Despite the popular perception of toy dogs as modern fashion accessories, some of the oldest dog breeds known to man are actually among these iconic canines. Though they are arguably more at home in the twenty-first century pet environment than many other dogs, their story dates back to ancient civilization.
The Maltese breed reportedly originated in ancient Egypt and came to the island of Malta in the heart of the Mediterranean by way of the then-occupying Phoenicians. These dogs were traded in the thriving seaport of Malta, along with other precious commodities, as early as 1500 BC. This breed was seen as a status symbol in ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The Maltese breed continued to be popular companions to the aristocracy in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, but served other functions as well—such as that of pint-sized flea magnet to improve one’s personal hygiene.
Other early toy breeds such as the Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Spaniel, and Shih Tzu originated in China and Tibet. Fondly called “little lion” dogs, these breeds were prized by emperors, and were companions to Buddhist monks long before their rapid rise in popularity among the kings and queens of European nobility in the sixteenth century. These little dogs were literal lap warmers—acting as heating pads and even “sleeve dogs,” some small enough to fit in robes worn by members of the Chinese imperial households.
While geneticists are still unraveling the complex histories of toy dogs, there are some interesting facts about this type of dog that can shed light on both our past and our present relationships with them as pets. Many people are unaware, for instance, that many of the dogs in the toy group are actually dwarves. There are three kinds of dwarfism observed in dogs, each having a different effect on the shape of the animal. While some toy breeds carry all three kinds of dwarfism, it is quite possible that all of them carry at least one kind—ateliotic pituitary dwarfism—which dictates their much smaller size. In other words, the great variety of toy dogs we see today could very well have begun as simply smaller representations of their larger counterparts from other groups of dogs. A simple mutation may have resulted in a developmental hindrance that prevented these dwarf dogs from maturing “normally” and kept these dogs little—and we loved it.
After all, who doesn’t love a kind, permanent puppy that stays small and needy? It makes us feel so good, so special. Given their incredible popularity over the millennia, apparently very few of us. Any one of us can feel like a king or queen when one of these little lapdogs is sitting with us today.