Experiencing a country’s rare national dog may be just enough reason to make the trip!
Stargazers travel all the way to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. Foodies cross seven time zones to eat street food in Thailand. Architecture aficionados make pilgrimages to stand in awe in front of the modernist buildings of Barcelona. If people traverse the seas for a view of the heavens, Tom Yum Goong or Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church, we don’t see why those obsessed with dogs wouldn’t consider vacationing in a country to check out its very own version of man’s best friend.
Across all cultures, humans have bred their canines for specific traits such as hunting gazelle in the sub-Saharan Sahel or sitting upon the laps of Belgian royalty. That means these pets are actually an extraordinary way to understand the culture of a place. Here we showcase a dozen unique canines you won’t likely see walking down the street in your hometown. Each of their backstories illuminates the land they descended from (as well as why they are such good doggos!)
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The 3,500-year-old Xoloitzcuintli is one of the most rare and unusual dogs in the world. It is Mexico’s national dog and was once the ancient Aztec dog of the gods. The breed, also called the “Mexican Hairless Dog” (since most people can’t pronounce “show-low-eats-QUEENT-lee”) is known for its sparse coat (read: bald) and oligodontia (read: toothlessness). Because of these, ahem, unusual qualities, they often win ugly dog contests. Archaeologists have discovered statues of Xolos in tombs of the ancients. The bald pups were sacrificed and buried with their owners to guide their souls on the journey to the underworld.
Xolos were on their way to extinction in the 1940s when puppy preservationists searched remote villages to revive the breed. Now they’re making a comeback as a living emblem of in the country’s rich cultural history. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were ahead of the game. The Mexican power couple raised Xolos and Kahlo’s artwork famously includes her favorite dog, Señor Xototl.
The Telomian, one of world’s rarest breeds, have gargantuan paws relative to their size that help them climb ladders. Yes, ladders. That’s because the indigenous people of Malaysia that bred them lived in stilt homes to elevate themselves above all the dangerous creepy-crawlers on the ground. Thus, the Telomian was bred not just to scale a ladder to get into the home but to exterminate tropical vermin that’s taken up residence there. Snakes, scorpions and poisonous insects don’t stand a chance against this dog. If all that doesn’t make it unique enough, the Telomian has a blue tongue.
Since this dog is almost impossible to come across in the US, you’ll have to go to Malaysia to see it. Given that Malaysia is a tapestry of cultures combining everything that’s great about China, India and Southeast Asia, that seems like a worthwhile trip. There’s no Telomian Association in the US so here’s a link to the Malaysian Kennel Association. The tourism board of Malaysia is a helpful resource for those considering traveling there.
Coton de Tulear
Hard to believe this happy-go-lucky cotton ball of a dog was descended from pirate dogs. Yep, the national dog of Madagascar is believed to be the love child of a dog brought by pirates to the island and the native dog of Madagascar. The result is a little puff of a dog with expressive black eyes and short legs described by the American Kennel Club as “immensely charming.” Favored by the Malagasy royalty, they are often referred to as the “Royal Dog of Madagascar.” True to this moniker, their raison d’être is to amuse, comfort and befriend.
This isn’t the only rare creature on the Indian Ocean island. Madagascar, located off the coast of Africa, evolved in isolation for millions of years and it’s therefore a wildlife wonderland. More than 90 percent of its flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. The Office National du Tourisme de Madagascar website offers lots of useful travel information. For more information about this rare breed, contact the Malagasy Coton de Tulear Club of America.
WHERE: West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger)
Don’t be fooled by the fine elegance and long lines of this leggy canine. The Azawakh is as tough as they come and this hunter has been accompanying his best friend in the Sahara for millennia, chasing gazelle and hare through the blazing heat at speeds up to 40 mph. This guy is built for speed; they are so lean you can see their bones and muscles through their bodies and they have the rare ‘upright double suspension gallop,’ the swiftest of all canine gaits. And because of their desert beginnings, they are nearly impervious to the heat.
Azawakhs were bred in the West African countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger by the Tuareg and other nomadic desert tribes. Sadly, the State Department advises against travel to Mali and has a travel advisory out for Niger and Burkina Faso.
It’s an extremely rare breed outside its homeland but the American Azawakh Association estimates there are 400 and 500 Azawakhs nationwide, so maybe you can find one near you to visit. Also, the American Kennel Club just added the Azawakh to its roster of recognized breeds so you may be seeing one compete on your TV as soon as 2020.
WHERE: South Korea
The adorable Jeju Dog was teetering at the brink of extinction just three decades ago when only three of them were left on the entire island of Jeju in South Korea. Luckily, its fortunes were reversed. Today, owing to a concerted breeding campaign as well as its designation as a “national heritage animal,” its population is up.
The breed’s presence on the island dates back 3,000 years. Owing to their loyalty and hunting skills, the South Korean armed forces conscripted them for search and rescue ops. But by some accounts, their numbers fell after Japanese invaders undertook a concerted campaign to wipe out all breeds indigenous to Korea. Add to that, the (now declining) practice of eating dogs in Korea, and you have a breed whose survival is a small miracle.
Jeju Island is worth visiting aside from the presence of its most famous furry critter. The island’s highlights include a lava cave that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and Jeju Love Land, an erotic-themed park. The Korea Tourism Organization has lots of info. And if you’re interested in rescuing a Korean dog, the New York-based Korean K9 Rescue can help make it happen.
The early colonists in the Brazilian countryside bred their best friends to be multitaskers. The ranchers in the area around Minas Gerais needed an oversized, fearless working dog to guard cattle, hunt jaguars and protect them and their property. There’s even an expression in Portuguese—“fiel como una Fila,” which means “as faithful as a Fila.”
