Downton Abbey Dog: Right Breed, Wrong Color

And more flubs in period films
By Jane Brackman PhD, April 2012, Updated February 2015

In period movies, dog breeds, just like fabric on the furniture, should be accurate to the period. Only a few contemporary breeds look exactly as they did 100 years ago.

Downton Abbey, the early 20th century story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, with its authentic Yorkshire country house and period decor, is accurate down to thread in the costumes. But oops. No one thought to research what Lord Crawley’s loyal dog would actually have looked like. And Pharaoh (played by Roly) would not be a light cream–colored yellow Labrador Retriever.

Ben of Hyde (above), born in 1899, was the first recognized light-colored Lab—not really yellow but rather a dark butterscotch color. Prior to Ben, Labs were black, usually with white markings. The light cream–colored coat we see in every opening episode as Pharaoh trots along side his master, is a much later 20th century look.


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When it comes to dogs in period films, historical inaccuracy is a pet peeve of mine. Here are some winners and losers:

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)—Set in 1757, takes place in the Hudson River Valley, includes two American Black and Tan Coonhounds pretending to be Blue Gascony Hounds.

Mrs. Brown (1997)—The story of widowed Queen Victoria, her servant, Scottish Highlander John Brown, and their extraordinary friendship that apparently left no time for any of her 88 dogs. Nary a single dog appears on screen. We don’t even hear a proxy dog barking off screen.

Howard’s End (1992)—A typical Merchant Ivory production, historically accurate from turn of the century wardrobe to wallpaper, is a tale of social class, theosophy and two poorly placed four-month-old yellow Labrador Retrievers.

Apocalypto (2006)—The story of the demise of the ancient Central American civilization features two hungry Xolo dogs that check out a smoldering campfire for leftovers. Accurate depiction, but seconds of screen time is hardly enough.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)—At a time when Spaniels were a soupy mix of similar shapes and sizes, the movie depicts Spaniels just that way.

Spaniels were a generic sort of working bird dog until the end of the 19th century.

Amazing Grace (2002)—The story of religious social reformer and abolitionist William Wilburforce. The 18 historically accurate Regency period dogs include in order of appearance: Papillion, Border Terrier, Collie, little black dog, little Terrier dog, another Collie, yellow Lurcher, grey Lurcher, little white dog, Irish Red and White Setter, and another field dog that looks suspiciously like a contemporary Springer Spaniel groomed with an electric trimmer. I didn’t say the movie was perfect.

This is what Reverend Wilburforce’s Collie would have looked like.

To read my entire diatribe about historically inaccurate dogs in period films, click here.

Photos: Ben of Hyde from Wikipedia; Collie, engraving by Wm. Lizars, “The Naturalist’s Library,” 1830-1840.

Jane Brackman, PhD, is an authority on the cultural history of canine domestication and the author of two books on pets in 19th-century America.