Pariah Dogs: 9 Ancient and Wild Dog Breeds

Dog standing on a rock

 Nicolas Lee / Shutterstock

Dogs have been by our side for more than 10,000 years. While it is unknown just when dogs diverged from wolves to companion animals in the evolutionary timeframe (it could be anywhere from 33,000 years ago to 16,000 years ago depending on which studies you read) one thing is certain: they have been an integral part of human existence for ages. Yet some have stayed on — or returned to — the very edges of human civilization. These are pariah dogs.

The exact definition of a pariah dog varies depending on the expert you ask. But essentially these are the dogs that have lived a free-ranging life, foraging on the outskirts of or entirely away from human settlements and changing little over the course of their history. Some have been the helping hunters for human companions for millennia and are considered pure breeds by kennel clubs, while others are semi-feral and primitive "pariah-type" dogs that skirt the edges of villages.

The following breeds are examples of pariah dogs that straddle the spectrum of wild to re-domesticated to ancient breeds hardly changed in centuries. Some have been left entirely to their own devices and have developed their characteristic looks with little or no direct influence by humans. A few other breeds were perfected thousands of years ago and, while their characteristics have been maintained at least in part by human selection, they have changed little since their beginnings and so fall into the pariah group.

Wherever they fall on the spectrum, each reminds us of how deeply intertwined humans and dogs have been since farther back than memory can reach. (Text: Jaymi Heimbuch)

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Carolina dog

Calabash13/Wikipedia.

The "American dingo" was discovered in the 1970s living wild in isolated stretches of the southeast United States away from human settlements. Long mistaken as a feral stray, the Carolina dog’s uniqueness wasn’t recognized until Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin Jr. spotted one and saw it for what it was: a landrace dog that relied on natural selection to create its defining characteristics. With a buff or ginger-colored coat and behaviors much closer to wild dogs than feral dogs, DNA testing eventually showed that the breed is more closely connected to primitive East Asian dogs than European dog breeds. It is possible (though not confirmed) that their ancestors were dogs that migrated to North America from Asia alongside humans, and that they are of a Native American origin. Scientists are still figuring out just where the Carolina dog stems from but in the meantime, they are an example of a pariah dog breed brought back to the notice and care of humans. Like several other breeds of pariah dog, the Carolina dog is now recognized as a pure breed by the United Kennel Club, which could help protect it from losing its genetic uniqueness.

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Australian dingo

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Another wild dog with controversy surrounding its origins is the Australian dingo. While some scientists argue that the dingo is a subspecies of grey wolf separate from the subspecies that is the domestic dog, other scientists pose that the dingo originated from domesticated dogs brought to Australia from Asian sea-farers somewhere around 4,000 years ago and went feral soon after, eventually evolving into a unique breed of wild dog. What makes the understanding of the dingo so difficult is knowing whether DNA links to domestic dogs have always been there or show up because of interbreeding with feral domestic dogs brought to the continent in more recent centuries. But both DNA and archeological evidence seems to point to a closer connection with domestic dogs than wolves, even if it is far back in their evolutionary history. No matter the status of dingoes on the canid family tree, the “pure” dingo of today is in danger of disappearing because of just such widespread interbreeding with modern domestic dogs.

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Basenji

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The Basenji is best known for being the "barkless dog" — when it does vocalize, rather than a typical bark, it makes more of a yodeling "barroo" sound. What isn’t quite as well known is that this is an ancient breed of dog, arguably one of the oldest among recognized breeds. It originated in densely forested areas of the Congo Basin in Africa. It shares many characteristics of pariah dogs, which is why it falls in the kennel club categories of Sighhound and Pariah or Spitz and Primitive depending on the club. For instance, like wild dogs it reproduces only once a year, whereas domestic dogs can reproduce several times a year. The ancestors of the modern Basenji lived with humans for thousands of years as a helper in hunting by driving small game into nets or hunting down wounded prey. The fact that they are typically so silent is of course a desired trait for this work. Depictions of dogs with Basenji characteristics (the pricked ears and tightly curled tails) are found in Egyptian tombs, showing just how old this pariah breed is known to be.

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Mexican and Peruvian hairless dogs

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The Mexican hairless dog, or Xoloitzcuintle, and the Peruvian hairless dogs are two separate breeds with two things in common. The first is rather obvious; they’re both hairless. The second is that they’re both extremely ancient breeds. These two breeds have been around for thousands of years and the hairlessness is a trait that occurred through natural selection. The Xoloitzcuintle has existed in Mexico for over three millennia, and likely originated from a spontaneous hairless mutation from indigenous American dogs as a way of adapting to the hot and humid tropical regions where it is found. It wasn’t recognized as an official breed until the 1950s, when it became apparent that the breed would die out if not recognized and protected by fanciers. Meanwhile, the Peruvian hairless dog appears on ceramic vessels starting around 750 AD. The breed nearly went extinct after the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, but managed to survive in rural areas. Today, they've regained the status they once had as a quality dog and are now considered cultural patrimony of Peru and are protected by law.

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Native American Indian dog

Kobidog/Wikipedia.

