The History of Pugs: From Ancient China to the Modern Home

Updated on August 4, 2018
JenniferWilber profile image

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

Pugs have been one of the most popular dog breeds around the world for centuries.
Pugs have been one of the most popular dog breeds around the world for centuries.

Pugs: An Ancient and Mysterious Dog Breed

Pugs have been one of the most popular dog breeds throughout much of modern history. They are one of the oldest recognizable dog breeds in the world. Their enduring popularity is likely due to their strange yet adorable appearance, and clownish demeanor. But where did these curious pug-nosed dogs come from, and how did they become so popular? The rich history of the pug spans centuries and covers several continents throughout the world. Pugs have been a preferred companion of royalty throughout history, everywhere from the far east to the western world, dating back to ancient times.

Pugs trace their origins to ancient China, where they enjoyed a life of luxury as Emperors' lapdogs.
Pugs trace their origins to ancient China, where they enjoyed a life of luxury as Emperors' lapdogs.

Ancient Chinese Origins

Most historians agree that pugs trace their origins to ancient China. The earliest records of pugs appearing in history can be dated back to 700 BC, where pugs were kept by Chinese emperors. During this period, Chinese royalty carefully bred small, short-legged dogs into a selection of specific breeds varying primarily by coat color and length. These dogs became the precursors to breeds that are still popular today, such as the Pekingese and the pug. As their popularity spread throughout the region, pugs were eventually kept by Buddhist monks in Tibet as well.

In China during this time, pugs were held in such high regard that only royal families were permitted to own them. Royal pugs lived a life of luxury that most people during this time could only dream of. Emperor Ling To (168-190 AD) only allowed his pug to be served the finest foods and ordered his palace’s soldiers to stand guard to protect his pug at all times. Anyone caught attempting to steal or harm his pug was punished by death.

Later on, pugs were commonly kept by Buddhist monks in their monasteries in Tibet. They were regarded as loyal companions by the Buddhist monks. Believe it or not, these little dogs may have also been utilized as guard dogs to protect Tibetan monasteries. Though small, these dogs were highly regarded by their masters.

Pugs have made a long journey from Chinese palaces and monasteries to European courts and modern homes.
Pugs have made a long journey from Chinese palaces and monasteries to European courts and modern homes.

16th-17th Century: Pugs Overtake Europe

By the 1500s, the popularity of pugs began to spread all throughout Europe. European traders from Portugal and the Netherlands were so enamored by the Chinese pugs, that they brought them back to Europe where the dogs were then bred by the wealthy to establish the breed all across Europe. These flat-nosed dogs became favored members of European courts. There were several famous pugs belonging to European royalty that are still well-known to historians today.

One such notable pug is Pompey, who is credited with saving the life of his owner, Prince William of Orange (also known as William the Silent), the founder of the House Orange-Nassau and the Netherlands as a state. It is said that Pompey the pug alerted his owner to an assassination attempt by the Spanish by jumping on his face to wake him up just in time to stop the attack. Ever since this incident in 1572, pugs have been the official dog of the House of Orange.

When William III and Mary II left the Netherlands to accept the throne of England in 1688, their beloved pug traveled with them. They were proud pug owners, and their love of pugs followed them from the Netherlands to England.

The Painter and His Pug - Self-portrait, William Hogarth (1697–1764). This self-portrait features Hogarth with his pug, Trump.
The Painter and His Pug - Self-portrait, William Hogarth (1697–1764). This self-portrait features Hogarth with his pug, Trump. | Source

Pugs of the 18th Century: Artists’ Muses and Royal Companions

The pug’s popularity continued to increase around the world in the 18th century and continues today. Pugs appeared in artwork by famous painters and continued to be common companions for royalty and aristocrats throughout Europe.

The English painter William Hogarth was well known for his love of pugs, and he owned several throughout his life. His pugs were a favorite subject for his paintings. Hogarth’s 1745 self-portrait even includes his beloved pug companion, Trump. This painting is currently displayed in London's Tate Gallery.

