Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Truth About Chihuahuas

There was a time when I truly believed that a chihuahua would behave like a 'real dog' if it were treated like a dog instead of a fashion accessory or human infant. This was before I got a chihuahua. I have since learned that 'real dog' is actually a continuum. On one end are endothermic dogs that willingly eat food and can survive in less than triple-digit temperatures without sweaters; on the other end is Ru.
Just like a dog only smaller!
At slightly over 6 pounds, Ru isn't going to win any tininess competitions. He's not even close to looking like a showdog, with his extra-long back. I'm also not certain his expression is nearly saucy enough for the AKC breed standard. That said, Ru is very much a proper chihuahua in temperament and personality.

There are a lot of delightful rumors and stories about the origins of the chihuahua. Were they bred as a single-serving meat animal in a hot climate? Were they developed as a baby replacement for mothers who lost their infants? Did priests turn them loose inside the walls of buildings to hunt mice? Was the chihuahua of today developed from tiny dogs found running around Aztec ruins in Mexico in 1850? I love asking people where chihuahuas come from because I often hear a new story.

What we do know is that chihuahuas are one of the older modern breeds, with the first ones being shown in 1904. Most of our modern breeds are less than two centuries old, and and were developed during the 1800's when purebred dogs became a popular sport. Wealthy dog fanciers traveled in search of new and different breeds to develop, and for good reason. After all, only one person at the dog show can have the best terrier, but a dozen people can win if there are a dozen different types of terriers, right? A landrace is a type of dog you get when breeding is utilitarian without consideration for appearance. All breeds of dogs were originally landraces until someone came along and attempted to both define and refine them. When the dogs are bred to win conformation shows rather than do a job, they tend to lose their working ability and turn into a very different type of dog.

Ru and fosterdog Candace
Most dogs of the New World were replaced by European dogs in the centuries before purebred dogs became a fad. Very few of the original landraces of the Americas survived, and when a dog is claimed to be descended from native dogs, genetics usually shows that it is a European attempt to recreate that breed in the 1800s. According to various authorities on dog breeds, the people who developed the chihuahua never set foot in Mexico. What they did do was travel by train in the southwestern United States. In border towns, Native Americans would approach the windows of stopped trains with souvenirs to sell to the travelers. Among these souvenirs were the small village dogs that lived in the area.

Dog fanciers like James Watson bought these little dogs, took them home, and attempted to turn their landrace into a breed. It's probably they mixed in some other breeds in their attempts to shrink the wee beasts all the way down to 2-lbs, but a 2-lb dog can't give birth naturally, maintain its body temperature, or prevent its blood sugar levels from crashing. The dog fanciers finally settled on a 5-lb dog, which remains difficult to attain even today. Breed a couple of 5-pounders together, and you're likely to get progeny that grow from 4-6 pounds. Breed the 6-pounders and get 5-7 pound offspring. Even a pair of tiny dogs can randomly produce a puppy that grows to 10-lbs, and as soon as unscrupulous breeders stop deliberately breeding for tininess they end up with a pack of 10-lb chihuahuas with non-spherical skulls.

Are chihuahuas actually descended from native Mexican dogs? Or are they an attempt to recreate an extinct breed via European dogs? They do have an awful lot in common with the Techichi skeletons found at archaeological sites in Central America. To my delight, this study published last summer shows that a particular copy of a particular gene is unique to chihuahuas...and those ancient dogs interred at those archaeological sites. The chihuahua is the Techichi. Meanwhile, the Mexican Hairless Dog, or Xoloitzcuintli, appears to be descended entirely from European dogs.

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