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Anthony van Dyck - Five Eldest Children of Charles I - Google Art Project
Posted on 13 Feb 2023
What Jobs Dog Breeds Were Originally Bred For

The earliest dogs were tame wolves, which humans started to breed. Nearly every dog breed we know today has been purposely bred for a job in society which affects their characteristics. Obviously, there will be variability within the breed but it’s really important to know the historical purpose of each breed before you make the decision to adopt. This blog will tell you more about what common dog breeds were bred for originally and what traits they retain.

Lap Dogs

Lap Dog

Breeds: King Charles Cavalier, Tibetan Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Pug, Maltese, Shih Tzu, Bichon Frisé

What they were bred for: These dogs were bred to keep the royal laps warm inside cold castles, and not cause too much trouble. Pugs have wrinkles because they were bred to create a pattern of wrinkles on the dogs’ foreheads, which resembled the Chinese character for “prince” (王). Hilariously, Miniature Poodles were kept in the sleeves of nobility during the Renaissance to keep them warm, and they are called “sleeve dogs”. Who knew they were the original handwarmers!?

The result: As a result, you tend to get gorgeous, small, friendly, docile dogs that don’t require much exercise. However, on the downside, these dogs (King Charles Cavaliers in particular) tend to want their humans around a lot and are more predisposed to separation anxiety.

Watch Dogs


Breeds: Pomeranian, Affenpinscher, Miniature Pinscher, Brussels Griffon, Chihuahuas (accidentally)

What they were bred for: Unlike Guard Dogs, Watchdogs will bark or otherwise alert their people to perceived intruders but usually won’t attack. These dogs were bred to walk the tops of walls at night, or patrol the garden, and warn their people if someone approached. Some were expected to guard their lady’s chamber in the palace. Chihuahuas weren’t bred for it but they accidentally make great watchdogs.

The result: Watchdogs are considered “yappy” dogs, but they are merely protecting their owner. They are fiercely loyal, often to one person in the family in particular.

Guard Dogs

Guard Dog

Breeds: Doberman, Weimaraner, Bullmastiff, Lhasa apso

What they were bred for: The use of dogs as guardians of families and homes is well known since ancient times. After all, in ancient Greece the gates of the underworld were guarded by a three-headed dog called Cerberus. Unlike Watchdogs, they were bred to attack any perceived threat. Lhasa apso might be a surprising one here but they were used to guard Chinese temples and bred for their goat-like looks.

The result: Guard dogs have a protective instinct for their families. They display fearlessness and have an intimidating size and appearance. They also rank among the smartest and most loyal breeds.

Ratters (Rat Hunters)


Breeds: Border Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier (Yorkie)

What they were bred for: These dogs were released into coal mines and mills to track and hunt down any rats. They had to be extremely brave and tenacious and able to work without instruction from their owner. The terrier’s strong thick tail was bred so that the owner could pull it out of a hole when it refused to give up on the rat or simply got a bit stuck! As they were so brave, Yorkies were later used in World War II to run communication lines through narrow tunnels in the trenches with exploding shells overhead.

The result: Terriers tend to have a stubborn, determined personality with a strong prey drive. They tend to be diggers so they aren’t very respectful of gardens. It also means they are independent and so don’t mind being left alone while the family are at work. Though they are surprisingly active so will require walking.

Badger Hunters

Badger Hunting

Breeds: Dachshund

What they were bred for: Their name in German literally means “Badger Dog”. Dachshunds were specifically bred for badger hunting and that’s why they have narrow bodies and short legs - to manoeuvre down badger holes. They also needed to have compact feet that pushed the soil behind as they dug toward the badger.

The result: A determined, independent, bold, and courageous little dog. They generally are not trustworthy around small rodent pets, and require sufficient exercise and challenges.

