulted shortly after the Civil War. Though first used for fighting, this trait was purposely bred out to create the companion we have today.
This spunky little sprout was bred in Belgium and used to run around stables keeping the horse quarters rat-free. The breeding trifecta for this scrappy pooch included the ruby spaniel, pug, and affenpinscher.
From the Toltecs in Mexico to the Mayans in South America, this little charmer has New World origins. It was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus and believed to have been crossed with the Chinese crested to achieve the smallest sizes we have today.
If you had a badger problem in 17th century Germany, you bred these dogs to dig and hunt for them. In the last 60 years their popularity has surged in America.
People loved their English bulldogs but wanted one they could hold on their lap. Mixed with French terrier breeds, the French bulldog emerged.
Jack Russell Terrier
How can your dog chase the fox into and through his own foxhole? Breed them smaller and more tenacious, of course! Reverend John Russell’s breed has been flushing out foxes since the 1800s.
Nowadays its bark may be worse than its bite, but over 4,000 years ago, a mountain wolf was domesticated and used as a guard dog for Tibetan nobility and Buddhist monasteries, culminating in our adorable Apso.
Greek tombs existed for this royal dog, and Roman poetry sings praises for this regal pooch from the island of Malta.
Miniature Bull Terrier
The white English terrier may now be extinct, but this bold-snouted buddy carries its genes mixed with bulldog traits.
This cute canine hails from Eastern England and was quite the traveler, developed from Gypsy dogs.
It’s appropriate that this descendant of spitz dogs can be traced back to Lapland, because you’re just dying to have them on your lap.
Originally bred as temple guardians, pugs were brought from China to Europe in the 16th century, and continue to gain popularity worldwide.
This little “lion dog” is also ancient, appearing in Chinese paintings back in the 7th century in the high court during the Ming Dynasty.
Toy Fox Terrier
Take a fox terrier, add Manchester, a pinch of pinscher, a dose of greyhound, chase it with Chihuahua, and you wind up with this toy, recognized in 1936. It’s a great finisher for our list and shows just how much mixing and matching it may take to concoct the level of cuteness dog lovers crave.
Sometimes big things, like the unconditional love of a dog, come in small packages. Didn’t see your small wonder listed here? Check out allsmalldogs.com for more dogs and facts. To bone up on dog DNA diversity, check out livescience.com, as well.