As the world's smallest, most fabled, popular and genetically intriguing dog breed; from Aztec legend to Fennec fox to movie star, the Chihuahua gets top billing.
Chihuahua Developmental History
portions excerpted from TFH Books international edition of The Chihuahua
by Barbara J. Andrews, TDP Science And Advisory Board
As the world's smallest, most fabled, most popular and genetically intriguing dog breed; from Aztec legend to Fennec fox to movie star, the Chihuahua gets top billing!
A Genetic Jumping Bean?
It is difficult to imagine an evolutionary relationship between the Chihuahua and the Grizzly bear but we know that the bear family divided into the dog family that contains the wolf, coyote, jackal and fox sub-species. The canine has an “elastic” or “jumping gene” that allowed canis lupus to evolve into such extremes as the Irish Wolfhound and the Chihuahua. Although some scholars argue that the fox family cannot interbreed with the wolf, coyote or even the jackal, others believe this to be untrue.
The Chihuahua shares an astounding number of zoological and historical characteristics with the Fennec Fox, a tiny little desert creature billed as the “world’s smallest canine.” The fennec averages only 1 to 1.5 kg. Unable to agree on species classification because of features that do not conform to the fox family, scientists finally assigned it a separate genus, fennecus zerda. That is fact. Speculation is that it is “in fact” not a fox!
The fennec has huge ears and big round “baby” eyes. Naturalists theorize that the oversized ears serve as shade during the rare times the nocturnal fennec is exposed to sunlight. Heavy dew produced by cold offshore currents (fact) would collect on the back of the ears, which may (supposition) explain how the tiny creature can survive indefinitely far from any known source of water. Owners in the desert SW have declared that the outside or stray Chihuahua can do likewise. Fact?
With his equally unusual eyes and in the past, remarkable oversized ears, the Chihuahua is every bit as appealing as the fennec fox which sadly, is now on Appendix Two of the Cites list. The Chihuahua’s large luminous eye is quite different from any other big-eyed breeds.
Fennecus zerda has long, thin, well furred, and somewhat flat feet that enable it to scoot about over the shifting sands from Morocco to Egypt to the Sinai to Arabia. The early Chihuahua had the same feet but we do love to tinker with nature’s design! We show folks decided that a small and dainty foot with the toes well split up but not spread would look better in the ring and granted, he no longer scurries across the sand. Still, photos of early Chihuahuas show a most distinctive “hand-like” foot with long, thin finger-like toes.
Chichis are noted for not only recognizing but needing other Chihuahuas in order to live happily. Notably, unlike any other fox, the fennec lives in groups of eight to ten. The little fox has weak dentition, a very rare condition in a wild species. ChiChi owners attribute the breed's weak dentition to the foreshortened muzzle. Yes. Look at the fennec fox's untypical muzzle. Most "toy breeds" have teeth like tigers! Ask any Minpin breeder. We simply do not know what delightful little creature dances in the shadow of the Chihuahua. Genetic “knowledge” has failed us before. Scientists said it couldn’t be done but American farmers crossed a horse with an ass and thank goodness the mule was there to drag our plows and artillery! Nowadays, just because we can, we cross a Tiger with a Lion, a Zebra with a donkey, etc.
The Chihuahua has terrier-like qualities for a very good reason. He had to find dinner and he needed alert, swift-moving determination to survive out there. Given the opportunity, the Chihuahua seeks precisely the same food as does the fennec; vegetation, little rodents, lizards, and insects. Any Chihuahua owner will describe their irresistible, irrepressible urge to chase and eat bugs! But let's cease to speculate because there are facts on record.
The Foxy Chihuahua
The fennec was in fact, successfully crossed with the Chihuahua in the 1980s. The result was a less nocturnal, more social and adaptable and thus, more marketable "fox". The miniature fox was popular with exotic animal sellers - and the college kids who were paid to carry, feed, and fondle the kits round the clock.
The species cross was accomplished in California where coincidentally, in the 1970s, the Asian Leopard was mated to domestic cats. A medical researcher from the University Of California discovered that the Leopard was immune to leukemia but he was frustrated by not being able to handle or breed the small leopard for research purpose. Working with cat breeder Jean Mill, they achieved the said-to-be-impossible feat of combining the different number of chromosomes and overcoming other species-incompatibilities. The spectacularly spotted result is the Bengal, a popular show cat and house kitty!
So come, let’s have a look at some of the theories, legends, and facts that contribute to the appeal of the world’s smallest dog. Some breed historians think that the ancestor of the Chihuahua was a hairless dog that came from Asia, across Russia, through the Bering Straits and into what is now Alaska. Fact: Hairless dogs existed in China, Africa, and Turkey. One theory holds that the Chinese Crested was “americanized” as early as the seventh century B.C. when Chinese vessels reached Central and North America. That is reaching a long way. The answer is clear.
