The Other Mexican Dog

Can you say Xoloitzcuintle?

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1164.)

Despite being the smallest breed of dog, Chihuahuas get all the attention throughout Mexico, around the world, and on the silver screen. They are a common sight around town, and jewelry designer Cassandra Shaw has for years developed an entire advertising campaign centered around her own beloved pets. Of the four endemic dog breeds in Mexico, only two remain. Do you know the other one? Meet the Xoloitzcuintle.

Xoloitzcuintles, or Xolos as they are known colloquialy (sho-loss) are hairless dogs found in toy, miniature and standard sizes. The name comes from two Nahuatl words, Xolotl, the name of an Aztec god, and itzcuintli, meaning dog. In Aztec mythology, Xolotl was the god of both lightning and death. This deity and a dog were believed to lead the soul on its journey to the underworld. In art, Xolotl was usually depicted as a dog-headed man. On the other hand, the term itzcuintly became the modern Spanish word, escuincle, a word sometimes used to refer to a small child.

It is believed that domesticated dogs first entered North America through Siberia, some 4,500 years after the first humans did, and there is archaeological evidence of Xolos in Mayan, Toltec, Zapotec and Aztec tombs from over 3500 years ago. Xolos were frequently sacrificed and buried along with their owners in order to provide guidance through the journey to the underworld. 

Despite their millenial heritage, Xolos did not begin showing up in Mexican dog shows until the late 1940s, but the World Canine Organization (FCI, founded in 1911) was not prepared to acknowledge them as an official breed. However, as awareness of the breed increased, the FCI realized that drastic action was needed to prevent it from going extinct. In the late 1950s, the FCI sanctioned a team of Mexican and British dog authorities to find purebred Xolos in remote areas of Mexico. Eventually, ten such dogs were found and used to revive the breed and on May 1, 1956, they were finally recognized in Mexico and officially by the FCI around the world. It wasn’t until February 1212, however, that a Xolo became one of six new breeds to appear at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for the first time.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo at home with two of her beloved cholos.

Given their hairless appearance, Xolos are easy to dismiss because they are not particularly attractive in a traditional way. That said, Mexican personalities such as artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo raised Xolos as pets, featuring them frequently in their paintings. Although puppies can be quite noisy and oral, adult Xolos are recognized for their calm demeanor. As one of four officially recognized breeds of hairless dogs, worldwide, they need special skincare as they are prone to scratches. The fact that they are hairless makes them great pets for those suffering from allergies. In addition, Xolos do not have problems dealing with fleas or ticks.

Other Mexican Native Animals

The ajolote or axolotl also derives its name from a Nahuatl term. Also known as ‘the mexican walking fish’ ajolotes (Ambystoma mexicanum) are odd-looking amphibians that reach adulthood without undergoing a metamorphosis. And since they possess the ability to regenerate their limbs, they are frequently used in scientific research. Once a staple in the Aztec diet, these unique creatures are in critical danger of extinction and can presently only be found in the wild in the Xochimilco Lake in Mexico City.

Ajolote or ‘Mexican walking fish.’

Another animal in relative danger of extinction is the quetzal (Resplendent quetzal), a bird found in southern Mexico and Central America. Like the Xolo, it is featured in Mesoamerican mythology—it was venerated by the ancient Aztecs and Maya—and is considered the national bird of Guatemala. The species is around 14-16 inches long and males feature colorful tails that are much longer, up to 26 inches. 

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