The Portuguese Podengo Club of America

History of the Portuguese Podengo

History of the Portuguese Podengo elvis_9m2.jpg

By Kip Bergstrom from Vitor Veiga's The Portuguese Podengo and conversations with the author and Carla Molinari, President of the Portguese Kennel Club

In The Portuguese Podengo, Vitor Veiga has extensively documented the rich history of the breed. Some of the key points are highlighted here to flesh out the brief Historical Summary in the Portuguese Podengo Breed Standard.

An Ancient Breed of Primitive Type

The Portuguese Podengo is one of the world's oldest dog breeds. It has not changed greatly from dogs brought by the Phoenicians and Romans to the Iberian Peninsula over 2,000 years ago...rabbit, deer and boar hunters of Middle Eastern and Egyptian origin already 2,000 years old as a breed when they arrived. The Moorish Invasion in the 8th Century brought another strain across North Africa that influenced the type. During the 2,000 years of the breed's development in Portugal, the Portuguese let nature take its course, simply selecting in each generation the dogs that proved to be the best in the hunt in the Portuguese terrain and climate. Nature has made it a dog of strength, balance, proportion and moderation...a functional, rustic dog without exaggeration or artifice, arguably a more natural version of the dog that first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula 2,000 years ago.

The Large Mediterranean Family of Podengos

The word Podengo was used in Portugal at least as early as the 16th century to refer to all pack hunting dogs. The full name then was Podengo de Mostra (the Mostra part referring to a pack). Overtime, this was shortened to Podengo. This was used to distinguish multi-sensory, endurance-trotting, pack-hunting dogs from the single-sensory, sprinting sight hounds, which then and now are called Galgos.

The Portuguese do not have a word for hound. The Portuguese hear the word Podengo much as we do, not as a generic term like hound, but rather as a specific term for primitive, prick-eared, pack-hunting dogs distributed around the Mediterranean basin 2,000 years ago by the Phoenicians. The Fox Hound, Basset Hound, etc., are not called Podengos in Portugal. They are called by their English names.

Podengo-type dogs are found in Spain and Portugal, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Sicily, the Canary Islands, the Azores and the Madeira Islands. All of these dogs were introduced to their new homes by the Phoenicians and Romans, or by later Portuguese and Spanish migration, where they flourished, each making adaptations to a local climate, terrain and style of hunting. The Phoenicians and Romans thus inadvertently created critical safe havens for the Podengo type, as the breed disappeared in its places of origin in the Middle East and Egypt.

While the Portuguese and the Spanish both use similar words (Podenco in Spanish) to describe their Podengo-type dogs, in Malta, the Podengo-type dog, which we call the Pharaoh Hound, is called by the Maltese the Kelb tal-Fenek. In Malta, this is considered to mean Rabbit Dog, as Fenek is the term for rabbit in Malta. But in Arabic, Fenek means fox. The desert fox in Tunisia is called the Fennec, whose big ears and triangular head are an exaggerated form of the Podengo head. One wonders whether in Malta, the dog got its name from the rabbit, or the rabbit from the dog?

Carla Molinari, President of the Clube Portugues de Canicultura, the Portuguese Kennel Club, has another theory. She thinks that Fenek is an Arabic corruption of the Greek word Phoinikes (Phoenicians), and the Kelb tal-Fenek is Dog of the Phoenicians. This is plausible, as for example, in modern day Turkey, the city of Finike was formerly known as Phoenicius, after its founders. The "Phoenicians" referred to themselves typically by their city of residence (e.g., Tyre, Sidon, Carthage), not by their nationally. When they referred to themselves collectively, it was as bani kan'an, or Children of Canaan. They spoke a Semetic language similar to Hebrew and Arabic. It would be ironic if the Arabic "Kelb tal-Fenek" does in fact mean "Dog of the Phoenicians", as the Maltese bristle at "Pharaoh Hound" which they consider to be a fanciful fabrication that has wrongly pushed out the proper local name.

