A History of Little Dogs in the Americas

Everyone agrees that there were little dogs in the Americas. Although ‘Techichi’ just means ‘dog’ in Aztec or Nahuatl, the term was specially applied to the small Indian dogs that were extremely common in the early days of the Occupation by the Spaniards and they first made it into print through a description by Francisco Hernandez in 1578.

Colima pottery dog with corn in mouth.

The Spaniards soon found out that the dogs were highly prized by the Indians for several reasons. In a world where the dog was the only domesticated animal, it served a variety of purposes: They were great little house dogs and ratters, so the ones who didn’t drive their masters crazy with barking or shivering were kept  for their companionship and rodent-catching and watching out abilities. The ones who were barkers and other kind of social misfits, were simply eaten. This was an important purpose for keeping dogs and coincidentally kept a selection pressure for quiet and tractable dogs, something not happening today. The best behaved dogs were the ones who got kept and bred.  There was also an third class of dogs, the ones dedicated to Xolotl. These were the strangest of the dogs. One common strangeness was baldness.

Aztec dancer as XolotlAztec dancer as Xolotl.

This gene, the hairless gene, must be discussed, because there are a lot of misconceptions that it came from China. Tosso Leeb and other respected scientists have traced this hairless gene back to Mexico and Mexico, alone. A mutation occurred over 3,000 years ago in Mexico. It has occurred only once in the entire history of dogs. In fact, naked dogs do not show up in ANY history records from China or anywhere else, until after the Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. They do start appearing  in historical accounts  from Africa, China and elsewhere in the 1700’s and onward. This form of the techichi or dog was called ‘Xoloitzquintli’, because the dogs with the hairless gene, which is dominant, belonged to Xolotl, the twin of Quetzalcoatl. Xolotl, the twin is even depicted in a doggish form on many stones and in codices and on pottery. Mexico has a rich tradition of dog pottery which were buried in funeral shafts and date back to 300B.C. There are two types of dogs depicted most in this pottery, the hairless dog shown with lines incised in the skin to represent wrinkles. The the rest of the pottery has no such lines, so the dogs were probably coated, like most dogs were.

Colima Dancing dogs. Lines on skin depict hairlessness.

I find it most interesting that a major deity or spiritual entity’s twin was a dog. When I just think about it, it could indicate how important dogs were at the time of the historical formation of this ancient world view. That the man was accompanied by his ‘twin’ a dog. Now that is a picture of ‘man’ that holds up well, back to the depths of the Pleistocene, man and his dog- and woman and her dog- proceeding through life together, so dependent on each other, they are like ‘twins’. Think about it.

diego rivera mural Quetzalcoatl dog

The previous paragraphs are the introduction to this post, but to go further, let’s go back, way back, to the many times people came to the Americas in the first place. They came with dogs. They may have come from different directions and in different ways, but we know for sure there were influxes across the Frozen Bering Strait. They started arriving during a time before dogs even began to look like dogs. Even if we take the most conservative time for crossing the strait, it would be 12,000 years ago, just as the middle east was ready to begin agriculture. Let us say agriculture was in its “testing” stages 12,000 years ago in the middle East, but dogs had not begun to morph into odd types.

There is no evidence that dogs had started changing into the forms we see today except for a couple of things. It is fairly new news and not well known in the general dog world, which isn’t that interested in ancient dog history, anyway, that most dogs originally came from Middle Eastern wolves. The descendents of  Middle Eastern wolves did travel across Siberia and the Bering strait according the latest and best scientific knowledge. This understanding is quite new, but has been rapidly accepted by the dog scholars.  One middle eastern wolf in particular was quite small, less than half the size of the other wolf ancestors. Is is now being postulated that the small dogwolves from the small wolves were valued from the beginning and small dogs were probably the first variety off the regular large wolf archetype.

The smallest wolf types are the Ethiopian wolf  and the Arabian wolf

Small Ethiopian wolf.

So I am accepting the idea that small dogs have been with man since the early days of domesticating wolves. I happen to love reading about how dogs came into being and so I have good list of my sources on the bibliography page. If this line of thought is correct, it would certainly explain the persistence of the common red to fawn colors in many breeds of dogs today, especially the dingo, and other primitive breeds.

After ages in the central Asian steppes, most of our human ancestors split into groups that went in various directions, many of whom crossed the Bering strait with their dogs. They took small dogs with them. Small dogs became entrenched all over the Americas south of the snow lines. There were some small dogs known as Tahltan bear dogs that persisted in the high Northwest until this century, so there were lots of dogs above the snow lines, but they were mostly larger beasts of burden. Some of the hare Indian dogs were small too.

Hare Indian dog by Audubon

The phrase “small Indian dogs” started appearing along the east coast of Mexico, then in almost every description of dogs from anywhere in Mexico. Mexican dogs, the ‘omnipresent’ ones everywhere the Spaniards went, were small. In The Casas Grandes dig in Eastern Mexico, small figures of dogs were found on wheels, apparently toys for children. These dogs appeared to depict a deer type dog and other ones with a distinct stop a less exaggerated version of the “apple head”.

There really is no difference between the dogs depicted in Mexico and described as Techichi and the present “deer type Chihuahuas”. While the Spaniards joined the natives in the habit of eating the Techichi, doggie disease may have contributed to making the little dogs rare in Mexico, per se. However the Chihuahua Desert region of Mexico and New Mexico and the Arizona Sonora desert regions, which are practically adjoining,  were not as severely affected and the Techichi of these regions remained the most common dog.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Americans such as James Watson, made a series of trips to El Paso and Tucson and started showing a very tiny dog they called the “Chihuahua” by 1904. This caused a series of people to come to El Paso and Tucson to find breeding stock. They were so common in Tucson, native stock were called “Arizona Dogs” by Watson and other famous breed founders such as Ida Garrett. Remember the name of Ida Garrett for she is the source of a lot of information about breeding the small AKC Chihuahuas from the Arizona dogs.

Americans, unlike Spaniards did not call the dogs Techichi dogs and failed to learn about their history in Mexico. They just commented they couldn’t find the dogs in Mexico, only in the border regions of the US. Someone injected a note that all the Techichi are extinct in Mexico, but that is not strictly true. The name just never got translated, or the Americans refused to use it. So now, we still have an abundance of these little guys in Tucson and an almost 150 year old record of Chihuahua breeders, among others, who came out here and procured small dogs.

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