7 Medieval Dog Breeds That Still Exist

In medieval times, people usually kept dogs for their working abilities. They were not necessarily kept as pets.

Dogs were used to guard animals, particularly sheep. They also protected their owners, went into battle, were used to hunt, and more surprisingly, ran in a cage to turn meat on a spit.

In short, most dog breeds in medieval times had to earn their keep!

In this article, we will look at the different roles that dogs played in medieval times, and the medieval dog breeds that currently exist today.

Origins of Medieval Dog Breeds

Just like today, medieval dog breeds came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Scientists tend to agree on one thing - these dogs originated from wolves.

Humans may have attracted wolves due to the food they left in their garbage dumps, or the carcasses left over from hunting.

People may have started taming these wolves, finding them useful as a means of protection.

Over time, as wolves were raised in captivity, they started to develop many of the traits we find in dogs of the medieval period and even today.

Selective breeding may have seen changes in their appearance. As time went by, these wolves started looking less like wolves and more like, well, dogs.

This could have led to differences in size, coat length and type, as well as coloring.

At the same time, dogs may have been bred to enhance certain characteristics, like the ability to smell better, hear better, be obedient, protect, or even attack on command.

Dogs may also have been bred for a specific build. Large, muscular dogs were ideal for taking to war. Smaller dogs were ideal for chasing rabbits out of their burrows.

Role of Dogs in Medieval Warfare

Great Dane staring into the distance

Dogs have fought besides humans since the time they were domesticated.

In medieval times, large dogs such as mastiffs and The Great Danes would scare horses or pull riders off their horses’ backs.

Therefore, it is not uncommon to picture a knight riding into battle with his dog sat on the saddle in front of him, only to let him down and fight alongside him once the battle begins.

Many of these dogs were fitted with chain mail and spikes around their necks to protect them while fighting.

But while prized for their fighting skills during the heat of battle, they also worked as protectors.

They would stay on the outskirts of an army camp with their handlers, warning the camp in case an enemy approached the camp.

Medieval Dogs as Hunters

Hunting was a major source of food during medieval times. Dogs like the greyhound were highly prized due to their sleek body and super speed.

They would hunt for prey, and, quite likely, kill it for their owners. Often though, they would corner their prey, waiting for their owners to come in and hit the animal with the final blow.

Smaller dogs were also used to hunt smaller game such as rabbits as well as pests. The typical English fox hunt is a good example of hunting with smaller dog breeds like beagles.

Foxes were seen as vermin that would kill chickens and other small farm animals.

Smaller dog breeds specifically bred to hunt foxes, rabbits, and vermin include the fox terrier, Jack Russell, various Spaniels, and many others.

Medieval Dogs as Protectors

Black and white dog in a field

As protectors, medieval dogs fulfilled two roles outside of warfare. They would protect those living in a keep, town, or farm but also protect the animals.

Their animal protection abilities gave rise to different types of breeds designed specifically to protect animals.

Many dogs, however, went on to also become herders of sheep and other farm animals.

Many herding dog breeds find their ancestors amongst these dogs that were bred for herding and protection of animals.

Medieval Dogs as Pets

Although most medieval dog breeds received praise for their hunting or protective abilities, many dogs were prized as loyal pets.

Many people of the time appreciated their dog’s loyalty and intelligence, often keeping them as companions.

Small lapdogs, prized by many noblewomen of the time, were cute and easy to handle or carry around.

But they also served another purpose - they made excellent lap or feet warmers! Many of these ladies even carried their lapdogs around as accessories!

Their least noble task, however, was to attract fleas away from their owners, sparing humans from flea bites.

Medieval Dogs as Kitchen Utensils (Wait, What?!)

Medieval cooks often used small, robust dogs with docked tails in the kitchen. These dogs would run on a treadmill, much like a hamster’s wheel.

This was connected to a spit roasting meat over an open fire. Usually referred to as turnspits, these small dogs were considered another piece of kitchen equipment. 

In other words, they were essentially a utensil needed for turning roasting food over an open fire.

Before using dogs, a young boy, often the lowliest person in the kitchen, carried out this task. They often also ended up washing the dishes too.

Turnspits at least spared them from standing in front of a fire all day! These dogs received good treatment most of the time.

They only worked 6 days a week, mostly doing work in shifts. They also had Sundays off. They would go to church with their owners where they served as feet warmers.

The running cage was positioned far enough away from the fire so that the dogs would not overheat.

7 Medieval Dog Breeds That Still Exist

Not many medieval dog breeds still exist. But many modern dog breeds carry their genes due to the interbreeding of dogs for specific functions and personality traits.

Here we will look at some of these breeds.

The Mastiff

Often referred to as the Molossian breed, all mastiffs share a common ancestor. Records of mastiffs go back as far as 3,000 BC. 

English mastiffs even competed against bears, lions, bulls, and other dogs in the arenas of Rome. All mastiffs form part of the Molossian breed.

Often bred as a war dog, the mastiff was first used in this capacity in 600 BC in what is now modern Turkey.

The Spaniards deployed them in fighting as late as the latter part of the Middle Ages. An intelligent breed, the mastiff also took part in the First World War.

It was used as a pack animal in the trenches. Although these days they are often used as guard dogs.

But no matter the specific mastiff breed, these dogs have a gentle personality with a large body and head.

They also have drooping ears, short muzzle, short, coarse coat, and soulful eyes that melt the hardest of hearts.

They are typically gentle giants that can become vicious and attack on command or when provoked.

