Like many modern-day dog breeds, much of the Chihuahua's history is shrouded in mystery.
Where did the Chihuahua originate from? Were they brought over from Europe? Are they descendants of a different breed? Were they bred for a specific purpose like hunting rodents or herding livestock? While there's no definitive answer to these questions, historians have concocted several theories on the Chihuahua's history that we're going to explore.
The State of Chihuahua, Mexico
Historians continue to speculate on the Chihuahua's true origins, but most agree that it leads back to the state of Chihuahua Mexico. Spanning 95,544 mi² (247,460 km2) and bordering Texas and New Mexico to the northeast (see map below), Chihuahua is a the largest of Mexico's 32 states. It was here where dog fanciers are believed to have discovered some of the earliest Chihuahua specimens in the mid-1800s.
In 1884, Mexican merchants began selling the small dog to border tourists, many of whom brought them back to the U.S. to keep as pets. Back then, the dog didn't have an official name. Rather, people named it after the region in which it was seen. This resulted in the modern-day Chihuahua being called the Arizona dog, Texas dog, Mexico dog, and the Chihuahua dog. Of course, only one of these names withstood the hands of time, with the breed now being universally recognized as the Chihuahua.
The Techichi Theory
Historians generally accept the idea that some of the earliest Chihuahuas were discovered in Mexico in the late 1800s. It's what happened before this period that continues to spark debates.
One of the most plausible theories is that the Chihuahua is a descendant of the Techichi, a small-framed companion dog domesticated by several pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations and Native North American tribes. With an average weight of 10-20 pounds, the Techichi is roughly twice the size of the Chihuahua but shares many of its counterpart's physical characteristics. Unlike the Chihuahua, the Techichi is believed to have been mute with only long coats (the Chihuahua has both short and long coats).
Maya and Toltec Civilizations
Following this theory, it's safe to assume either the Maya (1800 BC - 900 AD) or Toltec (900 AD - 1150 AD) were the first to domesticate the Techichi. The Maya -- not "Mayan" as some describe this civilization -- viewed dogs as being guardians of the afterlife, using them in burial ceremonies and as a source of food. They would often sacrifice, mummify and bury dogs alongside their respective owners, believing their canine companions would join them in the afterlife. The Maya even had nine different words for dog in their language, some of which referred to specific varieties. It's unknown which breeds the Maya domesticated, but historians believe it included the Techichi and the Xoloitzcuintli (Xolo) at the very least.
When archeologists unearthed ancient burial shafts in Colima, Mexico, they discovered effigy pots and sculptures dating back to 300 BC depicting a dog with striking similarities to the Chihuahua. Archeologists have also discovered wheeled dog toys in Central America dating back to 100 AD, showing both apple head and deer head varieties. These were likely two variations of the Techichi, suggesting a direct link with the modern-day Chihuahua.
Another piece of evidence reinforcing the Techichi theory lies in a 1,200-year-old Maya figurine depicting a woman holding a child in one hand and a small dog with Chihuahua-like characteristics in the other. This figurine can be found at New Orleans' Tulane University.
The Maya civilization began to decline in 800 AD, giving rise to the Toltec by 900 AD. And like their predecessors, the Toltec also domesticated dogs for food and sacrificial purposes. Archeologists have discovered Toltec carvings of small dogs with rounded apple heads and erect ears, presumably the Techichi.
The Aztec and European Explorers
The Aztec rose to power shortly after the end of the Toltec civilization, establishing their capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 AD. They viewed the Toltec as being the perfect example of a civilization, following many of their predecessor's traditions, including both human and dog sacrifices. In an effort to appease their gods, they would sacrifice humans in blood-offering ceremonies. If humans weren't available, the Aztec would sacrifice dogs, including the Techichi.
Like the Maya, Toltec and other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztec believed that sacrificial dogs joined their owners in the afterlife. Furthermore, they believed diseases could be transferred from humans to dogs, curing the human in the process.
