Origins & History

Mention “poodle to someone who has never owned or known one and it will typically conjure up images of pampered pets sporting outlandish haircuts being doted upon by old dowagers… In short, poodles don’t do well in the PR department with the mainstream uninformed.

But it wasn’t always that way. Historically, it’s only recently that poodles have had to endure their bad  rap in the public eye.

The poodle has been around for a long time. Ancient Egyptian and Roman artefacts often depict the poodle’s ancestors assisting their owner’s as they bring in game nets, herd a variety of animals or retrieve selected catches from various marshes.

The poodle was originally bred to be a water dog — retrieving game fowl trapped or shot down by it’s owners. In fact the name “poodle” is a derivative of the old German extraction “pudeln” which translates roughly as “to splash in water.”

The poodle’s true ancestry is as murky as the marshes it originally learned to work in. One commonly held belief is that it descended from Asian herding dogs then travelled west with the Germanic tribes known as Goths and Ostrogoths to eventually become a German water dog. Another theory holds that it was brought out of the Asian Steppes by the conquering North African Berbers and eventually found its way into Portugal in the 8th Centruy with the Moors.

That’s why even today, it’s believed that the poodle is related to the famous Portuguese water dog — a working dog with a long curly coat, renowned for its intelligence, speed, agility and ruggedness both in and out of the water.

Unlike many other breeds of dog that were bred to specific sizes only within recent history, the poodle’s three recognized sizes — toy, miniature and standard — have been around for centuries. Aside from companionship, the toy versions and related cross-breeds played a somewhat dubious alternate role whereby they served as hand-warmers within the large sleeves of the nobility and emerging merchant classes around the time of the Renaissance. This practice became so widespread that they and other similarly small dogs became know as “sleeve dogs.”

For centuries, the poodle’s intelligence and personality made it a favourite with gypsies and other travelling performers who trained it to perform tricks and skits to the delight of paying spectators.

Accounts of famous royal command performances along with stories of amazing street shows are littered throughout the historical record. Variety shows featuring poodles dressed in costumes and displaying amazing feats of intelligence, balance and agility became all the rage in the 19th century.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of poodles is why they are clipped in such an array of seemingly bizarre styles. The fact is that the distinctively shaved areas and tufts of hair – the unique poodle “look” — are a direct result of the poodle’s working and sporting heritage.

In order to protect the poodle’s vital organs and joints from the biting cold of constant water retrieval, certain areas were shaved for added mobility and to lessen the chance of snagging while other key areas were left densely covered for warmth. The ribbon commonly found tied into a poodle’s topknot, is believed to have originally been a means of finding and identifying the dog when it was working in water.

Adding to the clipping cavalcade were travelling gypsy performers who often sheared their performing poodles in fanciful styles much to the delight of their customers. It didn’t take long for the ladies of the court and upper classes to discover that they could clip, dye, and decorate these newfound companions in an almost endless array of styles, adding their own variations on an otherwise utilitarian theme. This reached a peak during the heyday of the French nobility. The French adopted the poodle with a special zeal and brought clipping to the level of high art. Even today, most people associate the poodle with France instead of Germany. That’s just fine with the French who don’t mind putting one over on the Germans and who have subsequently named the poodle, “the national dog of France.”

Poodles have worked in virtually every capacity a dog is capable of filling. From a cart-pulling draught animal to parlour room trickster, from sled dog to assistive guide dog, from warrior to rest home companion, from truffle hound to eminently competent bird dog, and from watchdog to show ring master, the poodle excels at everything it sets its mind to.

With such a rich and varied history, the poodle is a master of all trades and one of the finest companions any human could ever hope for.