The Hovawart

Black Hovawart dog with his mouth open

The Hovawart is a German dog breed with medieval origins. Originally bred as guard dogs for both humans and livestock, the breed soon gained popularity amongst medieval nobility.

Its name, translated from German, roughly means ‘yard watchman’. The breed was so loved that it was classified as one of the ‘noble breeds’ during the 1400s.

These dogs are also often featured in medieval German paintings. The breed almost died out twice.

Due to the efforts of a few staunch supporters, the Hovawart made a comeback.

The ‘new’ Hovawart breed resulted from interbreeding the few remaining dogs with Newfoundland dogs, German Shepherds, Kuvasz, and Leonbergers.

Although calm and loving, they have a strong need to protect their humans and their territory.

This often means that if you consider this dog as a pet, it may have to be a one-pet household.

These dogs are highly intelligent yet headstrong, and need an owner who is firm and consistent.

Irish Wolfhound

 The face of a white Irish Wolfhound

The history of the Irish Wolfhound goes back to over 2,000 years. So valued was this breed, that only Irish kings and noblemen could own them.

These dogs were often given as diplomatic gifts to allies and foreign dignitaries during medieval times.

They were also used as guard dogs, war dogs, and hunting dogs. Their prey as hunting dogs included deer and bears.

They even hunted wolves, which is how they got their name! An ancient breed, the Irish Wolfhound also almost faced extinction.

A breeding program was initiated using the last true male Irish Wolfhound. He was crossbred with the Tibetan Wolfdog, Scottish Deerhound, Great Dane, and Borzoi.

Today’s Irish Wolfhound, although still large, is a relaxed family companion that loves children.

He also makes a bad guard dog because he is friendly with anyone and everyone.

Scottish Deerhound

Nobody knows when this breed started. But a depiction was found of dogs resembling this breed on a stone in Scotland dating back to about 1,200 years ago.

These dogs, even larger than the Irish Wolfhound, were predominantly used to hunt red deer in Scotland until the 1800s.

These days, the Scottish Deerhound is an ideal companion dog for tracking game. It is a dog breed with a devoted, dependable, and loyal nature.

The Borzoi

Borzoi with its tongue out

The Borzoi is a truly medieval dog breed hailing from Russia.

Also known as the Russian Wolfhound, the Borzoi was bred in the Middle Ages to hunt hare, foxes, wild boar, and wolves.

Because of their beautiful features, the breed quickly became loved by Russian nobility.

Sporting a good-natured, calm, and gentle personality, Borzoi should ideally not be kept with other pets. Especially those smaller than them.

Innate hunters by nature, these dogs will chase anything that runs. While it is a friendly breed, these dogs do not take too well to strangers.

English Toy Spaniel

English Toy Spaniel with its face down on the floor

The English Toy Spaniel and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was once the same breed. Over time, however, the English Toy Spaniel became known as the King Charles Spaniel.

Selective breeding resulted in another recognized breed called the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

This breed has a smaller head and higher-placed ears, and an upturned mouth. The original English Toy Spaniel’s mouth turns downwards.

While nobody knows where this breed originated from, much speculation suggests Japan.

What is known, however, is that the first English Toy Spaniels arrived in the UK during medieval times.

It quickly became a dog breed that was kept by royalty. Mary Queen of Scots, King Charles II, and Queen Victoria kept this breed.

It was from King Charles II that both breeds received the ‘Charles’ in their name. English Toy Spaniels made the perfect lapdogs.

Often taken on carriage rides, they made the perfect lap warmers on cold winter days.

Although some dogs of this breed have stubborn tendencies, they mostly have calm, quiet, gentle, friendly personalities.

The Corgi

Welsh Corgi on a sandy beach

The corgi is an incredibly old British dog breed with a history spanning well over 3,000 years. However, there are two types of corgis.

Although both corgi breeds look similar in some ways, they have some differences in their features and origin.

Two stories exist about the origins of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

The first has it that the Pembroke Welsh Corgi originated in Belgium and landed up in Wales due to a trade agreement.

Belgian weavers were invited to move to Wales during the medieval period to produce textile goods. They brought their dogs with them.

These dogs, valued for their sheep herding abilities, may be the ancestors of the breed as we know it today.

However, others think that the Corgi’s origins are much earlier and date back to the time of the Vikings.

The Welsh Pembroke Corgi, according to this belief, may have the Swedish Vallhund as an ancestor. The Swedish Vallhund is a smaller herding dog.

The Cardigan Corgi is the older of the two breeds. It worked as a cattle herder in Wales during medieval times.

The original dogs may have landed up in Wales over 3,000 years ago during mass Celtic migrations across Europe.

The Cardigan Corgi is talked about in literature as being a cattle herder going back at least 1,000 years.

To quickly determine what type of Corgi you are dealing with, you can look at three things - the tail, ears, and body size.

The Cardigan Corgi has a deeper chest and slightly larger body, large, rounded ears, and a large, fluffy tail.

On the other hand, the Pembroke Corgi has a smaller body, sharper ears like those of a fox, and a naturally short tail.

Final Thoughts

While most medieval dog breeds no longer exist, many have been saved from extinction through selective breeding.

Interbreeding has also resulted in many of the dog breeds we have today. This may have happened for a few reasons.

These reasons include breeding dogs for a specific temperament, doing a certain job, or gaining a certain look.

But whatever the reason, dogs have been a part of the human way of living for thousands of years.

Whether it is as a hunting companion, protector, herder, or a family pet. Things may stay this way for another few thousand years to come.