Fox Hunters

Trump Scan

Breeds: Jack Russell Terrier

What they were bred for: The Jack Russell terrier was named after Reverend John “Jack” Russell, a fox hunter in England during the mid-1800s. They were bred to coax the foxes out of their burrows, so needed to be totally flexible allowing them to manoeuvre underground. They also needed high stamina for long pursuits, and the courage to chase and confront foxes. Tempered aggressiveness was also an important quality that drove the dogs to pursue the foxes but meant they wouldn’t actually attack them. Their small size was not only a helpful characteristic for chasing foxes out of their burrows, but also for easy transport on horseback in “terrier bags”. 

The result: The energetic Jack Russell needs lots of exercise and is very vocal and because of its hunting instinct. It has a strong prey drive and the urge to explore which results in a tendency to wander. Digging is normal for a Jack Russell and like most hunting dogs they are very loyal to their families.

Bird Hunters (Gun Dogs)

Gun Dogs

Breeds: Golden Retriever, Poodle, Visla, Pointer, Springer Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel

What they were bred for: They were bred to use their sense of smell to cover low areas near the handler to flush birds into the air to be shot, and to use their eyes and nose to locate the bird once downed, and then to retrieve the bird with a soft mouth. They were not aggressive, and were able to be trained not to eat the bird or fowl once it was downed, and instead bring it back to the hunter so it could be served as dinner. Golden Retrievers and Poodles were bred for water fowl specifically, they would accompany hunters and retrieve shot-down ducks and other waterfowl from ponds and lakes.

The result: I’m sure you’ve seen a spaniel with its nose to the ground and it’s tail in the air, darting back and forth! These dogs are gentle, easily trained dogs who love to please. They make good family pets, are very loyal, and of course they love fetch!

Fish Hunters (Water Retrievers)

Water Dog

Breeds: Portuguese Water Dogs, Labrador Retriever

What they were bred for: The Portuguese water dog was originally put to work on fishing boats, from which she’d leap off at her master’s command and set about dragging fishing nets back to the boat. The breed was almost extinct in the 1930s, but was rescued by a breeding program started by a shipping tycoon (and the Obamas famously had one!). Labrador Retrievers (Labs) became well known for their infatuation with water, and bred for their skill working in it. Working in fisheries, they hauled nets and long lines, dived for cod that had slipped off the hook, and even retrieved the hats of fishermen that had blown off. The shorthaired Labradors were preferred over the longer-coated Retrievers for fishing because the ice did not stick to their water-resistant short coats.

The result: These breeds are intelligent and want to please you, so are easily trained. They are also gentle enough to retrieve a fish without eating it, making them an ideal family animal. They retain their gentle temperaments, enthusiasm for fetch, and affinity for water. They tend to have slightly webbed feet for better swimming!

Scent Hounds

Scent Hounds

Breeds: Bloodhound, Beagle

What they were bred for: Bred to track down everything from raccoons to escaped convicts, scent hounds are talented smellers. These hounds were trained to follow a scent, with the occasional woof to call others to the trail, and then to bark for you once they've found the source. You may wonder why they aren't used as drug-sniffing dogs - the reason being that other dogs such as spaniels are almost as good at smelling but are much easier to train.

The result: They tend to wander wherever their talented noses take them. In other words, keeping a scent hound on a lead or within a fenced area when outside is wise. Their recall isn’t great if they’ve caught a smell they like, and they can tend to be barkers and they were bred to have loud barks. As they were often kept as pack animals for hunting, scent hounds tend to be quite sweet-tempered and tolerant, and they usually enjoy the company of other dogs. Because they were bred for their independence during the hunt these pups may not mind being left alone during the workday.

Sight Hounds

Sight Hound

Breeds: Whippet, Lurcher, Saluki, Greyhound, Italian Greyhound, Irish Wolfhound

What they were bred for: Hunting. They were bred for sharp eyesight, speed, and agility to quickly detect moving prey, chase it down, and immobilise it.

The result: Very fast dogs who have a strong prey instinct so aren’t typically suitable for homes with small animals. That said, they don’t require the exercise most expect, a quick zoomie will do them then they are happy to curl up on the sofa for most of the day. They don’t tend to vocalise as they wouldn’t want to scare off the prey, and they are very friendly with other dogs and family members.

