Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
From having extra dewclaws to the ability to sing, there are some dog breeds with very unique qualities out there—and some you have probably never even heard of. Several of these breeds are rarely seen outside of the country where they were first bred, while others are becoming more common as pets. Here are ten extraordinary breeds that have something just a little bit different than the average pup.
10 Unusual Dog Breeds
- The Carolina Dog
- The Chow Chow
- The Chinese Crested
- The Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog
- The Norwegian Lundehund
- The Lagotto Romagnolo
- The Basenji
- The Bergamasco
- The Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog
- The Otterhound
1. The Carolina Dog: The Dingo of America
The Carolina Dog might not look particularly weird, but it is what is beneath the fur of this canine that makes it part of a rare selection of 'primitive' dog breeds. They were first publicised during the 1970s by Dr I Lehr Brisbin, who found them living in isolated stretches of woods in the southeastern United States.
However, excavations of Native American burial mounds as early as the 1890s had revealed the complete skeletons of an unknown breed of dog. The dogs appeared to have been buried with similar care to the people in the mounds.
DNA tests have shown that the Carolina Dog (also known as the Yellow Dog or Dixie Dingo) is more closely related to primitive or feral dogs, such as the Australian Dingo, than to modern dog breeds. Ancient Native American rock art and fossil finds suggest that the Carolina Dog is one of the earliest species of domesticated dog and may always have been semi-feral.
In the 1980s the majority of Carolina Dogs were brought into captivity. They can be kept as pets, but require good socialisation when young. They have incredibly sensitive hearing and are good hunters and runners, but can be shy around strangers. Generally they are not considered a dog for a first time owner.
2. The Chow Chow: A Little Blue
The Chow Chow is an ancient breed from China whose name means 'puffy-lion dog'. It has been claimed that it originated 3,000 years ago in Arctic Asia before reaching China. The Chinese used it as a war dog, a sled dog and sometimes for food. One Chinese emperor is said to have owned 5,000 of them.
This handsome lion-like looking dog has a number of uncommon traits, but the one that makes it distinctive is its blue-black tongue. Chows are born with pink tongues which gradually darken as they mature. The colour extends to the lips and oral cavity, and they are the only breed to have a completely blue mouth. It is not known why the Chow has a blue tongue or where the colour came from. Another Asian breed, the Shar-pei, also has a blue tongue, but without the extensive blue mouth colour of the Chow, so presumably this was a prized feature in early Chinese dogs.
As beautiful as it is, the Chow is not an easy pet; without careful socialisation and training it can become aggressive to other dogs or people. It is naturally aloof with strangers and its strong guarding instincts mean it can become overly protective of its owner. The breed is also known for being stubborn and rather independent, some Chow Chow owners consider them somewhat cat-like in nature.
3. The Chinese Crested: The Hairless Dog
While the Chinese Crested is not the only hairless breed of dog in the world, it is the most recognisable with its fluffy crest, tail and feet. There is also a furry variety of the Crested which is called a 'powder puff' and has a complete double coat. Powder puffs are born in the same litters as their hairless siblings and there is an anecdotal story that this was encouraged by early breeders so that that the powder puff pup would keep its naked litter mates warm.
Despite its name, it is unlikely the Chinese Crested originated in China. In the nineteenth century it was thought to have actually been bred in Africa, and it was known as the African Hairless Terrier, but more recent genetic evidence shows a shared link with the Mexican Hairless Dog, suggesting it in fact originated in South America. Their modern name is thought to derive from their use as ratters on Chinese ships.
It wasn't until the 1950s that attempts were made to purposefully breed Cresteds. One contributor to the foundation stock of the breed was burlesque dancer and actress Gypsy Rose Lee. The Crested was first recognised by the Kennel Club in 1981 and by the American Kennel Club in 1991.
The lack of fur makes the Crested susceptible to skin problems and they need to be moisturised regularly and protected from sun-burn. Some people consider them quite ugly, and Chinese Crested dogs have famously won various ugliest dog competitions.
4. The Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog: Double Dewclaws
The Great Pyrenees or Pyrenean Mountain Dog originated hundreds of years ago in the Pyrenees mountains of Southern France and Northern Spain. They were used by the Basque people as guards dogs for their flocks of sheep. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that efforts were made to standardise the breed.