Pugs also became popular in Spain during this time period as well. Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya painted pugs in his artwork. Goya’s 1786 painting The Marquesa de Pontejos features a cute little pug trotting at the subject’s feet.

Pugs were also highly popular in Italy during this time period. In Italy, pugs were commonly seen riding up front on private carriages and were often dressed in jackets and pantaloons matching those of the coachman. In 1789, Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi, an eighteenth-century diarist and author, wrote in her journal, "the little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it." These dogs were very important accessories and companions to the wealthy during this time.

The popularity of the Pug continued to spread to France during the eighteenth century. Before she was married to Napoleon Bonaparte, Empress Joséphine had her pug, named Fortune, carry concealed messages to her family while she was imprisoned at Les Carmes prison. Fortune was the only one who had been given visiting rights during her incarceration. This alone shows how important pugs were to their owners, and how much trust pug owners had in their beloved pugs during this time.

The Marquesa de Pontejos by Francisco Goya, 1786. This paiting features the subject and her pet pug.
The Marquesa de Pontejos by Francisco Goya, 1786. This paiting features the subject and her pet pug. | Source

Pug Poll

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The Modern Era: 19th Century to Today

In the nineteenth century, the breed enjoyed ever-increasing popularity due in part to Queen Victoria’s devotion to the breed. She owned many pugs throughout her life, which she bred herself. Queen Victoria’s involvement with dogs lead to the creation of the Kennel Club, which was formed in 1873. Her love of pugs spread to many other members of the royal family, including her grandson, King George V, and her great-grandson, King Edward VII. Queen Victoria’s pugs were of the fawn- and apricot-colored varieties, but the comical black pugs that we know and love today soon arrived on the scene in Europe as well.

The European pugs of this time period also differed in appearance from the pugs we have today in other ways. European pugs in the eighteenth and nineteenth century usually had longer legs and longer noses than today’s pugs. Occasionally, pugs’ ears were cropped during this time period as well. It wasn’t until a new wave of pugs was imported to Europe from China in 1860 that pugs with the familiar short legs, flat pug nose, and a stockier build appeared in Europe. Shortly after this new wave of Chinese pugs appeared on the scene in Europe, Lady Brassey, a British aristocrat, brought black pugs to Europe from a visit to China, making pugs with this coat color fashionable in Europe. Finally, in 1895, the practice of ear cropping was made illegal, so pugs were now safe from having their signature floppy ears cropped.

Pugs also made their way to the Americas during the nineteenth century, where they quickly became popular pets and show dogs. Pugs were recognized by the AKC in 1885 and the Pug Dog Club of America was founded in 1931. They continue to be popular pets in American households and in the show ring today.

Today, while fawn, apricot, and black pugs are still the most common, there are also other colors available. Pugs with brindle coats are rare, but do pop up in litters from time to time. There are now even a few breeders who specialize in pugs with snow-white coats. You will likely only be able to show pugs with the standard coat colors, however, as the AKC doesn't recognize the more rare coat colors.

Black pugs are just as friendly and playful as the fawn and apricot varieties.
Black pugs are just as friendly and playful as the fawn and apricot varieties.

Pugs: Past, Present, and Future

Pugs have a long and fascinating history, from their origins as lap dogs for Chinese royalty, to their many appearances throughout European history, and their current popularity as American show dogs and pets. Pugs continue to be one of the most popular breeds of dogs today throughout Europe and America. Though they suffer from several health problems due to their breeding, they continue to be a favored pet for many families and they continue to be popular choices for show dogs. Pugs will likely to continue to be popular with dog lovers far into the future.

Pugs haven't forgotten their royal origins, and still enjoy lounging around with their favorite humans.
Pugs haven't forgotten their royal origins, and still enjoy lounging around with their favorite humans.

Pug Poll

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        6 months ago from Norfolk, England

        I didn't realise pugs had such a history. I think they are adorable little dogs. I'd love one, they're so cute.

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