Dog Breed Info Center(R) DBIC

The Ancient Greek Companion Dogs are still at Home today...

Maria Winsor-Ginala

I first became involved with these small native dogs during the ’80s, when we adopted a female Alopecis as a family pet. She was already 5 years old, white with a red patch over one eye and so intelligent that when a friend of mine, a professional dog-trainer, was looking for a canine movie-star, he decided to try her for the part and she learned all the necessary tricks in just 20 days! Although she had never been obedience trained before, the little dog was retrieving objects from water, digging and speaking on command, and in general she behaved like a true professional actor...

In Greece we all have childhood memories of these small dogs everywhere, in towns, villages and the big cities. They have always been around, from time immemorial, serving us as house pets, farm dogs, watchdogs, ratters and useful workers in many tasks, but people were not aware of their identity as a breed or their ancestry.

Greece began to re-discover the country's ancient canine breeds relatively late, in the ’50s and ’60s.Importance had primarily been placed on the large sheepdogs and the hunting dogs, so these small, not important-looking companions were left aside for decades.

A small group of patriotic cynophiles formed in the '80s and started researching the "Small Greek House Dogs," as we called them in general. They are indeed house dogs: city house, farm house, out house; they adopt the lifestyle and requirements of the master or patrol the village streets being useful to all, belonging to no one in particular but eager to serve, guard, protect livestock, escort children to school, herd (even if the flock is just a few chickens or geese!), kill mice and rats or find game for the stewpot! Blessed little dogs, they are excellent with children and other pets, easily trained and obedient, highly intelligent and adaptable. They attach themselves to cattle, sheep or goat herds, run alongside the horse or donkey, sleep in the henhouse to watch out for foxes—and nobody ever trained them for the job! Agile, swift, hardy and athletic, they require very little grooming, can survive on scraps from the table and stay healthy with little expense. If cared for, they live to a great old age.

In size they vary slightly, but their type has been documented since ancient time. The first depiction I have seen is an engraving on a clay vase from Thessaly (circa 3000 BC, Athens Museum). They have been reported by various authors, including Aristotelis, and in the classic era we have several artifacts showing the Greeks with their small canine friends; one marble statue in particular is very beautiful and accurate in detail, showing a young boy with his dog (Museum of Artemis Temple, Vravron, Attica). The dog is identical to the Alopecis of today.

These dogs are found in large numbers all over Greece, from Epirus and Macedonia, Thrace and Attica to Peloponnesus and the islands. The variance in size is not great: from 20 cm (to the withers) for females, to 40 cm at the most for males and from 4 kg to 10-12 kg for heavy-boned specimens. These differences largely follow type, because the Small House Dogs of Greece fall into two main categories, by coat and ear-carriage. The shorthaired ones tend to be smaller, more slender and with erect ears. The long-haired variety is somewhat bigger and their ears are often drop or semi-folded. (There are also wire-haired individuals, but these are rare.) We call the shorthaired variety "Alopecis" and the long-haired "Melitaia Kynidia" (meaning small dogs from Miletos).

We believe that the latter is what we have left today, in its original form, of the genetic material which formed the basis for the development of the modern Maltese, Bichon and similar types of the Mediterranean. (See also references to "Cyprus Poodles" or Cyprus "spaniels.") The Maltese originated not on the island of this name, but in Asia Minor, the ancient Greek area of Ionia and its capital city Miletos, which colonized various areas of the Mediterranean (including Malta itself) during the time of Graecia Magna. From the Ionian cities these little companion dogs were transferred to Athens and during its Golden Age they became luxury pet-dogs and lap-dogs of the aristocracy, escorting the ladies to the Agora with precious collars on their necks, even with nails polished to match the color of the mistress' dress!

Many ancient Greek breeds were scattered all over Europe, especially the hunting ones. The Romans spread them everywhere. Since Iberia was well known to the Greek sea-travellers and merchants who were settling in colonies and transporting goods to and from every port in the Mediterranean from southern France to North Africa, calling the rocks of Gibraltar "Pillars of Hercules," it is perhaps valid to suggest that the origins of the small Podengo and the Alopekis may be common.

The ancient hunting dogs of Greece are well-known and it is interesting to note that the Cretan Hound (a hare-hunting dog that exists on the island of Crete since neo-litchi times), by far the most exquisite, rare and original of the Greek breeds, a true living monument, is a primitive hound much like the large or medium Podengo. The Cretan Hound (somewhat in the middle between a Greyhound-type sighthound and a Basenji-pariah type) shares the same prick or semi-erect ears of the Alopekis and the ring/curved tail. It is possible that they all stem from the same old genetic background, like branches of the same trunk...