A Brief History of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi

The Pembrokeshire Corgi (or Corgi from the county Pembroke in South Wales)was officially recognized by the Kennel Club (United Kingdom) in 1934.At this time he was given recognition as a breed separate and apart from his cousin, the Cardiganshire Corgi. Clifford Hubbard, who was known as the foremost authority on Welsh dogs, noted that the Corgi most certainly dated back to the early twelfth century and probably to the reign of Hywel Dda, King of Wales, in the early tenth century, if not before. The Pembroke Corgis a breed of the Spitz group – that Nordic group of dogs which is so easily recognized by a sharp-pointed muzzle and foxy face, erect and pointed ears,and a high set and gaily carried tail. Near relatives include the Swedish Vallhund (Vastergotland Spitz), the Norwegian Buhund, the old type Pomeranian (a much larger dog than the toy breed of today made popular by Queen Victoria) and the Schipperke. Iris Combe, in her recent book on the origins of herding breeds also feels that the Corgi has a strong relationship to the Norwegian Lundehund – a puffin-hunting dog of Norway. The Romans were the first to classify dogs, which they arranged into three groups according to the purpose for which they were used. One of these classifications contained the shepherd’s or herding dogs. Shepherd’s or herding dogs can be further divided into groups including pastoral dogs, which can be any dog connected with rural life or used in the management of stock on pasture grazing; droving dogs, which encompassed a wide range of dogs each selected by the drover for its natural instincts to deal with the particular breed being transported; and herding or stock dogs which is any type of canine that has assisted or assists man in any given capacity with domestic livestock in general. From these groups come the many different sheepdogs, working sheepdogs, collies, cattle droving dogs and flock guardian dogs.

During one period around the 10th century peasants were only allowed to keep small dogs for the destruction of vermin. Hired keepers, shepherds and herdsmen were also allowed to keep their dogs, but all dogs were required to be mutilated in some way to prevent poaching of the royal game. Some of these mutilations were quite severe (usually to the feet), but the herdsman’s dog was required only to have his tail docked, or cur-tailed, so as not to interfere with his working ability. The people tried to evade this law, but penalties were severe and the monies from these fines were a welcome source of revenue to the crown. When these laws became unworkable, the crown then levied a tax on dogs. Realizing that the peasants could not pay these taxes, nor could they live without the help of a dog for certain tasks, an exemption from tax for dogs used for a purpose was provided. The shepherd or herdsman’s dog was still exempt from this tax if his tail was docked. This interesting history is often put forward as to why the Pem has a docked tail, but these laws dealt more with the English Forest laws than with the Welsh. Since much truth is often found in legend, it is also told that the Pem was docked so as not to confuse it with the fox. The most probable reason for docking Pems is that the Pembroke had a naturally occurring bob-tail and since many pups in a litter would be born with natural bobtails, the others were docked, as well, for the sake of uniformity. This bobtail gene is being specifically bred for again, especially in the United Kingdom and also in the Scandinavian countries where docking has been banned by the government. (Please note: docking has NOT been banned in the UK! Docking may be done by a licensed veterinarian in that country.)

The word “Corgi” is either from the Welsh “cor” (dwarf) and “ci” (dog). (The ” ci” becoming “gi” by normal mutation – resulting in corgi) or another interpretation is that of “cur dog” or “Cur”. This interpretation can be dated back to one of the earliest dictionaries, to Wyllam Salesbury’s “A Dictionary in Englyshe and Weslhe” London, 1574, where there is a reference to the “Korgi ne gostoc”, that is, Corgi or curre dogge. (The use of the K rather than the C at that time was perfectly proper and eventually the K was no longer used interchangeably with the C.) The connection of the word ” Corgi” with “Cur” has considerable historical support. There are many references to Corgwn (plural of Corgi – pronounced Corg’n, sound out like oxen) in many a cywydd (a song of praise) in the 14th and 15th centuries. It must be understood that the term Cur was not used in a derogatory sense when applied to dogs, as we do today. It did mean a dog of low breeding, as distinct from the “superior kinds” of dogs owned by the nobility. Cur generally indicated a working type of dog as opposed to the sporting and luxury or ladies’ lap dog. The Ancient Welsh Laws referred to three kinds of Curs: the Watch Cur; the Shepherd’s Cur; and the House Cur. The Cur was truly a very useful and well-disciplined race of dog. It is interesting to note that Iris Combe traces the origin of the Corgi back beyond its pastoral origins and connects it with the Nordic breeds. Through this connection, she traces them back to Neolitic times when islander families lived on a diet of fish, sea-birds and their eggs, the soil on the islands being too shallow and poor for crop cultivation.