These fiercely protective mastiffs, which have massive heads and can weigh up to 170 pounds, became extremely good at being protective. Perhaps, too good. They’re a force to be reckoned with and they don’t take too kindly to strangers. As a result, they rank as one of the world’s most dangerous breeds and are even banned from some countries.
All the more reason to trek to Brazil to go see one. Just don’t walk up to it until his owner has OK’ed you first. The Visit Brasil website is a great resource, as is the Fila Brasileiro Association for information about the breed.
Löwchen (Little Lion Dog)
WHERE: Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands
You know what they say about small dogs? Big hearts. Löwchen means “little lion” is German. The breed is rare, so if it looks familiar, maybe you recognize it from oil paintings, engravings and tapestries you’ve seen in museums. You see, this stately fellow whose roots can be traced back to 1442 was the companion dog to the aristocracy in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. The Löwchen Club of America describes it a “companion dog bred for centuries for the sole purpose of giving love and hoping to get love in return,” which doesn’t sound like such a bad deal to us.
At the groomers, its long flowing hair is clipped almost bald except for its head and the tip of its tail, giving it an overall leonine effect, hence the “little lion” designation.
We suggest going to the diminutive country of Belgium to check out these diminutive dogs. Both the dog and the nation pack a whole lot of attributes into a small package. Check out the Löwchen Club of America website for more info about the breed.
A dog that yodels instead of barks? We’re all ears.
Africa’s “Barkless Dog,” the Basenji hunting dog, is one of the world’s oldest breeds. And while these sweet-faced canines don’t bark, they do make noise. But, instead of the staccato bark that most dogs make, Basenjis make a queer sound that is alternately described as a yodel, a howl or a chortle, and is technically called a “baroo.” Some believe it’s so as not to scare off prey. Others surmise it’s to avoid becoming dinner for predators stalking the rainforests of the Congo Basin.
The breed is often ranked at the bottom of “Most Intelligent” lists because of their unwillingness to please (which we think makes them smart, actually.) It’s thought they are so hard to train because they hunted off the leash. Their survival was therefore dependent on being independent thinkers, not obedient pushovers for us humans.
Contact the Basenji Club of America for info about the breed.
INSIDER TIPListen to NPR’s ‘This American Life’ about a Basenji that keeps running away and coming back.
WHERE: Italian Alps
The story of the Bergamasco Shepherd begins in the Italian Alps, where it was bred as a herding dog. Its recognizable Rasta-like coat is a result of three types of hair that naturally combine together to form flat felted mats which protect the dog from the snowy weather and predators of its mountainous homeland. Some refer to its look as “rustic.”
The dog with the big hair and the big personality is rarely spotted in the States. The American Kennel Club ranks the breed’s popularity at 184 out of 193. Along with the snow-capped chalets, slopes, and peaks of the gorgeous Italian Alps, add the Bergamasco to the list of reasons to go visit. Want to read more? The Bergamasco Sheepdog Club Of America has a library of info about what it calls a “highly intelligent, gentle breed with its unique matted coat.”
WHERE: Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan
The crowning glory on the Afghan Hound—its shampoo commercial-worthy mane—is not there to turn heads, even though it does. Their flowing locks protect them against the icy winds in the mountains of Afghanistan where they’re from. They also have massive paw pads made for traversing jagged terrain. One of the oldest breeds, Affies (as they’re affectionately known) can run as fast as racehorses, which comes in handy when you’re helping your horseback-riding human hunt down leopards.
Their temperament is kind of like the hot girl in high school who had a goofy side. They are aloof and dignified, but happy and clownish when playing around. If you’re not planning on taking a trip to Afghanistan anytime soon, you can read all about them at the Afghan Hound Club of America website.
There is a movement in Finland to land its national dog on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Fans of the Finnish Spitz highlight treasures that are, well, intangible, like hunting in the Finnish wilderness with a trusty Spitz by your side, which was the Finnish way of life for millennia.
The Spitz, nicknamed “Finkie,” has been intricately linked to the history of the Finnish people and is considered a national treasure. Their likeness has even been found on cave walls painted in prehistoric times. Once called the “Finnish Barking Bird Dog,” it can woof up to 160 times per minute. The dog barks at birds in trees to help his master locate them and retrieves birds shot into the water.
Finland is a utopia, albeit a frosty one, for the outdoor enthusiast. Crystal clear streams run through vast forests lighted by the midnight sun, and reindeer roam free. Visitfinland.com is the national tourism site and the Finnish Spitz Club of America is an avid advocate for the breed.
The story of the Mucuchí dog is the story of the colonialism, revolution, and geopolitics of Venezuela. The Venezuelan sheepdog is descended from the dogs of 16th-century Spanish conquerors who used them as watchdogs and herders. So brave and mighty was one Mucuchí, it captured the respect of none less than Simón Bolívar, “The Liberator,” who led the revolution against Spanish rule.
Legend has it Bolivar first faced off with a courageous Mucuchí puppy named Nevado (aka Snowy.) Nevado would not allow Bolivar and his troops to enter his master’s house. Nevado joined the revolution and ended up bravely fighting alongside Bolivar until he was felled by a spear in the legendary battle of 1821 in which Venezuela finally won its independence from the crown. A national hero, there are statues of Nevado all around Venezuela.
Despite being Venezuela’s national dog, it almost became extinct in the 1960s. Lately, former Venezuelan president and strongman Hugo Chavez, who idolizes Bolivar, backed a program to revive the breed. One of South America’s most beautiful countries, there’s so much to see in Venezuela although maybe not right now since the State Department advised against traveling there at the time of this writing.