Hairless dogs also existed in Mexico, Central, and South America. Evidence suggests that they were always domesticated, well…. at least since they became hairless! Folklore surrounding the Xoloitzcuintli has become confusingly interwoven with that of the Chihuahua but we don’t believe them to be related. If we continue this circular logic, why not suppose that the Peruvian and Mexican Hairless dogs influenced the Chinese dogs and not the other way round? Small hairless dogs with a “top knot” of hair are depicted in ancient Mayan figurines. Perhaps captains of Chinese vessels were fascinated by the dogs of South and Central America and by the even tinier oddities later discovered in Mexico. Would they not have taken a few back to China and other parts of the world? One-way traffic makes little sense and as is explained in Seminars Online, there is evidence to the contrary.
Knowledgeable breeders reject a connection between hairless dogs and the Chihuahua based on major differences in conformation. The rectangular head shape of all hairless dogs is absolutely unlike the Chihuahua. Hairless-type dogs have long, round, whippy tails whereas the Chihuahua has a flattened, stiff, furry tail. The long claw-like feet of the early Chihuahua are not seen in any other breed.
If we accept that there is simply no evidence to substantiate that the Mexican Chihuahua is descended from hairless dogs brought to South and Central America in fifth century sailing vessels, then we must look for some other explanation. There are more plausible theories that place the breed’s ancient roots in Egypt or the Sudan and that it migrated across the Bering straits or was carried though the Mediterranean countries and thence to Malta. Physical evidence connects the Maltese “pocket dog” to the Chihuahua but it could be that its ancestor was dropped off on the island by ancient mariners. The important and easily verified characteristic shared by the pocket dog and the Chihuahua is the soft spot in the skull known as molera. The cranial gap closes in other canines just as it does in the human infant but in most adult Chihuahuas, the molera can be easily detected.
Digging Chihuahua History!
As with all speculation, there are interesting glitches. A major “oops” in the theory that dogs came to the Americas by way of Chinese sailing vessels is that small dogs of North America were revered by the earliest humans as evidenced by Indian Knoll, a two-acre site in Kentucky U.S.A. In a single dig, Dr. William Web found 21 small dogs interred in graves dated 3000 B.C. The Kentucky dig provides irrefutable evidence that dogs were domesticated in North America long before they could possibly have arrived on Chinese vessels making port in Mexico.
There is more. As recorded in the authoritative publication Walker’s Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition, Volume II, the oldest documented remains of domestic dogs, dating from 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, were found respectively, in Idaho (NW United States) and in Iraq which borders Turkey and Arabia!
It seems certain the Toltec’s techichi is the more recent ancestor of today’s Chihuahua. It is represented in stone carvings, part of a monastery known as Huejotzingo. The monastery, situated between Mexico City and Puebla, was constructed by Franciscan Monks circa 1530 and includes materials transported from the Aztec Pyramids of Cholula. The Toltec reign gave way to the Aztecs who seem to have adopted the techichi, using them and the hairless ones for religious sacrifice. The Aztec used rattles such as this Moche rattle with a startlingly perfect Chihuahua head on one end and a human head as the other end of the handle!
As staying alive became easier, the people had more time to spend upon such matters as breeding dogs. Archaeological evidence shows that selective keeping of dogs progressed from an edible interest to spiritual significance, and finally, to the ultimate luxury of providing nothing more than companionship.
So we have come full circle, developmental history having brought us back to Mexico and the southern United States. Perhaps the ancestors were brought in on Chinese trading vessels. Maybe they originated in the Egyptian desert and were related to fennec zerda, the little “dog” that is so unusual it has its own species classification. Wherever he came from, the smallest domestic dog thrived in northern Mexico and the southern United States.
Chihuahua Fact, Fable, Spirit Dog
Unfortunately, the many dialects of the American Indian afford little in the way of meaningful descriptions of native dogs. An incredibly creative artist, the Native American used symbolism more than realism. Even today, the original American traces creation and his own history though the spoken record. He relies on The Story Teller to pass the past from one generation to the next.
One such story clearly relates to the Chihuahua. It was believed that not only could the little dog be a companion in the next world, he served his owner in a much greater way. The sins of the master were transferred to the dog so that the human could gain safe passage to the other world but as you shall learn, getting there was no easy task, even for a sin-free soul.
Writing of the little dog’s spiritual assistance Fray Bernardino de Sahugun said “The deceased were burnt, encircled by all their clothing and belongings, but he who had nothing among his wretched belongings went bare, and underwent much pain and suffered much in order to pass the place of the obsidian-bladed winds. And also they caused him to carry a little dog, a yellow one, and they fixed about its neck a loose cotton cord. It was said that he (the dog) bore the dead one across the place of the nine rivers in the land of the dead.”
Color is significant to the Aztec religion and the color of death is yellow. So it was that the little yellow dogs were sacrificed that they might precede their masters to the other side. It was there they waited to aid the owner across the ninth river. The Story Teller speaks of “a yellow one that wore a strand of slackly spun cotton for a collar. It is told he takes the dead across the ninefold river to Meitlantecutli. There the waters are wide, dogs are the ferrymen, and when he recognizes his master, he leaps into the water in order to take him across.”
