The Welsh Corgi

Welsh Corgis: Small Dogs With Big Dog Hearts


The mists of time swirl around the origin of the two Welsh Corgis, the Cardigan and the Pembroke, leaving certain only that both breeds developed to modern type in the hills of Wales. Even the derivation of "corgi" is in doubt, with some attributing it to mean dwarf (cor) dog (gi) and others ascribing it to a variation of watch (cur -- to watch over) dog (gi).

There's a lovely legend that the corgi was a gift from the woodland fairies, and that the breed still carries the marks of fairy harnesses on its coat.

Whatever its origins, there's no question as to the suitability of either breed as a valued pet. They are loyal, alert, even-tempered, fun-loving, and confident, all good qualities for the family dog. To those unfamiliar with the breeds, the only difference at a glance appears to be the addition of a tail on the Cardigan Welsh Corgi. A closer examination reveals differences in bone structure, body length, and overall size that indicate a different origin for each breed.

Cardigan Welsh Corgi

Slightly larger than the Pembroke, the Cardigan has the longest history of the two breeds. One historian found references to these dogs in records of the Celtic migration to Cardiganshire in Wales in 1200 BC. In early settlements, the dogs were prized family members, guarding children and helping hunt game for the table.

Later, these dogs proved their skills with tenant farmers as they helped drive cattle to grazing areas and to drive the neighbor's cattle out of gardens and open pastures. The land was owned by the British Crown, and the farmers were allowed to fence only a few acres around their dooryards. Cattle were grazed on common lands, and the best grazing places were at a premium. The Cardigan was trained to drive his own cattle to a good spot at the direction of the farmer and to watch over them while they grazed. He also chased cattle that invaded his herd's space by nipping at their heels and dodging swiftly to avoid the ensuing bovine kick.

A jack of many trades, the Cardigan also helped drive the cattle to market, guarded the children and the house, and was a fine family companion.

It is probable that the Cardigan developed from the same canine family as the Dachshund, which gives the breed its turned-out front feet, short legs, and elongated body.

The Cardigan Welsh Corgi is 10.5-12.5 inches at the withers (top of the shoulder), weighs 30-38 pounds, and has moderately heavy bone and a long tail. Bitches weigh less than dogs. Colors include red, sable, black, brindle, and blue merle (a mottled gray with dark patches, probably a result of early crosses with collies). Black, brindle and blue merle may have tan points, and all colors can have white markings on the neck chest, legs, head, and tip of tail.

The Cardigan coat is double, with the outer coat being slightly harsh in texture, dense, and of medium length, and the undercoat being short, soft, and thick. Like all double-coated dogs, Cardigans shed.

Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Much more popular in the US than its cousin the Cardigan, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi has captured the hearts of families throughout the nation. This corgi may have developed from crosses between Cardigans and the Swedish Vallhund, a Norse dog brought by the Vikings who invaded and then settled in Wales. The Vallhund is a spitz-type dog that closely resembles the Pembroke.

The Pembrokes served the same purposes as the Cardigans: They drove cattle, guarded homesteads, helped in the hunt, and provided companionship for their owners.

Slightly smaller than the Cardigan, the Pembroke is 10-12 inches at the withers and weighs 25-30 pounds, with bitches slightly lighter than dogs. It, too, is sturdily built with medium bone and powerful muscling. Its tail is docked as short as possible, and some are born without tails.

The Pembroke colors are red, sable, fawn, and black and tan, with or without white markings on the face, neck, chest, underside, or legs Predominantly white dogs, those with white patches in the colored part of the body, and blue dogs are seriously penalized by judges. The breed has a slightly coarse top coat of medium length and a weather-resistant undercoat. Hair should lie flat but a slight wave is permissible. Long coats are unacceptable.

Both corgis have well-balanced, powerful bodies and move with a free, effortless gait. They have broad heads and pointed muzzles and large, pointed ears with slightly rounded tips.

The first record of corgis in the show ring in Wales is 1925, and for years the two breeds were shown as two varieties of the same breed. Indeed, since they both developed in the Welsh hill country a few miles apart, there is evidence of crossbreeding that accounts for the similarities in the breeds.

Herding tests and trials

Although the corgi is no longer used to drive cattle to pasture and to market, its herding prowess can be proven and exercised in herding tests and trials organized under the auspices of the American Kennel Club.

As herding dogs, corgis work differently than shepherds and collies. Instead of gathering the cattle, they drive them forward, nipping at the heels when necessary and nimbly avoiding stray kicks. They work a herd from behind, in semi-circles, rather than running around the livestock. Corgis seldom give ground, even to bovines weighing 100 pounds or more. If a cow should turn on the dog and charge, the little dog will bite its nose, causing it to turn and join the others in the herd.

Choosing a corgi

As with other breeds, choice of a responsible breeder comes before the choice of a puppy. Clean kennels, well-socialized puppies, and well- tempered and well-behaved adults are prime considerations, as is the willingness of the breeder to answer questions, guarantee the puppy, and take the puppy back if it doesn't work out.

Buyers should look for a puppy that looks healthy (no runny eyes or nose, clean ears and skin, etc.), is active, and likes people. Although the corgi is happy to lie by the fire, it is an active breed and enjoys playing ball and Frisbee, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.

This is a good child's dog, for its guarding and herding instincts keep the child safe and its kind, gentle disposition keep the child company.

"Temperament is absolute number one," said Neena Van Camp, a Cincinnati breeder of Pembroke Welsh Corgis in a 1991 interview in "The Corgi Quarterly." "To me, a corgi temperament says 'Hi, stranger, how are you?' They're totally friendly, will follow you anywhere."

Van Camp, a member of the board of the local Corgi club, said she got started in the breed because she wanted a small dog with a big dog's attitude.

Corgis seem to have few disease problems. There has been some incidence of progressive retinal atrophy, an eye disease that causes blindness, in the Cardigan, and hip dysplasia, spinal disc problems, autoimmune diseases, and cataracts can crop up. Many breeders x-ray for hip dysplasia and other joint malformations, and eye examinations are recommended. There have been some temperament problems of late, manifesting as excessive barking and aggression, so care must be taken in selecting a breeder and a puppy.

The Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America is active in rescuing members of this breed from shelters and from owners who are no longer able to keep their pets. Prospective buyers who are looking for a corgi should consider a rescued dog, for they are usually past puppy stage, are housebroken, do not chew household items and human body parts, and have had some basic training. One corgi rescued from the Hamilton County SPCA is now a hearing dog in his adoptive family in Michigan.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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