Several European explorers described the Techichi in written journals. After journeying to the New World in 1529, Franciscan priest and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún spent the next 50 years studying the Aztec culture. In his work, Sahagún wrote about the Aztec's ceremonial practices, which included sacrificing the small dog.
"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."
The Aztec emphasized color in their culture, viewing yellow as the color of death. According to Sahagún, they would sacrifice yellow-colored Techichis, believing the deceased canines would help them cross the ninefold river to Meitlantecutli. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernandez (died 1515) wrote about the Techichi being used as a food source by the Aztec, similar to the way in which Spaniards would eat rabbits.
Other written accounts by European explorers describe how the Aztec domesticated and used the Techichi as pets. In "The Natural and Moral History of the Indies," Spanish Jesuit missionary José de Acosta (1540 -1600 AD) described the Aztec, whom were believed to be Indians at the time, feeding dogs and keeping them for company.
"The Indians so love these little dogs that they spare their meat to feed them, so when they travel in the country they carry them upon their shoulders or in their bosoms, and when they are sick they keep them with them but only for company."
The Techichi, along with their native owners, didn't fare well following the arrival of European colonizers. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 - 1547) led a third expedition to the New World, which he partly funded using his own money. Cuba's governor, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, attempted to cancel the expedition shortly before the ships sailed. Cortés ignored this order, however, embarking on a bloody conquest that would lead to the fall of the Aztecs while nearly eradicating the Techichi in the process.
Was the Techichi Crossed with Another Small Dog?
While many historians believe the Chihuahua is a descendant of the Techichi, others believe it's a cross between the Techichi and a small hairless dog known as the Chinese Crested.
If you're familiar with the World's Ugliest Dog Competition, you've probably heard of this breed before. Held annually in Petaluma, California, it celebrates dogs for their "unique" appearance, rewarding the winning owner with $1,000 and a trophy. All dogs are eligible to participate, but the Chinese Crested continues to dominate the competition, winning year after year.
Weighing an average of 10-13 pounds, the Chinese Crested is smaller than many other breeds, albeit larger than the Chihuahua. Some historians believe it was crossed with the Techichi, resulting in the modern-day Chihuahua. Perhaps Chinese explorers or merchants brought the hairless dog to the Americas, but widespread Chinese immigration to Central and North America didn't occur until the mid-to-late 1800s. If the Chinese didn't land in the Americas until the 19th century, it would have been impossible for the Chinese Crested to cross with the native Techichi.
Well, several theories suggest China discovered the Americas before Christopher Columbus. If true, maybe some of these early Chinese explorers brought the Chinese Crested to Central America and/or North America, where it was later bred with the Techichi to create the Chihuahua. That's a long shot to say the least, yet it's still a possibility historians consider.
Other theories link the Chihuahua to the Xoloitzcuintli (Xolo), a small and mostly hairless dog that has roamed Mexico for thousands of years. Nonetheless, many historians reject the Chihuahua's connection to any hairless breed, including the Xolo and Chinese Crested. These hairless breeds have rectangular heads and stiff tails, which is in stark contrast to the Chihuahua's physical appearance.
Fun fact: The Xolo is the official dog of Mexico and was added back to the AKC's list of official breeds in 2011.
The European Descent Theory
Another possibility is that Chihuahuas originated from Europe, specifically the island country of Malta.
Nestled 50 miles (80 km) below Italy, this Mediterranean island was once home to a small dog, known as the Maltese pocket dog, which shared a distinct characteristic with the Chihuahua: an opening in the the skull, or molera. Between 80-90% of all Chihuahuas are born with this undeveloped cranial gap.
Another piece of evidence connecting the Maltese pocket dog to the modern-day Chihuahua lies in the Sistine Chapel. In 1482, Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli completed a fresco on the second compartment of the south wall. Known as The Trials and Calling of Moses, this vibrant fresco depicts a boy holding a small dog with an uncanny resemblance to the modern-day Chihuahua.