In Sicily, the Podengo-type dog is called Cirneco, which Carla Molinari thinks could be an Italian corruption of Kelb tal-Fenek. If she's right, there are at least two places that call this family of dog by its place/people of origin. So why then do the Portuguese and Spanish call it Podengo/Podenco instead? Where does that come from?

Carla Molinari thinks that both Podengo and Podenco come directly from the Latin, rather than from each other, and that the Latin source word is probably Podus, meaning foot, suggesting the running ability and perhaps the light footed-ness of the breed. It is a name that describes the breed's essence, rather than a prey or another animal it resembles or a place or people of origin. If Carla Molinari is right, one can imagine Romans in the Iberian Peninsula describing pack-hunting dogs of theirs and of the Phoenicians with a Latin word that was somewhere between Podus and Podengo de Mostra. So, like the dog itself, the name Podengo may be 2,000 years old!

And just as the dog is a living connection to that time, the name Podengo Portugues, or Portuguese Podengo, is an echo of a word from that time, embodying both the breed's first introduction to the Portuguese terrain and climate as well as its long adaptation to it. In the same way, Podenco Ibicenco, or Ibizan Podenco, speaks to the long adaptation of the breed to Ibiza and Kelb tal-Fenek speaks of its adaptation to Malta and Cirneco of its adaptation to Sicily. We should honor these place-resonant names.

Podengo, then and now, does not mean rabbit hound, as the Grande is used for big game such as deer and boar. And Podengo certainly does not mean warren hound (a term used in the UK for the Podengo), as the Medio cannot get into a warren. Yes, the Podengo is a kind of hound, but a specific one, not a generic one...a Podengo is a family of primitive, prick-eared, Mediterranean, multi-sensory, light-footed, endurance-trotting, pack-hunting dogs of Phoenician origin. All of that meaning is packed into Podengo; almost none of it is packed into hound.

Even worse than generic names like Warren Hound are the cute nicknames, such as "PoPo" in Finland or "Pod" in America. These are well-meant terms of endearment, but I think they are an insult to the breed and to the Portuguese people. This is a breed that has managed to survive into the 21st century remarkably similar in type, function and health to the dog that the Phoenicians brought to the Iberian Peninsula in the first century B.C. It deserves to be called by all of us by its real name.

An interesting subplot of all this etymology is that, according to Wikipedia, the name of Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, comprising Portugal and Spain), is by one theory among many derived from the Phoenician "I-Shaphan" meaning "coast of hyraxes", in turn a misidentification on the part of Phoenician explorers of its numerous rabbits as hyraxes, a North African and Middle Eastern mammal similar to the rabbit.

All of the extended family of Podengo-type dogs are versatile, multi-sensory hunters. In addition to their sharp vision, they have large, highly-mobile prick ears, giving them keen hearing to find game in the brush. The Portuguese Podengos also use their hearing to triangulate on the game by calling to each other as they surround it, using a singing yelp called "the Maticar" ("the Cry of the Kill" or perhaps more nicely, "The Thrill of the Hunt"). Podengo-type dogs also have an acute sense of smell as well, with which it can track game. All of them are built for a combination of speed, endurance and agility, and are built for endurance trotting rather than for endurance galloping.

In an ideal world, there would be a Podengo Group, but since that does not exist in any of the exhibiting organizations, the Portuguese Podengo and the other Podengo-type breeds are classified within the Federation Cynologique International (FCI), the international kennel club in Europe, in Group 5, Spitz and Primitive types; Section 7, Primitive type Hunting Dogs. This puts the Podengos into a group whose other members are primitive Nordic dogs with generally smaller prick ears than those of Podengos, but most of whom are also endurance trotters like the Podengo. Neither the United Kennel Club nor the American Kennel Club have a Spitz and Primitive Group, instead grouping dogs by broad function.  The Podengo is shown in the Sighthound and Pariah Group in the UKC and in the Hound Group in the AKC.