Herding Dogs

Founder of the German Shepherd

Breeds: Border Collies, Australian Kelpie, Welsh Corgis, Australian Shepherd, Old English Sheepdog, Schnauzer, German Shepherd, Bernese Mountain Dog, Saint Bernard, Rottweiler

What they were bred for: Sheep and cattle herding was a tough job, so dogs were bred to assist. They needed to control and move livestock, and some were also required to guard the flock (and shepherd) from wolves or even bears when grazing far from home. They tend to be strong and have a lot of stamina. They are intelligent, with excellent eyesight and hearing. As these attributes are quite vague, it resulted in a lot of dogs who could do the job, but who looked dramatically different. Max von Stephaniz (pictured above with the first German Shepherd) believed that Herding Dogs should be standardised and so he created the German Shepherd with the attributes he felt mattered: strength, intelligence, loyalty, and beauty.

The result: An energetic and agile dog with great stamina. They make good family dogs as they are fiercely loyal and are at their best when they have a job to do. They need to be physically and mentally active. They retain their herding instincts and that’s why you find wee Collie pups or Corgis nip you at the heels in an effort to herd you into the kitchen to get them a treat! German Shepherds remain strong, intelligent, loyal, and beautiful - which makes them not only excellent family pets, but also excellent guard dogs and police dogs.

Fighting Dogs

Bull Baiting

Breeds: Pit Bull, Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Boxer

What they were bred for: Dogfighting (Dog vs Dog) or Bullbaiting (Bull Vs Dog). Specifically bred for these cruel sports, and most fighting dog breeds are medium-sized with sturdy bodies and strong jaws. What makes them a perfect fighting dog is also their relentlessness – the dog won't stop the fight even when injured or close to death, unlike other breeds.

The result: Most of these dogs were used for fighting because they are strong, but also highly intelligent, loyal and therefore easily trainable. In the right hands they can be trained to be excellent companions.

Show Dogs


Breeds: Boston Terrier, French Bulldog

What they were bred for: These dogs were created with even temperaments, unlike their fighting predecessors, and were trained from the start to perform in the ring.

The result: Very attractive docile dogs. However like all dogs with very flat noses they have some breathing issues and tend to be loud snorers!

Sled Dogs

Sled Dogs

Breeds: Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Eskimo Dog, Samoyed, Spitz

What they were bred for: Sled-pulling dogs have been used in the Arctic for at least 8,000 years and are still one of the best transportation options in Arctic areas, hauling supplies in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Sled dogs were bred for their strength, energy, and stamina. They are big dogs with thick coats (often double coats) and wide, flat feet like inbuilt doggy snowshoes. Pomeranians were originally bred from sled-pulling Spitz dogs, which is where they get their fantastic coats from.

The result: A large dog with a beautiful thick coat who requires a lot of exercise. They also tend to have a stubborn streak as this independence was excellent when working. Read more detail about them on our Husky Blog.

And finally...

While most dogs above were bred by a group of people some dogs were bred for one person's specific purpose.

Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann

Breed: Doberman

Why they were bred: Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann (Germany, 1834) served in the dangerous role of local tax collector, and ran the dog pound. With access to dogs of many breeds, he aimed to create a breed that would be ideal for protecting him during his collections, which took him through many dangerous, bandit-infested areas. He set out to breed a new type of dog that, in his opinion, would be the perfect combination of strength, loyalty, intelligence, and ferocity. The City of Apolda is so proud of Louis Dobermann that the city’s tourist board brochure shows a picture of Louis Dobermann accompanied by a similarly dressed Dobermann Pinscher (above).

The result: A super-intelligent and super-active dog. You also get an extremely loyal, trustworthy dog who's playful and fun-loving with family. They're a natural protector who won't hesitate to act when they think their family is under threat, but they're not aggressive without reason. Dobermans are very easy to train because they are super intelligent. Dobermans in modern day continue to excel in K-9 duty and as therapy dogs, service dogs, and search and rescue dogs.  

Now that you know the background and traits of each breed you can search to adopt rescue dogs suitable for you, from rescues across Northern Ireland and Ireland.

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