Did You Know? Mexico is home to oldest indigenous American domesticated dog breed

articles History & People

Tony Burton

Did You Know…?

Xoloitzcuintli When someone mentions “dogs” and “Mexico” in the same sentence, most people think immediately of the cute Chihuahua, small in proportions and large in personality but commonly dismissed by lovers of larger dogs as a small and unimportant “toy” breed.

But dogs have been important in Mexico since long before the U.S. or Canada were first settled by Europeans, and Mexico has many more breeds of dog than the Chihuahua. Perhaps the most unusual of the breeds associated with Mexico is the hairless Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced Shollo-itz-quintli),or “shollo” for short. They are thought to have given rise to the superb, highly artistic, clay figures of dogs found in many burial offerings in Western Mexico. So many have been found in the state of Colima that these exquisitely modeled ceramic dogs are often referred to simply as Colima Dogs.

Colima dog
Colima dog

The clay figures, prized by collectors, who call them izcuintlis, have a highly polished rich warm red color. They are believed to represent the deity Xolotl, in his role as guider of souls in the underworld and also provide some symbolic food for the departed on his or her journey. Dogs played an important part in the diet of Indian tribes in much of Mexico, and the izcuintlis invariably have appropriately corpulent bodies. The hairless Xoloitzcuintli was common in pre-Columbian times, and is now recognized as the oldest indigenous American domesticated dog. Its nearest relative is the Crested Dog of Manchuria; long ago, the two breeds are thought to have shared a common ancestor.

Xoloitzcuintlis were in imminent danger of extinction in the 1940’s, but an energetic campaign by the Mexican Kennel Club succeeded in reestablishing the breed as a domestic pet, this time not for eating but for sound medical reasons. Parents of asthmatic children discovered that the dogs, since they are hairless and consequently flealess, made ideal pets for their offspring. Research in those parts of Mexico where the breed still existed showed that villagers often slept with their dogs at night, as prevention against, or cure for, such ailments as malaria, rheumatism and the common cold. The dogs have body temperatures several degrees hotter than most breeds and snuggling up to one in bed is like having a hot water bottle beside you.

Xoloitzcuintli Apart from having no hair, what do Xoloitzcuintli look like? They are normally slim with graceful, uniform grey or brown bodies, somewhat like a large Manchester Terrier. They have erect ears, similar to dogs portrayed in pre-Columbian frescoes at Tula and Cholula, stand about half a meter (20 inches) tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 16 kilos (35 pounds).

And, before you ask, the “Mexican hairless” (as known in the U.S.) is much smaller than a true “shollo”, being a cross between a Xoloitzcuintli and a Chihuahua or similar breed.

This account is based on the chatty and informative writings of Norman Wright, a former British Military Attache in Mexico, who was one of the prime movers of the Kennel Club campaign, particularly the chapter “Xoloitzcuintli Quest” in “A Mexican Medley for the Curious” (Ediciones Tolteca, Mexico, 1961).

Photo: Besito Xolo Kennels
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Copyright 2002 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Published or Updated on: March 14, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008

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