At first glance, there might not appear to be anything unusual about the Great Pyrenees Dog. In fact, they look rather sheep-like and cuddly, which serves them well when guarding a shepherd's flock. But take a closer look at the photograph and you might notice something a little odd about this dog's feet, because this breed is one of the few renowned for having double dewclaws on the rear legs.
Dewclaws are the fifth toe on your dog's foot. Most dogs are born with front dewclaws attached to the inside of the paw, further up than the four main toes. Some dogs are also born with rear dewclaws on the hind feet. These are often removed by the breeder, but if a dog retains them they are quite distinctive. The Great Pyrenees goes one step further by having two dewclaws on the hind feet.
It is debatable whether rear dewclaws serve any purpose, some argue they can help a dog when running to gain traction. There is no advantage to having double dewclaws on the rear feet, but the Great Pyrenees' breed standard insists the dog has them. Luckily, they don't seem to cause him any problems when he is tending his sheep.
5. The Norwegian Lundehund: Why Have 4 When You Can Have 6?
The Norwegian Lundehund has a range of reasons why it can be considered a 'weird' dog. For a start, it is the only dog breed specifically created to hunt puffins; those little seabirds with bright beaks that nest on cliffs. To reach one of these birds, or its eggs, a dog has to be agile, nimble and flexible. The Lundehund has some remarkable traits that enable it to be all three—including having six toes on each foot.
These are not vestigial toes, like the extra rear dewclaw some dogs have, but functioning digits with muscle and bone, making them useful climbing appendages. Lundehunds also have a high level of flexibility in their spine, meaning they can tilt their heads completely back until the skull touches the body. Lastly, they are able to fold their ears forwards or backwards to form a near tight seal, preventing them getting full of water.
The Lundehund was known as far back as 1600 (its name actually translates as Puffin Dog) when it was used along the Norwegian coast for hunting puffin. Unfortunately, with the arrival of more modern methods of hunting and a tax on dogs, the Lundehund fell from favour. By 1900 the breed was only found in one isolated village and they were close to extinction by the time of the Second World War. Two outbreaks of canine distemper reduced their numbers to just six individuals —five of whom were siblings.
A careful breeding program has restored their numbers to around 1400 worldwide; meaning they are extremely rare, and mainly found in Norway and the US. Let's hope this amazing little dog continues to leave six toed paw prints over Norway for many years to come.
6. The Lagotto Romagnolo: The Truffle Hunter
The Italian Lagotto Romagnolo looks a little bit like a cockapoo or a very shaggy poodle, but don't be fooled by its appearance. Originating from the Romagna sub-region of Italy, its name means 'lake dog of Romagna' and it is traditionally used as a water retriever. They often worked out of flat-bottomed boats retrieving ducks. In fact, the first Lagottos to come to the UK in 1996 arrived from a kennel where they were worked in this traditional fashion.
The Lagotto has a very special extra ability. Its great sense of smell and delight for digging make it an excellent truffle hunter, sniffing out and then digging up this fungal delicacy. It is the only breed specifically bred for its talent for finding truffles.
The Lagotto is little known outside of Italy, though it is slowly gaining popularity in the UK and US. It has a rough, waterproof coat that continuously grows without shedding and is smaller than a Labrador. It has a gentle and loving temperament, like many gundogs, and makes a good family pet.
The Lagotto is an ancient breed, possibly one of the earliest gundogs, and it is thought other water retrieving breeds may descend from it. Unfortunately it can suffer from a range of quite severe health conditions, including hip dysplasia and epilepsy. However, the tendency for epilepsy in Lagottos has given medical scientists the ability to study the genetic causes for the illness and may even enable them to find the gene responsible for a type of human epilepsy.
7. The Basenji: A Song From Africa
The Basenji is a modest sized dog that originated in Africa and is considered a sight hound in the UK and US. The name Basenji means 'dog of the savages' or 'dog of the villagers' and was given to them by the Azande and Mangbetu people of the Northern Congo. They are also known as the 'dog of the bush'. In Swahili, their name is a variant of the word for 'wild dog'.
Drawings and models of the Basenji have been found dating from the time of Ancient Egypt. They were primarily used as hunting dogs for small game and their cat-like ability to jump enabled them to climb trees after animals.
Their most remarkable feature is their yodel; they are the only domestic dog to make this unusual call. The sound is called a 'baroo' by Basenji owners and is caused by the dog's unusually shaped larynx. Because of this trait, they are nicknamed the 'barkless dog'. Originally, the unusual noise may have been encouraged as non-barking dogs did not attract enemy attackers to a tribe's forest encampment.
