Originally bred to kill rats and mice in stables, Affenpinschers eventually charmed their way into German kitchens, finding favor with women and evolving into companions. Their mission was twofold—to keep the kitchen free of rodents and be entertaining enough to end up as bed warmers.
Today this sturdy little ratter is earning top awards in the show ring and a place in the hearts of dog lovers everywhere. Don’t be fooled by the breed’s low rank of 163 of 195 in AKC registrations for 2020. The numbers may be small, but their appeal is huge.
“Their adorable monkey-like face and charming devotion to those they love have kept them in the companion role, but they’re still quite capable of filling their original function,” says Sharon Strempski, secretary and historian for the Affenpinscher Club of America (ACA).
She relates the story of a Thames River flood that washed a river rat onto a friend’s property outside London. A quick tussle in the lower part of the garden resulted in a dispatched rat nearly as large as the Affenpinscher who killed it.
Strempski’s dog friends were more impressed by the rat kill, she says, than the Best of Breed win at Crufts by a kennel mate!
Devil or Clown?
Details on the origin of the Affenpinscher are sketchy, leaving room for much speculation on how this tough little exterminator ended up performing in circuses. Germans coined the name Affenpinscher, which translates as “ape terrier” or “monkey dog.” In France, the breed is described as diablotin moustachu or the “mustached little devil.”
The most widely accepted history involves a man from Liibeck, Germany, breeding ratting terriers in earnest in the 1600s. During the plague the dogs were brought in from the stables to kill kitchen mice, which had a disturbing tendency to scamper up the skirts of the ladies of the house.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, a breed called the Schooshundrassen (“lapdog breed”) became popular in Germany. This breed closely resembled the type of today’s Affens.
According to historians, by the early 20th century dogs from the same litter were identified as Schnauzers and Affenpinschers depending on their head shape. Most Miniature Schnauzer historians trace the origin of their breed back to those original Affen-Schnauzer crossings.
A book on Brussels Griffons notes that “there has always existed a breed of small rough coated dogs, as early as the 15th century or before,” and they were used for catching rats and believed to be forerunners of the present-day Affenpinscher.
Building and Rebuilding the Affen in America
The first American-born litter of Affenpinschers was whelped on June 12, 1935, by Bessie Mally, of Cicero, Illinois, with a pair imported from Germany. The dam of the litter, Nolli v An wander, was the first Affenpinscher recognized by the AKC when the breed entered the studbook in 1936.
The onset of World War II brought breeding to an abrupt halt; the last litter registered was whelped in June 1940. No Affens were bred for the next nine years. In the early 1950s breeders had to start rebuilding from the ground up. Many Americans imported German dogs that had been bred to Mally’s line in the 1930s.
Ch. Bub v Anwander, bred by Maria Anwander and owned by Evelyn Brody, of Cedarlawn Kennels, became the breed’s first American champion.
The rebuilding process led to important foundation stock, most notably Ch. El Cocagi Kamehameha (Bear) and his littermate Ch. El Cocagi EliEli Wahine (Posey), who set the type for the modern Affenpinscher.
Bear had the distinction of being the first Affen to capture a BIS in North America, in June 1978 at the Tonawanda Valley Kennel Club. Another distinction: Bear was from “the first and only litter of Affenpinschers born in Hawaii,” Bob Sharp of Albany, New York, told the New York Times the day of his win. Sharp handled the dog at the Tonawanda show for his daughter, 8 -year- old Jennifer, who was Bear’s official owner.
Fellow Affen fanciers consider Jerry Cushman, of Hilane Kennels, Beth Sweigart, of Yarrow Kennels, and the late Flo Strohmaier, of Flo-Star Kennel, of major influence in the breed’s development. Cushman lays claim to the two top-producing sires in the breed’s history.
The breeding of his Ch. Hilane’s Solar Eclipse to Ch. Gerbrae Maid in Splendour produced the top-winning Affenpinschers of all time, Ch. Yarrow’s Super Nova and Ch. Yarrow’s Lucy in the Sky.
The immense charm that propelled them from stable to kitchen to boudoir has made Affens a force in the show ring. In 2013, an Affen named Banana Joe delighted America by winning the Westminster Kennel Club’s Best in Show. Affens have also succeeded in agility, obedience, and therapy.
Despite their adorable nature, the grit that made them such effective ratters has never left the breed. Writer Desmond Morris even reports that during a trip to Alaska he witnessed a tiny but fearless Affenpinscher chase off a grizzly bear!