Don’t let the goofy wiener-dog costume fool you: Sandwiched between those fabric hot-dog buns is a clever hunter whose size belies its ferocity.
At first glance, you can see why the Dachshund has earned the rather ignoble moniker of “wiener” or “sausage dog”: Long and low to the ground, this oddly proportioned hound might look comically cute. But its name, which in German translates as “badger dog,” tells a completely different story.
While Europeans had been using dogs to hunt those nocturnal, ground-burrowing carnivores since at least the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until the late 17th Century that the Dachshund began to take form. While France and other European countries had their own versions of badger-hunting dogs, by the 18th Century German foresters and hunters began to breed their type consistently, paving the way for the breed we know today.
Facing Badgers Head-On
Understandably, badgers did not give up their pelts without a fight. With their thick skin and skulls, and equally sharp teeth and claws, badgers were well prepared to fend off any intruder in their den.
Creating a dog for such a highly specific – to say nothing of dangerous – job required several rather dramatic modifications of the canine form. The dogs obviously had to have short legs so they could easily fit in the badger holes. Those legs had to be slightly curved around the ribcage, with tight, compact feet that pushed the soil behind the dog as it dug toward its quarry. A well-angled shoulder and upper arm allowed for the range of motion required for this digging, creating a prominent breastbone and forechest, known as the “prow.”
The list of must-haves – and the nautical imagery – didn’t end there: The dog’s ribcage had to be long and well developed, providing ample room for the heart and lungs to give the dog the endurance it needed to battle for hours underground. The “keel,” or underside of the ribcage, needed to extend well beyond the elbow, protecting the internal organs from any sharp sticks or roots that protruded from the earth.
And since the dog had to face the badger head-on, with no room to turn around, its “business end” was of equal importance: The prominent bridge bone over the eyes offered protection, and a strong, well-hinged underjaw with surprisingly large teeth let the Dachshund give back as good as it got.
Trapped in tight tunnels, relying on its own wits, the Dachshund needed to be independent, bold, and not a little bit combative. It’s no wonder the Dachshund standard describes these dogs as “courageous to the point of rashness.”
Are Dachshunds Obedient?
That subterranean fearlessness didn’t dissipate once the dog returned to the surface. Tales of cheeky Dachshunds reverberate across the centuries. The last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, owned a pair named Wadl and Hexl, described by one writer of the period as “biting, snarling little brutes with jaws measuring half the length of their smooth bodies.” On a visit to the country home of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the two Dachshunds promptly dispatched one of his beloved golden pheasants. It wasn’t an international incident on the order of that same archduke’s later assassination, which sparked World War I – but close enough. (During the Great War, Dachshund owners took to calling their dogs “liberty hounds” to avoid the anti-German sentiment of the era, just as German Shepherd Dogs were renamed Alsatians.)
Not surprisingly, the same swagger that makes the Dachshund such a masterful badger hunter doesn’t make for mindless obedience.
“Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot,” wrote author E.B. White about the impossibilities of coaxing any degree of cooperation from his Dachshund, Fred. “… I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a dachshund to heed my slightest command. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something he wants to do.”
Why Are There So Many Varieties of Dachshunds?
One of the most varied among purebred dogs – so much so that the Fédéracion Internationale Cynologique devotes one separate group to it – the Dachshund comes in three coat types. The smooths are believed to be the original dogs. Theories offer a long list of possible ancestors – various pointers and terriers as well as bloodhounds and bassets, which might have contributed the Dachshund’s particularly keen sense of scent – but no definites.
Longhairs resulted from selective breeding of smooths with varying coat lengths. The addition of rough-coated terriers much later on, in the 1800s, led to the wirehairs. Many speculate that the Wirehaired Dachshund’s sometimes softer expression and temperament are attributable to this infusion of terrier blood.
Size is another area where Dachshunds diverge. In the 1800s, a boom in Germany’s rabbit population led to the development of the miniature Dachshund. In addition to standards and minis, Europe’s previously mentioned FCI recognizes a third category of “Teckel,” as the breed is called in Germany: the “Rabbit Dachshund,” which is somewhere in between the two. In the United States, there are only standard and miniature Dachshunds, the latter of which are defined by their weight. But there is an informal middle ground called a “tweenie” – a shortened form of “in betweenie.”
Despite their strong-spirited characters – or perhaps because of them – Dachshunds are immensely popular, ranking 11th among the American Kennel Club’s breeds in 2019. The list of celebrities who have owned them is seemingly endless: silver-screen stars like Carole Lombard and Clark Gable; famous painters Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, and Andy Warhol; newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart, even infamous figures like Lee Harvey Oswald killer Jack Ruby, who at one time had as many as 10, including one named Sheba that he referred to as his “wife.”
Given their strong nature, Dachshunds don’t benefit from being overindulged. A case in point is Obie, a Dachshund from Portland, Oregon, who was so profoundly obese – at 77 pounds, more than twice the weight of the average standard Dachshund – that he landed on the TODAY show in 2012.
So the next time you contemplate reaching for that hot-dog costume with its squiggle of sewn-on mustard up the back, remember that in your Dachshund’s opinion, he would much rather be the eater rather than the eaten – in more ways than one.