When one experiences the utter devotion of a Chihuahua, it is easy to understand how a highly developed culture could believe that such a dog would gladly assume the sins of its beloved person. There was no doubt whatsoever that incredibly loyal little dog would faithfully await the arrival of its master, then guide his loved one to the Aztec vision of Heaven.
The Mexican Chihuahua
Perhaps that is why Montezuma II, last of the Aztec rulers, is said to have had hundreds of Chihuahuas in his palace. More recently, is that why General Santa Ana, (the dictator of Mexico who sold northern Mexico to the United States in 1848) also kept large numbers of golden fawn Chihuahuas? They went with him into battle, no doubt to guide his soul across the ninth river should he be slain. In fact, they were in his camp when he was finally defeated and captured in 1836!
The theory that places the Chihuahua’s development in Europe with the assumption that it arrived in the New World in the arms of Spanish explorers totally ignores recorded history. The Spanish had a singular use for dogs during that time. They brought horses to the Americas, not dogs. When there was no local game, when there were no injured horses to be slaughtered, they raided Indian settlements for food and that included indigenous camp dogs and in some tribes, the small dogs kept for sacrifice – or as pets.
Hernando de Soto wrote that dogs were a major source of meat for the hundreds of troops he led during exploration of the southern United States. They not only decimated the Indian population from the Florida peninsula to Mexico, they also wiped out thousands of domesticated dogs. Spanish scribes recorded that male dogs were fattened on corn, castrated, and used for food by the Aztecs. We know dogs were sacrificed in religious ceremonies but one has to wonder if the Indians were forced to breed them in great numbers in order to feed the conquistadors who enslaved them?
Standing high atop a 600 foot pinnacle called Acoma, I understand how a people enslaved by the Spaniards might have eaten anything to survive! Only a short drive west across the barren red desert from Albuquerque New Mexico, Acoma is the oldest inhabited settlement in the United States, well established when the Spaniards first occupied it in 1540. The people who steadfastly live there today still collect water in the baked clay depressions scattered through the tiny community. The few who emerge from the shadow of their adobe dwellings to be photographed or to sell their beautiful pottery are centuries removed from the tourists. Ancient memories are not buried at Acoma. They are painfully evident. We saw no dogs, only the shadow of those that might have been…. The sadness was palpable and it was easy to imagine a child secretly holding onto his little dog. Comfort must have been priceless to the people of Acoma, or as it is called today, Sky City.
Thankfully, some tiny dogs went unnoticed by the cruel conquistadors or perhaps they were not considered worth the trouble to roast. The smallest and dearest would have been hidden in the high dwellings of the pueblo people. Of this we can be certain, every Chihuahua owner is deeply grateful that littlest dog escaped the voracious appetites of the Spanish!
The Modern Chihuahua
The first record of the Chihuahua as a breed occurred about 1884 when enterprising Mexicans began selling them to tourists in the border markets. An American Judge is said to have bought a dog in El Paso Texas and later, another from Tucson Arizona. The first Chihuahua to be officially registered was a dog called Midget who entered the American Kennel Club stud book in 1904 along with three others. By 1915, thirty Chihuahua were registered in the States and that number jumped to over 25,000 by the early seventies!
The breed has always been popular with celebrities from Spanish-born band leaders Xavier Cugat to Miss Lupe Velez, a famous actress of the 1930's shown here with her tiny little King. She fed him with an eye-dropper, certainly because it was the “dramatic” thing to do.
The great Opera star Enrico Caruso was seldom seen without his considerable sized pack of Chihuahuas dog and even at the height of the financial depression, the famed Florence Clark (pictured at right) won prizes with her Chihuahua champions in the 1934 Westminster Kennel Club show in New York.
The Chihuahua began to move into England from the United States and directly from Mexico and by 1897, a Chihuahua was formally exhibited at the Ladies Kennel Club Show. Registration privileges followed in 1907 which would appear to be a meteoric rise to fame except that it was seventeen years before the next Chihuahua was registered! Less than one hundred were recorded by the beginning of WWII. The low breeding population was critically impacted by the bombing and devastation which followed. By 1949, there remained only eight registered dogs.
As families and homes were re-established, many turned back to dogs for solace and a logical choice was the Chihuahua. Easily fitting in cramped quarters during the rebuilding, cheap to feed, hardy, requiring few veterinary visits, and above all, a grateful little soul to fill the empty arms and hearts of those who had suffered terrible losses. Numbers climbed rapidly and by 1953, there were 111 registered with The Kennel Club.
In America, the Long and Smooth coats were shown together until 1952 when they were separated into two varieties for the show ring. They are still interbred in the States, resulting in both coat varieties in the same litter.
Well over 20,000 Chihuahuas are now registered each year. They are extremely popular because they are such wonderful companions and because breeders strive to retain their unique characteristics for the world to enjoy.
Whether breeding or judging the Chihuahua, we hope you will bear in mind his developmental history and evolution. He is a clever little dog, gigantic in heart and personality, but clearly driven by strong survival instinct, he “pancakes” to prove it! He is in so many ways, unique, even among Toy Breeds.
Be sure to see World Bans Merle Chihuahuas which covers the breed in depth!