The Pembroke Welsh Corgi is thought to be an “enchanted” breed for many reasons. This happy herder with the elfish smile captures the hearts of fanciers and pet owners worldwide.
Originally an all-purpose barnyard dog, the Pembroke was once invaluable to farmers in Wales. The perky four-legged farmhands escorted cows to common grazing land, watching over them, and making sure they were back home in time for milking. Other tasks the Pembroke happily performed included rodent control, guarding other livestock, and protecting the human family—basically any task that didn’t require legs longer than 12 inches.
The Pembroke is a member of the spitz family—that Nordic group of dogs distinguished by a sharp-pointed muzzle, foxy face, erect and pointed ears, and a high set, gaily carried tail. Nearest relatives likely include the Swedish Vallhund, the Norwegian Buhund, and the Schipperke.
“Modern-day Corgis are rarely asked to herd cattle, but their intelligence and high energy help them excel in many canine events, including agility, obedience, tracking, herding, and conformation,” says Anne Bowes, Corgi breeder, AKC judge, and corresponding secretary of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America. “The fact that Corgis are extremely intelligent and responsive to their owners also makes them very popular as family pets.”
Bowes, who has bred or handled over 60 Pembroke champions under the Heronsway prefix, notes the soar in popularity: from number 50 in AKC registrations in 1968 to number 25 in 2004 to number 11 of 195 breeds in 2020. She attributes much of the growth to “the breed’s friendly, ‘up’ personality-game for any activity, with a smile on their face.”
Both the Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgi are ancient breeds, possibly dating back to the 10th century (though many believe the Cardigan to be a bit older than the Pembroke), which began to disappear from Welsh farms by the early 1900s. In the 1850s, you could find Corgis on almost every farm in Wales-the spitz- influenced Pembroke with naturally docked tail in the southern region, and the teckel-influenced Cardigan with a long tail in the north. The cattle they watched over were smaller than those we see today, due to the roughness of the terrain, sparser edible vegetation, and generally depressed conditions of the region. Small herding dogs could safely handle such livestock.
The origins of the word corgi are debated. Many sources claim that it is a combination of two Welsh words that meant “dwarf’ (“cor”) and “dog” (“ci,” that changed over time into “gi”); others say that it’s derived from another Welsh word, curgi, that means “to watch over.”
When Welsh farmers began to raise sheep in fenced pastures, the original purpose of the Corgi was eliminated. Farmers needed longer-legged dogs to herd their sheep, and Border Collies eventually replaced the Corgi as all-around farm dog, and do to this day. While Corgis are still used on farms in the United Kingdom, they mainly serve as companion and show dogs.
In the 1920s, Corgis were recognized by the Kennel Club (England), and for a time, Pembrokes and Cardigans were bred together. Then, in 1934, the Pembrokeshire Corgi (or Corgi from the county Pembroke in South Wales) was officially recognized as a separate breed from their cousin, the Cardiganshire Corgi.
The first Pembroke Welsh Corgis arrived in America in 1934 with Mrs. Lewis Roesler of Massachusetts, a well- known breeder of Old English Sheepdogs. Her two English Corgis, Little Madam and Captain William Lewis, became the first and second Pembrokes to be registered with the AKC, and Little Madam went on to become the first American champion in 1935.
The Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America (PWCCA) was founded on February 12, 1936, at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Since then, the PWCCA has grown to be a powerful and dynamic force in promoting and protecting the Pembroke breed.
Early Influences— The British Connection
Top Corgi breeders, including Bowes, Tim Mathieson of Nebriowa, Carrie Chase of Hum’mnbird, and Donna Francis and Sandra Wolfskill of Elfwish Corgis, generously credit England with the high-quality Pembrokes we see in America today. “We are grateful to the English breeders for sharing their finest dogs with us for almost a century,” says Bowes. “Without them we wouldn’t exist.”
