A Dog’s Life
Putting our pets into our works is a benign nod to the importance of our furry friends in our lives, and, as I mentioned last month, my Newfoundland made his literary debut in Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister. Unfortunately, my other dogs will never make it into a Regency novel…
Kai is a Yorkshire Terrier (or Terror, as we sometimes call him). Yorkies, now a common portable pooch among the leisured class, began as the product of the need for rat killers in the textile mills of Yorkshire during the mid-19th Century (although some legends attribute the origin of the breed to the coal-miners of Yorkshire who needed a dog small enough to fit in their pocket and tough enough to kill rats down in the mines). At any rate, they were breed by working-class men who needed a compact, determined and feisty ratter and the breed we know now did not exist during the Regency. Of course, had they existed at the time, a gentlewoman would not want to want to own such a “low-class” dog. This would have been true of all terriers, as they were bred as working dogs by working people, not as pampered pets.
The most recent dog to join my “pack” (just last month) is Genghis, a Shih-tzu mix whom I met at our local animal shelter. (His name might strike you as incongruous for an 11 lb ball of fluff, but my husband has a rather sardonic sense of humor). We wanted to give him an Asian name since he is a Chinese breed, and the thought of a little white and silver fluffball galloping over the steppes of Mongolia pillaging and murdering was just too funny to pass up. Unfortunately for my writing, Shih-tzu’s (which means “lion dog” in Chinese) made their first appearance in England in 1930, more than 100 years after the Regency.
I am sure that if Shih tzu’s had been known in England at the beginning of the 19th Century they would have been very popular. Asian breeds of small dogs, all of which had short, “smooshed” muzzles, were by far the most popular dogs among the gentry. Jane Austen has given Lady Bertram a spoiled Pug (who seemed to be named…Pug) and the dog is so important to her that she offers a puppy to Fanny Price after she has received an offer of marriage from Henry Crawford, in homage to her beauty and her success in the marriage market…an homage she had not offered to her own daughters. Georgette Heyer mentions Pugs in Grand Sophy as a contrast to Sophy’s elegant little Italian greyhound. It is interesting that writers have so commonly used dogs as a reflection of the pampered and useless lives of the very wealthy. I don’t recall ever reading of a heroic lapdog in a Regency era book, although I have seen them in the news. (Exhibit A is the Chihuahua who chased away two armed robbers from his owner’s liquor store last year. Certainly didn’t illustrate any bravery in the robbers, but the surveillance camera films were very funny!)
The short, monkey-like faces of the Pug was so popular that they inspired breeders to alter the appearance of an English breed, now known as a King Charles Spaniel, to have shorter and shorter muzzles. In the early part of the 20th Century fashions changed again and breeders began crossbreeding King Charles Spaniels with longer muzzled dogs to try and recreate the original type of the well-known spaniel, which had been immortalized in numerous paintings of royalty and the gentry. These re-created types have been named Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. The Chinese breeds were generally bred to be companions, rather than workers, and a number of them could only be owned by royalty until quite late in history. Ironically, these breeds are not delicate “teacup” dogs which can be held in the hand, but are sturdy and resilient canines which make excellent family pets as they can survive the rough and tumble of playing with children.
Whatever their history, all of my dogs have loved and desired human food. Much to their chagrin, I only feed them dog food as I prefer that they live a long, healthy life (and not learn to steal food from the table and countertops, in the case of my Newfie). Please care for your pets enough to make sure they receive the proper diet, as well as the attention they deserve!