Basenjis have a number of other unusual features, including that females only come into season once a year (domestic dogs typically come into season every six months) and they lack a typical doggy odour. They are also known to curl up like a cat and dislike wet weather.
As a pet the Basenji may not be for everyone; alert, inquisitive and a keen hunter, they are expert climbers with a lot of energy. They are also very independent and can be viewed as hard to train—a Basenji only does something it believes will benefit it, not just to please its owner. However, this does not mean they lack intelligence.
8. The Bergamasco: The Dreadlock Dog
The Bergamasco is another European breed which originally developed in the Italian Alps. It is closely related to the German Shepherd, sharing an ancestor in common. The two breeds both derived from European herding dogs around the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Bergamasco does not much resemble a German Shepherd, with its thick shaggy coat, which is its most distinctive feature. The coat has three different types of hair which naturally mat together to form felted lozenges or flocks. These are thought to have originally kept the dogs warm when working in the snowy mountains and would also have supplied some protection from predators who might attack the sheep they guarded. The way the coat mats is different to the way other breeds, such as the Komondor, form dreads or cords, which makes the Bergamasco's hair unique.
The breed is extremely rare worldwide and few are seen in the UK, though they are recognised by the Kennel Club. It is known to be a patient and observant dog, with a balanced nature. It can, however, be reserved with strangers.
9. The Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog: Ain't No Leopards Here
To give this dog its full title, the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog, is named after the parish of Catahoula and is the state dog of Louisiana. Its title refers to its spots and not to it being bred to hunt leopards, in fact, the breed was originally used to hunt wild boar and has the alternative name of the Catahoula Hog Dog.
No one entirely knows how the dog developed, though there have been lots of theories, including that it derived from Red Wolves—this has been disproved by recent DNA studies. Another theory is they developed from Native American dogs, rather like the Carolina Dog, which interbred with Beaucerons the French brought over in the nineteenth century. Their name may also derive from the Native American language, though no one is quite sure on that either.
Aside from their spotted appearance, what makes the Catahoula unusual is its amazing ability to climb. They can scale tall trees with remarkable ease and confidence, a feat most dogs would not even attempt. It is not clear how this feature arrived in the breed (like so much of the Catahoula's heritage) as it was not needed for hunting wild boar, but it is the trait that defines them and which Catahoula enthusiasts treasure.
The Catahoula is rarely seen outside of the US and does not always make a great family pet. They have a high prey drive and can be aggressive to other dogs and strangers, being strongly protective of their owners.
10. The Otterhound: The Endangered Breed
The distinctive Otterhound is an old British breed which now finds itself listed by the Kennel Club as 'vulnerable', with only around 600 examples of the breed worldwide. Its diminishing popularity stems partly from its lack of a function. The Otterhound was designed exclusively to hunt otters and they were never bred in large numbers. When otter hunting was banned in England in 1978, Otterhound packs switched to hunting Mink until this was banned in 2004.
With only limited numbers to begin with, no longer having a working role and being a dog unsuited to small homes, or urban living, the Otterhound was always at risk of becoming endangered and that is unlikely to change in the near future.
What makes the Otterhound unique (and also difficult as a pet) are its remarkable hunting abilities. It has immense strength and stamina, capable of working on land or in water, it can track its prey through mud or water for 72 hours and once they have a scent they are difficult to call off.
They require a great deal of exercise, as may be expected of a dog bred for endurance, though some can also be couch potatoes. With males potentially reaching 52 kilos in weight, and capable of jumping 5 foot fences, they are not for the faint-hearted or for the house proud. This is a dog that loves mud and water, and will happily traipse the outdoors inside after a walk, and shake most of it onto the living room furniture.
In 2007, it was reported that Otterhound puppies were rarer than Giant Pandas.
Sophie Jackson (author) from England on March 28, 2019:
Thank you Nicholas, I'm delighted you loved it!
Nicholas Foy from Washington (WA) on March 27, 2019:
Ellison Hatley is not interesting but superb. i love this
Sophie Jackson (author) from England on March 20, 2019:
Thank you, this was a fun article to write. Glad you enjoyed it!
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on March 14, 2019:
This was really interesting, I haven't heard of many of these breeds. The pictures were great, glad you included them.