After Pembrokes and Cardigans became separate breeds in 1934, the soon-to-be Queen Mother, Catherine Bowes-Lyon, acquired a Pembroke as a pet for her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. That royal pet catapulted the breed to popularity in England, leading to the formation of great early kennels including Thelma Gray’s Rozavel kennel, Patsy Hewan’s Stormerbanks, Pat Curties’s Lees, Ken and Nan Butler’s Wey, and Peggy Gamble’s Blands line.
These early breeders were then joined by Idrisjones and Alan Taylor of the Belroyd kennel, Dickie Albin’s Hildenmanor, Mary Winsome’s Cordach kennel, Mary and Stuart Magness’s Pemland, Maureenjohnston’s Rivona, Doris Mason’s Revelmere, and many others.
According to Mathiesen, the stock provided by English breeders is the foundation for nearly all Pembrokes here and elsewhere. “English Ch. Rozavel Red Dragon set the type for Pembrokes in the United Kingdom when the breed was in its infancy and virtually unknown to the rest of the world,” he says. “Since then, several stud dogs have impacted the breed worldwide-in particular, English Ch. Caswell Duskie and English Ch. Belroyd Nutcracker, whose pedigree can be traced back 14 generations in a direct male line to English Ch. Rozavel Red Dragon.”
The standard for Corgis in Britain is very similar to the standard for Corgis in the United States, as evidenced by the superior-quality dogs being produced on both sides of the Atlantic. There are minor differences in the wording of the standards involving shape of the eye, dentition, tail-set, size, and so on, but for the most part, breeders here and abroad are aiming for the same overall type.
“One of the strongest aspects of our breed is its consistent look worldwide,” says Bowes. “You could pluck a Pembroke out of England and never tell the difference between that and one bred here in the States, as compared to other breeds, such as Shelties and Springers, where there is a more visible difference.”
Many foreign Corgi judges travel to the United States to judge, and American breeder-judges frequently judge in foreign countries, such as Bowes, who has judged extensively not only in America, but in five other countries.
The Modern American Pembroke
According to Bowes, the Pembroke from Welsh farms in the early 1900s were tall, leggy, terrier-fronted, and not at all uniform in appearance. Today’s dogs are more consistent, long and low with lovely heads, foxy expressions, and excellent bone and substance.
Not only are they more beautiful than the originals, but less scrappy in temperament, making them more attractive as pets, particularly for families with children.
The dominant four characteristics of the Pembroke are outline, size, type, and gait. This is a long, low breed with an outline that includes a level topline and no tail. The breed is a true dwarf, measuring 10 to 12 inches at the shoulder and weighing ideally 27 pounds for a dog and 25 pounds for a bitch. Type includes outline, but has other requisites such as short hocks, a pleasing head with dark eyes, and big ears. The dogs should gait freely and smoothly, in long strides—not choppy or rolling-giving the illusion of moving for extended periods without tiring.
The Corgi Future
Thanks to dedicated fanciers, the future of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi in America is bright, both as a show dog and a treasured family pet. The breed’s size, temperament, ease of care, and desire to please will continue to attract admirers, as seen in the breed’s steady climb in popularity.
Donna Newton, president of the PWCCA, breeder, and specialty sweepstakes judge, shared her vision for the breed: “The club continues to strive toward the betterment of the breed, in part through educational programs and seminars made available to Corgi breeders and enthusiasts at our national specialty each year.”
She explained the PWCCA’s continuing support of the AKC Canine Health Foundation, encouraging all breeders to test hips and eyes prior to every breeding-a requirement outlined in the club’s code of ethics. “One thing we breeders hear quite often is that the Pembroke just fits everything we’re looking for,” she says. “They have a wonderful sense of humor and are often referred to as ‘clowns’ of the dog world.”
What Newton and the other fanciers interviewed for this story stress most about these diminutive darlings of the Herding Group is their genuine fondness for humans — that there is likely not another breed that responds to its people with any more love and respect than does the Pembroke Welsh Corgi.