The Three Sizes and Two Coats

The dogs which the Phoenicians and Romans brought to the Iberian Peninsula were of different sizes, but of a similar type. These dogs were adapted to hunt large and small game, and were the origin of today's three sizes of Portuguese Podengo: the Grande (Large), the Medio (Medium) and the Pequeno (Small). The PPCA honors the Portuguese-ness of the Podengo by also using the Portuguese words for the three sizes: Grande (pronounced Grond with a rolled r), Medio (pronounced ME-dee-you with a short e) and Pequeno (pronounced pe-KEN-ooo with a short e).

When it first arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese Podengo might have looked something like today's Ibizan Podenco (aka Ibizan Hound), with a thinner coat and finer and racier lines than those of today's Portuguese Podengo. They probably all had short coats, but not as dense as today's Portuguese Podengo Smooth Coat.

All sizes adapted to the Portuguese terrain and climate, and in particular, the rough work of Portugal's brushy woods, which require a tougher coat. Today's Smooth Coat variety is particularly well-adapted to the wetter climate of the north of the country, because its short coat dries faster. The Wire Coat is particularly well-adapted to the hot, arid central and southwestern portions of the country, because its medium length coat, combined with absence of undercoat, provides both sun screening and evaporation, while the harsh texture of the coat provides protection from brambles.

The Grande: A Boar Hunter of the Nobility

The Portuguese Podengo Grande, a substantial dog used in large packs to hunt deer and wild boar, continued after its introduction to the Iberian Peninsula to be a dog of the nobility, like its Egyptian and Middle Eastern antecedents. The life and death quality of the wild boar hunt selected for a dog of great strength and courage. In recent times, the Grande has suffered the vicissitudes of the wild boar hunt in Portugal, which was outlawed for a time and then restored. Similar laws in Spain wiped out the Podenco Andaluz, a Podengo-type dog of large stature used for boar hunting there, which has a close resemblance to the Ibizan, but with the stature of the Portuguese Podengo Grande.

Since the primary boar hunting area of Portugal is along the Spanish border, there was evidently some out-crossing between the Portuguese Podengo Grande and the Podenco Andaluz. In effect, the Podenco Andaluz was absorbed into the Portuguese Podengo Grande and is the source of the narrower head, the watch-spring shaped tail and other faults in some Grandes, which the Portuguese are trying to breed out, including by breeding Grandes with larger Medios. Part of the reason for the match up of heights in the standard between the top of the Medio and the bottom of the Grande is to facilitate this strengthening of the Grande with the Medio type. A tall Medio is a Grande, as long as it has the substance to match its height.

The Medio and The Pequeno: Rabbit Hunters of the People

The Portuguese Podengo Medio and Pequeno are rabbit hunting dogs, which experienced a different, but no less rigorous path to their present type. Unlike the Grandes, they became dogs of the people and experienced the privation of the peasant's life. They were expected to hunt for long distances, followed on foot by a peasant typically armed only with a stick, so they had to find, flush, capture, kill and retrieve the game with a great deal of autonomy, relying as much on cleverness as on pure speed, and favoring a body built for endurance trotting, rather than endurance galloping. The Portuguese Podengo typically moves at a light trot, changing to a fast trot when it spots the game, and increasing in speed to a rotary gallop to catch it. It is capable of, but typically does not use, the double suspension gallop of the sight hounds.

During the 400 years of the Moorish occupation, the superb rabbit hunting abilities of the Medio and the Pequeno, coupled with the abundance of rabbits in Portugal (the country's predominant species), helped the Portuguese nation survive, as commemorated in a 10th century Visigoth tomb decoration of a Podengo with a rabbit in its mouth that was later accorded a position on the front facade of the 14th century cathedral of Tomar. How many nations have so honored a dog breed? One could say that the Portuguese Podengo co-evolved with the Portuguese people, who inhabit the oldest nation state in Europe, and that the nation and the dog share a markedly hardy, rustic, natural character.

