There’s a good reason we call dogs our best friends: they’re unerringly loyal, loving and they’ve been at our side for a long, long time (more than 10,000 years, but who’s counting?). They’ve come a long way since, splitting into numerous different breeds which look nothing alike, each with its own unique name. But have you ever wondered what the deal behind those names is?
Interestingly enough, huskies aren’t called that way because of their vocalization or size. Rather, husky is a contraction of “Huskimo”, an English mispronunciation of Eskimo, a term for the aboriginal people of the Arctic who bred these dogs.
The small and pudgy bulldogs have a rather sordid history. In late Renaissance England, a common form of entertainment was called bull-baiting, wherein an irate bull that had been pinned to a pole was set upon by dogs. This disgusting blood sport was outlawed in 1835, causing the fierce and powerful bulldogs to gradually lose most of their defining characteristics, the working bulldog becoming effectively extinct.
Sighthounds (or gazehounds) are easily recognizable due to their lithe, deer-like build and narrow faces. Unlike other hunting dogs, sighthounds were bred for superior eyesight and have learned to rely on their eyes and speed rather than on their sense of smell when chasing their quarry.
In Russian, Samoyed means “self-eater”, but this does not refer to any attribute of this large and fluffy dog breed. Rather, this is an old offensive name for the Nenets, a shamanic people of arctic West Siberia whom ignorant Russians believed were cannibals. The Nenets bred these dogs for herding reindeer.
5. Cocker Spaniels
While today, most dogs serve strictly as pets, for much of history, dogs had a more professional relationship with humans, performing all sorts of tasks for their human masters. Spaniels, for example, were bred to aid in hunting, by flushing out fowl that are hiding in dense brush and retrieving downed birds. Cockers were specifically trained in hunting woodcocks, hence “cockers”.
6. Doberman Pinscher
Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann (1834-1894) from Thuringia in Germany had two jobs: one as the proprietor of a dog pound, the other as a tax collector. The latter job saw him travel to rather seedy, crime-ridden areas to demand people pay up their taxes. Not a safe job, to say the least. Dobermann had the idea of breeding himself guards that will protect him from would-be muggers. His ideal dog would be fiercely loyal, ferocious in a fight and clever. More than a century later, Doberman Pinschers are still favored as guard dogs.
One of the most diverse groups of dogs, terriers vary from tiny Yorkshire terriers to the large Airedale. Originally, terriers were bred to burrow, crawl and weed out vermin, which is why they were called in French chiens terrier- earth dogs.
8. St. Bernards
Though their benevolent nature could possibly qualify them for canonization, these famous gentle giants are actually named for the hospice and monastery in Switzerland where they were bred. St. Bernard dogs have famously aided many a traveler who got lost or buried in the snowy mountain pass, getting them out of danger and into a safe haven.