One could argue that the Maltese pocket dog is actually the Techichi or Xolo brought over from Mexico, but Botticelli completed this fresco ten years before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. Therefore, it would have been impossible for him to know what the Techichi looked like.
Below is a photo of Botticelli's The Trials and Calling of Moses, along with a closeup revealing the boy holding a small dog.
The dog certainly looks like a Chihuahua... What do you think?
DNA Evidence Sheds Light on Chihuahua's Origin
A recent study involving the Chihuahua's DNA may shed light on the breed's origin. Researchers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden sought to investigate the origins of several modern-day American dog breeds, including the Chihuahua. For the study, researchers compared the Chihuahua's mitochondrial DNA to Asian dogs, European dogs and archeological sites, looking to see if there was a connection.
Researchers did not find a link between the Chihuahua and any Asian or European dogs. They did, however, discover the Chihuahua's unique DNA type in Mexican pre-Columbian samples, suggesting the breed -- or perhaps its Techichi ancestor -- was around in Mexico before the European explorers arrived.
You can access these findings in the Royal Society journal.
One of the first detailed written accounts of the Chihuahua was by James Watson, a dog judge and writer who immigrated from Scotland to New York in the 1870s. When traveling to San Fransisco to attend a dog show in 1888, Watson stopped by El Paso and crossed the border into Mexico to investigate rumors of this talked-about breed. Here, he purchased a Chihuahua, whom he later named Manzanita, from a Mexican merchant for $5.
Watson returned soon after to buy several more Chihuahuas, including one of the first champions of the breed, Juarez Bell. He wrote about his new companions in The American Kennel Register and Country Life in America, describing them as being small enough to fit in his pocket.
In the 1890s, Mexico's president gave the famous Italian-French opera singer Adelina Patti a bouquet of flowers in which a small Chihuahua was hidden. Patti felt an immediate connection with her new canine companion, taking Bonito across the country as she toured. At the time, many people had heard of Chihuahuas but never actually seen one. Patti changed the Chihuahua's course in history by presenting this affectionate, fun-loving breed to the world.
Carl Lumholtz, Norwegian explorer and researcher of indigenous Mexican cultures, wrote about the Chihuahua in his two-volume set Unknown Mexico (1902). According to Lumholtz, the Chihuahua fetched "quite a price" by dog fanciers. He also described the breed as being timid with erect ears, prominent eyes and a small hole on the top of the skull (molera). We did some math to determine exactly how much Chihuahuas cost back then, and after adjusting for inflation, we discovered that James Watson spent the modern-day equivalent of $133.03 for his Manzanita.
It wasn't until 1904, however, when Texas resident H. Raynor registered the first Chihuahua, Midget, with the AKC. During that same year, three other Chihuahuas were registered with the AKC. And just a few years later, the AKC had its first champion. By 1915, 15 Chihuahuas were registered with the AKC.
The Chihuahua Club of America (CCA) was founded in 1923 to promote the breed and provide educational resources on health, grooming and general characteristics. In 1952, the CCA separated the breed into two different varieties: the smooth and long coat.
The Chihuahua experienced slow and seemingly stagnant growth growth until the 1970s, during which some 25,000 were registered with the AKC. Word quickly spread about this pint-sized dog with a fierce yet loving personality, sparking a newfound popularity for the breed.
In the mid-1990s, the fast food restaurant chain Taco Bell launched an innovative marketing campaign starring a talking Chihuahua named Gidget Chipperton. Voiced by Carlos Alazraqui, Gidget presented the Chihuahua to millions of Americans. So, in addition to increasing revenue and brand recognition for Taco Bell, the commercial campaign played a key role in the Chihuahua's popularity, particularly in the U.S. In 2012, the Chihuahua was the 12th most popular breed based on AKC registrations.
Today, the Chihuahua consistently ranks as one of the most popular dog breeds in the U.S., Mexico, U.K., Canada, Australia, and many other countries.
The Chihuahua (2012) by Susan Payne
Chihuahuas, Complete Pet Owner's Manual (2013) by Caroline Coile Ph.D