The Pequeno and the Voyages of Discovery

The glory days of Portuguese history were the Voyages of Discovery of the 15th Century. The Portuguese Podengo Pequeno was part of this history. The Pequeno's small size and slightly rectangular shape made it well suited for flushing rabbits from rock crevices and extremely dense thickets. While the Pequeno today is used in packs for rabbit hunting, in exactly the same fashion as the Medio, in the past, some hunters used the Pequeno as a specialist, carrying the dogs in a pouch until they reached a point in the hunt where they needed it to flush the rabbit out of a thicket which the Medios couldn't penetrate. The Pequeno's courage and tenacity in biting through dense brush to get to the rabbit also made it a fine ratter and mouser, and as the Portuguese began to explore the world in the 15th century, the Pequeno went with them, protecting the ship's stores from vermin and the crew from rodent-borne diseases. Carla Molinari thinks that all three sizes probably accompanied the Portuguese explorers on their voyages, as they each would have been useful for hunting game whenever the ships made land.

The Medio: The Point of Reference for the Other Sizes

Due to Portugal's relative isolation at the western edge of Europe, unlike the other two sizes, the Medio evolved to its present form without much influence from other breeds, and as a result has the most strongly-established and homogeneous type and greatest genetic stability of the three sizes. The Medio embodies the authentic type of the Portuguese Podengo.

The general direction of the revisions to the Portuguese Podengo Breed Standard over the past 50 years has been to make fewer allowances for the Pequeno and Grande sizes in deviation from the standard for the Medio. Successful breeding programs with the Pequeno and Grande have largely weeded out other breed influences in the best exhibits, such that today the differences in the standard for the three sizes are primarily functional: the need for an increase in substance with an increase in size (due to the Principle of Similitude), the somewhat rectangular shape of the Pequeno (to enable it to enter rabbit burrows, rock crevices and dense thickets), and the requirement of full dentition in the Grande (essential for boar hunting). The only non-functional difference in the standard for three sizes is a tolerance for a broader range of colors in the Pequeno, but even in that case, the yellow and fawn colors of the Medio are preferred.

The Portuguese Podengo Today

The Portuguese Podengo is one of ten National Dogs of Portugal and has the honor of being the symbol of the Portuguese Kennel Club (the Clube Portugues de Canicultura or CPC). The Club do Podengo Portugues (CPP) is the national breed club in Portugal, of which PPCA was the first international affiliate. Ironically for this breed, which in the Medio and Pequeno sizes has evolved for the past 2,000 years as a dog of the people, the efforts to save and improve the breed over the past 100 years have included many members of Portugal's upper classes, who saw in this and the other nine indigenous breeds an essential element of the national patrimony.

The first purebred Portuguese Podengos came to the United States in the 1990s and now reside in more than forty-five states. Since May 2004, the Portuguese Podengo has been registered with both the United Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club.  Many Portuguese Podengos in the U.S. are also registered with the CPC, including some of those from litters born in the United States, in accordance with a process established between the CPC and the PPCA.

The Critical Role of Hunters in the Future of the Breed

There are many more unregistered Portuguese Podengos in Portugal than registered ones, as the Portuguese tend to register only those dogs they plan to show. This means there is a genetic stock of hunting dogs in Portugal, particularly of Medios, from which to refresh the blood lines of the breed, through a process carefully managed by the Portuguese.

The Portuguese Podengo is the most popular hunting dog in Portugal, and almost all Portuguese Podengos in Portugal are used to hunt, including some of the show dogs. And nearly all breeders and exhibitors are also hunters. This keeps the Portuguese Podengo type true to its function, and makes it a very robust, healthy, long-lived dog. Rabbit hunting in Portugal is rough work, with the dogs often suffering cuts and scratches from a hard day in the field. These are considered a badge of honor in the ring, not a demerit.

The greatest risk to the Portuguese Podengo in America is that it loses this strong connection to the hunt that exists in Portugal. We must strive to get more dogs placed with active hunters here. With strong encouragement from the PPCA, there are now several hunter/breeders in the U.S., who are also starting to exhibit their Podengos. This augurs well for the future of the breed here. Those owners who do not hunt their Podengos need to find other outlets for their superb athleticism, such as agility or lure coursing. And we must be vigilant in health screening of our breeding stock, because we do not have the advantage of the Portuguese in natural selection for hunting function.