Far less wild but just as old as the Carolina dog is the Native American Indian Dog. This breed was used for a multitude of tasks from guarding and hunting to hauling sleds. Hard working and versatile, yet a friendly family dog, it was a companion of Plains Indians for thousands of years. There is a controversy surrounding the breed: some claim that today’s dogs are descended from the ancient lineage, while others say that the modern version is a recreation and that the original breed went extinct long ago. The breed is known for being medium-sized with large perked ears, eyes of yellow, gray or blue, and with sable colored coats that vary from cream to golds and tans to black.

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Indian pariah dog

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Perhaps the epitome of pariah dog breeds is the Indian pariah dog, the landrace dog of the Indian sub-continent. Also known as the pye dog, pie dog, pi dog or INDog, it is thought to be descended from early dogs domesticated in China and brought west. The breed has been self-selecting for thousands of years, coming to its characteristic lanky build, tan or buff coat, and long upward-curling tail through its own devices. It is not a street dog or scavenging feral dog of mixed breeding as it is often mistaken. It is considered a distinct and pure breed, and one of the few pure breeds originating from India. Because it has let Nature’s rule of survival of the fittest run its breeding program, the breed is naturally healthy with very little care needed by those humans who do decide to have them as companion animals for guarding or hunting. They even lack a “doggy” body odor, similar to other wild dog breeds such as dingos and New Guinea singing dogs. Also as is the case with wild or primitive-type dog breeds, they reproduce just once a year.

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Alopekis

S. Chleiounakis/Wikipedia.

“Small but mighty” comes to mind when seeing the alopekis. Meaning “small fox” or “fox-like,” the name suits the stature of this ancient breed whose history goes back thousands of years. The alopekis is mentioned by classical writers like Aristotle, and can be found in pottery, carvings, sculpture and other archeological finds, including a terra cotta vessel dated to 3000 B.C. Unlike other modern breeds, their smaller stature isn’t one that was forced by selective breeding (and thus prone to health problems and deformities) but instead was a gradual size reduction over its evolutionary history. They are well-proportioned, without issues such as bowed legs or overly long backs. The breed could be found all over Greece, where they were used as ratters and guard dogs for poultry -- especially since they were fox-sized and could easily slip into coops to sleep with and protect the birds -- and sheep. However in recent decades they have lost some of their widespread popularity as other dog breeds have been imported to the country.

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New Guinea Singing Dog

Oldsingerman20/Wikipedia.

Like the Australian dingo, it is argued that the New Guinea singing dog is a true wild dog, in that it is considered wild and not feral, even when raised in captivity and treated as a companion animal. Also like the Australian dingo, there is controversy around the classification — is it a primitive breed of domestic dog that found an ecological niche and returned to being wild, or a unique subspecies of wolf that evolved without human intervention, or somewhere in between? Currently it falls in line as canis lupus dingo along with the Australian dingo and the Thai dog (the finer points and history of this taxonomic classification is actually a whole story in and of itself). And finally, just as with the Australian dingo, the New Guinea singing dog in its pure form may be either very rare or possibly even extinct in the wild, as none have been spotted in Papua New Guinea since the 1970s. Those existing today are bred in captivity as part of a conservation effort to preserve the breed, which genetically seems to have stemmed from dogs brought with human travelers from China (the oldest remains of a New Guinea singing dog is a tooth dated to about 5,500 years ago). The dogs living in the lowland areas were more likely to reside with humans, and those were the first dogs to disappear as they interbred with dogs brought by Europeans. The pure members of the breed that persisted, and those which became part of the early captive breeding programs, were mainly those living in the highlands and less likely to live near human settlements.

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Canaan dog

Matilda Holger/Wikipedia.

The Canaan dog ranks with the others in this gallery as one of the oldest domestic dog breeds, and is honored as Israel’s national breed. They have been part of the Middle Eastern landscape for thousands of years, even appearing in a rock carving dating back to the third century A.D. Drawings from the tombs at Beni-Hassan, which date back to 2200-2000 B.C., also depict dogs that resemble today’s Canaan dog. They were used as herding and guard dogs by ancient Israelites before the Romans invaded. After that point, the Canaan dog was largely left to live a wild or semi-wild existence, with some living as herding dogs for Bedouin tribes, and largely allowing natural selection to decide on the breed’s characteristics. Humans began once again to directly influence the breeding of Canaan dogs starting in the 1930s, when Dr. Rudolphina Menzel began a breeding program for guard dogs for isolated Israeli settlements. She chose the Canaan dog for the program because it was clear they were extremely hardy animals. She captured a select group of semi-wild individuals, tamed, trained and bred them, and from this stock the modern Canaan dog breed was reformed. Thus, like the Indian pariah dog, this is not a mixed-breed feral dog that qualifies as a Canaan dog because it lives in a certain area, but rather it is a specific pure breed with a certain genetic heritage, and it is also quite rare. Many of the Canaan dogs still living semi-wild lives were killed by the Israeli government in a push against the spread of rabies, and as more humans moved into isolated areas with their pet dogs, the number of pure Canaan dogs dwindled further. Only around 2,000-3,000 pure Canaan dogs are around today, with most of them living not in the Middle East but in North America and Europe.