With the decline of reindeer herding and puffin hunting over the past century, some dog breeds are struggling to find their purpose in the world.
The American Kennel Club recognizes 190 dog breeds, with the family-friendly Labrador retriever ever-present at the top of their most-popular list, along with German Shepherd dogs and golden retrievers. But though humans have been breeding dogs for thousands of years, usually for precise purposes, many breeds have nearly become extinct or grown significantly less popular through time.
Though everyone loves a Lab, we like to root for the underdog, too. Here are some of the least common dog breeds, according to the AKC's ranking.
This dog was bred to hunt puffin birds on the remote arctic isles of Norway. To reach in the crevices where puffins nest, they are very flexible with a great range of motion in their joints. They have six toes on each foot. The breed nearly became extinct in the 1940s-1960s; there are now about 1,400 in the world. Today, puffin hunting is illegal in most places.
Though these dogs are social and gentle with children and other animals, they are rarely seen as house pets because their relentless pursuit of, well, pursuit. They are pack hounds with great stamina, bred for fox hunts.
Photo: Mick Atkins / Shutterstock
This ancient breed, also called the "Arabian Greyhound," was bred to hunt a variety of game such as hare, fox, jackal, gazelle, and wild pigs in the deserts of North Africa. A classy, graceful dog, the Sloughi (SLOO-ghee) is devoted to its owner and aloof with strangers.
These good-natured but independent dogs get along with kids, other dogs, and cats, but without lots of exercise they can become depressed and destructive as house pets. They also bay loudly, which might be unpopular with the neighbors. They are cousins of the English foxhound.
Otter hunting is generally illegal, which may be why these dogs are one of the most endangered dog breeds today, with less than 1,000 worldwide. But otterhounds make great family companions and the AKC says they have a great sense of humor.
These terriers originated in Czechoslovakia where they were used for hunting. They are tenacious workers, but less active and quieter than other terriers, so can make good family pets, adventurous playmates and eager exercisers. Plus, they are considered hypoallergenic. The Cesky is the national dog of the Czech Republic.
The independent Sicilian sighthound has a sweet nature and is incredibly swift. These beautiful dogs with their pretty name are mild, low-maintenance companions, cherished for their loyal and gentle nature.
This dog, which the AKC says looks like a "beagle with a gym membership" was bred for trailing hares. Though this cutie looks like an English foxhound, it is smaller than the foxhound, and larger than a beagle.
Dandie Dinmont Terrier
These are little dogs with a big bark, known for their distinctive topknot of hair. During the 1600s, they were used for hunting badgers and otters. They are an intelligent breed and make good watchdogs.
This big guy will catch your eye with his distinctive coat. The felting coat forms loose mats to help keep these dogs warm in the Italian Alps where they were used to tend sheep. According to the Bergamasco Sheepdog Club of America, this ancient shepherding breed is highly intelligent and was developed to problem-solve on its own in the isolated high mountain valleys where it guarded herds.
The dog is actually low maintenance: the coat does not need brushing, and has a Teflon effect -- things do not stick to it.
This little herder is descended from ancient sheepdogs of the Pyrenees mountains. The tough 'Pyr sheps' come in two varieties: rough-faced and smooth-faced, both which can be born in the same litter.
The breed may have been native to the Pyrenees mountains in southern France and northern Spain, working as a sheepherder in conjunction with the Great Pyrenees mountain dog, which would have acted as the herd's guardian.
One of the rarest of the AKC breeds, this smart, patient, and devoted sled dog has many talents, among them herding and search and rescue. The breed was developed in New Hampshire during the early 20th century, and is the state's official dog.
American English Coonhounds
Descended from foxhounds, the athletic American English coonhound was brought to America by settlers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their instinct for tenacious and stubborn pursuit of raccoons can make them challenging as house pets.
The breed was originally bred in Finland to hunt anything from rodents to bears. The small, fearless dog is friendly, but an avid hunter. They are recognizable by their beautiful golden-red coat.
Polish Lowland Sheepdogs
This shaggy herding breed was almost driven to extinction in World War II, but today these confident, clever dogs are popular as companions for apartment dwellers in their native Poland.
The national dog of Israel, this breed has been in existence in the Middle East for thousands of years. They are believed to have been a feral dog in ancient Canaan, and archaeologists hypothesize that they were revered as sacred animals. Their coat comes in various colors and patterns, and they are agile, clever, and confident. There are about 2,000-3,000 Canaan dogs in the world.
The beautiful, elegant Pharaoh hound was traditionally used for hunting rabbits in the Maltese Islands. When not sprinting after small game over rough terrain, they are friendly, affectionate dogs that are comfortable in the home. The Pharaoh hound is the national dog of Malta.
The AKC says this reindeer herder from north of the Arctic Circle is one of the friendliest of all dogs. Copious shedding and lots of barking doesn't prevent them from being popular pets in Finland. One of the distinctive facial markings on many Lappies are the "spectacles" around the eyes.
The purest of these dogs were found on Scotland's Isle of Skye. It is one of the oldest terrier breeds from Scotland. The big, feathery bat ears are a distinctive feature, though some Skye terriers can also have ears that lie flat against the head.
Photo: Chris Phutully from Australia/Wikipedia
A dog that the AKC calls "wickedly smart," the curly is one of the oldest of the retriever breeds. Originally bred in England for bird and waterfowl hunting, it is a versatile gun dog and champion swimmer. Its curly coat is not just good-looking, but waterproof and thorn-resistant, too.
A Nordic spitz-type dog, closely associated with the Vikings, the Buhund is a cold-weather worker skilled at herding and guarding. They are friendly, agile, courageous and fun-loving.
The non-shedding Lowchen is a popular companion dog in Europe. The name "Lowchen" is German for "little lion," probably due to its courage and big heart. The coat is often cut to look like a miniature lion.
The "Royal Dog of Scotland" was bred to stalk giant wild red deer. The breed goes back to a time before recorded history. One of the tallest of dog breeds, males can stand as high as 32 inches.
American Water Spaniel
The American water spaniel was developed in Wisconsin during the 19th century from a number of other breeds, including the Irish and English water spaniels. They are gun dogs with a luscious brown coat and have the working traits of both spaniels and retrievers.
North Carolina's state dog is a hunting hound of striking color that was bred to bring big game (such as a bear) to bay or up a tree. The Plott ound is one of the least known breeds of dog in the U.S. The AKC calls the Plott hound "a mellow gentleman at home" but fearless at work.
The graceful Ibizan hound is considered by most experts to be one of the most ancient dog breeds, believed to have evolved from an Egyptian hunting dog. The dog was bred as a rabbit courser on the rocky shores of Spain's Balearic Islands.
Irish Water Spaniel
Often mistaken for poodles, the Irish water spaniel is the largest and one of the oldest of spaniels. It is one of the rarer breeds in the American Kennel Club. They are champion swimmers, alert, inquisitive, hardworking, brave and a bit of a clown.
80-100 pounds or more
This large Hungarian flock guardian is a head-turner with its profuse white dreadlocks from head to tail. Often called "mop dogs" for obvious reasons, and somewhat resembling a parade float, this big guy is a fairly common breed in Hungary today. During World War II, many Komondorok were killed by German and Russian invaders, because it was the only way to capture a farm or house that it guarded.
Another Hungarian shepherd dog, these cute whimsical-looking little dogs are actually hard workers. They are suspicious of strangers, but never aggressive or overly shy.
Sussex spaniels, slow-paced, calm dogs, nearly became extinct during World War II. They are long, low-built bird dogs of great strength and endurance, though the breed suffers from some health conditions. They are known for their somewhat clownish behavior.