Through this connection it can more easily be understood the use of the Corgi on the huge flocks of geese and ducks kept in Wales to supply the demand for fine feathers and liver for pate throughout Britain. This could also explain the affinity many Corgis have for the water. Ms. Combe’s connection of the Corgi with the original role was that of a wildfowler’s dog, on the cliffs and in the caves of the Welsh coastline, to supply the trade in seabird’s feathers and eggs. The Corgi or spitz-types were used to work the caves and rock faces to hunt out live birds. The Scandinavians believe our Corgi is descended from their Lundehund, one of the Spitz family group. The Lundehund has a similar ear carriage to the Corgi, and the ears can be folded back so that ear canal can be protected against wind, sand or moisture. Another breed resembling the Corgi in appearance is the Swedish vastgota-spitz, or Vallhund. Vall means farm or guard dog and he is in fact mainly a cattle dog from a particular Swedish province. There is a difference of opinion on the place of origin of the Vallhund. Some think that the original dogs brought to Sweden by the Vikings were the Corgis, which over the centuries the Welsh had turned from bird dogs to cattle dogs. Others believe that the introduction of the Vallhund from Sweden helped in the evolution of the Corgi as a cattle dog. It was well known that the Corgi was used as a heeler and a drover, especially on cattle. Some evidence points to the Pembroke Corgi and the Vallhund sharing the same ancestry. Clifford Hubbard, in his notable book, “The Pembrokeshire Corgi Handbook” (1951) believes that the Vikings brought their short-legged cattle droving Vallhund and crossed them with the native Corgi “as he then was in Pembrokeshire, the Welsh dog was thus modified into two types – the earlier, longer-bodied, heavier and blunt-jawed Cardiganshire dog, and the type approximating to the Pembrokeshire breed with his typical Spitz head and abbreviated tail.” He further expounds in his book , “the Cardiganshire Corgi Handbook” that the Cardigan, spared of the crosses with the Nordic dogs, retained their aboriginal form in central Wales “undisturbed and relatively unaltered.”

The Corgi in Britain was primarily a drover of the Welsh cattle, but was also used as a guardian of the farmyard against invasion by any type of vermin from rats to fox and also helped to collect the different types of domestic fowl – from chickens to geese. With poultry wandering freely around the farmyard, there was always a risk of them being taken by predators, and an ever-alert Corgi helped guard against this happening. They were also quite useful in gathering the flock so that they could be housed for the night. When the huge flocks of geese were reared in Wales as a source of income, they were always a problem to guard and the Corgi fit the bill quite well. Taking them to market was quite a chore, and the only way to get a flock of two hundred or more of these large, quarrelsome geese to market was to drive them along the road to the town in which the market was held, whether this was the local market or Smithfield market in London. Corgis were unsurpassed in this task, and working in teams along roads they knew they could anticipate any moves for escape a flock might make. At this they were fairly silent workers, as too much noise would only serve to scatter the flock, yet they were strong-willed enough to control any goose that lagged behind or strayed. Corgis could also take command of cattle in certain situations on the farms, but it was as market dogs they excelled. (It should be noted that the “cattle” that the Pems were first bred to handle were the small black Welsh cattle – not the hulking breeds that you are most familiar with today.) They have been known to go to ground after badger and were actually shown in the terrier group when first admitted to the AKC stud books in 1934. To this day, Pembrokes still retain this easy adaptability to manage all different sorts of livestock, from poultry to cattle to pigs. On the whole they can be used for most any purpose on the farm, though as a sheepherder they are not as suitable as collies, Corgis being considered too sharp and excitable for sheep. They have even been used as gun dogs on both feather and fur and they are most efficient ratters. Because of the various duties a Pembroke was supposed to perform as a guardian and drover of livestock, dispatcher of vermin and companion to the farmer’s children, his brave, steady temperament, physical agility and easily-kept compact size were paramount characteristics of the breed. Welsh Corgis were exhibited in the UK after WWI, but not a lot of progress was made in the breed until the formation of the Welsh Corgi Club in 1925, which at first catered only to the Pembroke owners. In 1926, the Cardigan Club was formed and eventually became the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Association.

In 1928 Challenge certificates were granted by The Kennel Club in Great Britain. In 1934 The Kennel Club recognized both varieties as separate breeds, and owners were given the choice as to which breed they wished to have their dogs entered as – Cardigan or Pembroke. The acquisition of Rozavel Golden Eagle, a Pembrokeshire Corgi, for Princess Elizabeth in 1933 is what drew the public’s attention on that breed more than on the Cardigan Corgi and helped to assure the breed’s popularity in its native land, which continues to this day. The first Pembrokes were imported to the US in the early 1930s. Little Madam became the first Pembroke registered (as a Welsh Corgi) with the American Kennel Club . By 1935 the two breeds were acknowledged as separate with the registration of the first Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Blowden of Roniscroft. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America, Inc. was founded in 1936 and was accepted as a member club of the AKC in1937. The club has held a national specialty in all but the “war years” since its inception.

Copyright, 1998, 2003 Stephanie S. Hedgepath, All Rights Reserved