Our society is pug-obsessed. The home section of every major shop is littered with pug products,they feature in countless television advertisements, and Doug the Pug even has his own YouTube channel. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that they are everywhere. I’m going to look into the history of the pug, and discover just what it is about this bug-eyed, squishy-faced Marmite dog that people adore.
Whilst reading Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, I was struck by the fact that there was a pug within the story. This canine companion, ingeniously named Pug by owner Lady Bertram, is used by Austen to symbolise wealth and luxury, reflecting the status of the Lady herself. In this way, Pug is something of a fashion accessory, in much the same way as good quality lace and spotless gloves would have been. The phenomenon of pugs as an accessory has always seemed to me a relatively modern development, so I did a little digging into the life and times of the pug as a breed…
Contrary to what I had always thought, the pug is in fact one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, reportedly tracing back to 700BC. Although slightly different in appearance to the pugs we are used to seeing nowadays, they were equally as idolised from the offset. In Imperial China, the Emperor was the only figure allowed to own a pug, and spoiled it with its own living area under the protection of guards. The Emperor favoured the pug for its small size, as well as its inactive disposition, both making them ideal lapdog material.
Their arrival in England is accredited to William, Prince of Orange, who brought the breed over from the Netherlands, and sparked off a pug obsession in Britain to match that of the rest of the world. The pug was then bred with a variant of the also popular King Charles Spaniel, the result of which being the pug recognisable today. Aims of the development were to increase the wrinkliness of the face to create a more childlike appearance, and more stunted ears, which were also achieved by cutting the ears at birth (‘cropping’), until Queen Victoria banned the practice.
So, it would seem like the pug has always been popular as a fashion statement, but I still wonder at the reason behind this. Why is such a breed so sought after, when it does not fulfil many of the requirements expected of a dog? Expensive, prone to medical issues and unable to walk long distances – why are people so desperate to own a pug?
Although not quite at the same level as in Imperial China, pugs today are still regarded as a great novelty. With the price for a pedigree pup averaging £1000-£1500, people fork out a huge amount of money when you consider the tiny size of a pug, especially when you compare it to the cost of a similarly sized terrier which rarely surpasses £400. However, it is exactly this astronomical price tag that attracts consumers. The elevated cost of something automatically makes it seem higher in worth, and induces a certain amount of pet snobbery, as it is assumed that one dog is superior to one lower in economic value. And, as in Mansfield Park, owning something frivolous which others could not afford suggests the higher status of the owner, which could account for some of the breed’s popularity.
On a different note, in today’s work-driven society many struggle finding the time to give their dogs the adequate amount of exercise, especially in properties such as flats where a dog cannot tire itself out in the garden. The pug’s natural sedate disposition is ideal for these people, as they require little exercise, and much prefer lounging on people’s laps to running around. This, alongside the pug’s neediness for attention, makes them a wonderful companion to older people, who are looking for a loyal and caring pet.
So, we’ve discovered that pug fever is not merely a 21st century malady, but has been around since before the foundation of Pompeii, at which time they were established as a fashion accessory. We’ve also explored some of the possible reasons behind wanting a pug, which explain the unrelenting popularity of the breed throughout history.
Whatever it is behind pug mania, I am sure that it will prevail in years to come.