Chihuahuas live large in Southwestern folklore
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Chihuahuas live large in Southwestern folklore

Alaska has the Malamute, Massachusetts the Boston terrier, North Carolina the Plott Hound, but Arizona has no breed to call its “official” state dog.

Unofficially, however, the state dog of Arizona is most likely the Chihuahua.

For years, the announcer of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show introduced the Chihuahua by uttering, “the origin of the breed is a mystery.”

Billy Miller, a long-time Chihuahua aficionado, said the announcer would go on to say, “It is believed the breed originated in Mexico.”

Miller, 47, knows Chihuahuas. Fascinated by Chihuahuas as a young boy, Miller has gone from reading books about the smallest dog breed in the world, to serving as a board member and as Judges Education Chair for the Chihuahua Club of America. As a historian of the Chihuahua breed, Miller said that throughout his research and studies, most archaeological evidence does support that Chihuahuas are a native of Mexico.

Today, the Chihuahua has become as much and emblem of Arizona as the saguaro cactus.

The past couple of years, especially in Southern Arizona, it seems as if the dog has continued to soak up the sun with all this attention. Blame the yappy Taco Bell mascot if you want, but the Chihuahua continues to be identified with Mexican culture.

Since 2008, Tucson country music station KIIM-FM 99.5 has held annual Chihuahua races on the Saturday before Cinco De Mayo.

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Now stereotyped as noisy, obnoxious dogs — the Techichi —from which Chihuahuas descend, were highly regarded in the eyes of the Toltecs and Aztecs, with whom they were first associated, said Miller.

“The Chihuahuas were kept in large packs, typically owned by the royalty,” Miller said.

These packs could reach more than 100 dogs, as the number of Chihuahuas one owned became a symbol of wealth.

Different colored Chihuahuas had different meanings for the people, including religious significance.

“They weren’t just a novel pet like they are today. The Aztecs really believed that in the afterlife the spirit of the Chihuahua was really large and the spirit of the human being was very small,” says Miller.

In fact, there is archaeological evidence of Chihuahuas being buried next to Aztecs. 

The Aztecs believed it was necessary to sacrifice a "blue" Chihuahua (a gun-metal gray color) for the journey to heaven, according to Miller.

“If you killed a blue-colored Chihuahua and buried it with someone, the spirit of the little Chihuahua was going to be big in the afterlife and the human-being can climb on their back and that dog would swim them across the river into the afterlife,” Miller said. The Aztecs even thought the Chihuahua would absorb the sins of the deceased person.

Other colored Chihuahuas, such as those having a “gold” color, symbolized luck for the Toltecs and Aztecs.

Although some dog owners may be guilty of treating their four-legged friend(s) too well these days, Miller says the Aztecs may have taken it to an entirely different level.

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According to Miller, there is some speculation that the Chihuahuas were regarded as so important during these times, that some may have even been provided with their own personal slaves.

Although there is much we know about the Chihuahua in addition to it descending and evolving from the Techichi, there are still some unknowns regarding the genetic makeup of the dog and its exact origin.

Some people theorize that Chihuahuas were introduced to the Americas by the Chinese bringing them on their journey through the Bering Strait.

The coat of the Chihuahua has also been an issue of debate, Miller said. Some people argue that the short hair and long hair Chihuahua are not the same breed. Miller dismisses this assertion, saying this long cut gene is recessive. Miller said it took until his lifetime for the long hair Chihuahua to even be recognized on the Chihuahua Club of America logo.

This breed also has a bone to pick when it comes to the way they’ve been classified and identified throughout the years.

For a long time, especially in the United States during the late 1800s, any small dog was considered a Chihuahua. They were also identified by some writers as wild creatures who climb up trees.

Miller acknowledges that much of his knowledge of the Chihuahua comes from studying the writings of James Watson, an early pioneer and collector of the breed. Citing a passage in, “The Complete Chihuahua,” Miller said Watson encountered and bought a Chihuahua from a Mexican for $3 in El Paso, Texas. This was while he was on his way to a judging trip in San Francisco in 1888.

On his way home, Watson made a trip to Tucson, as he had been given earlier advice that the desert town was a place where he could find many Chihuahuas. Once he arrived, Watson said, he only found a single black and tan colored Chihuahua that was acceptable to him. The others dogs he found were too big and could not be classified as Chihuahuas.

Nicknamed the Texas and Arizona dog, the Chihuahua has certainly made its presence felt in the American Southwest.

When Jan Brick moved to Tucson nine years ago, she decided to volunteer at the shelter at the Pima Animal Care Center, where she witnessed first-hand the desperate situation Chihuahuas were facing because of their large presence in the state.

At the time, overpopulation led to many of these Chihuahuas being euthanized, something which Brick emphasized is not the case anymore. Brick was approached with an idea to start a Chihuahua rescue. Save A Chihuahua Rescue of Tucson has now been in existence for eight years.

Brick said she never considered herself fond of the breed until she met her daughter’s Chihuahua, Lucy.

“They just love you, they adore you, they protect you. I think that’s part of the issue maybe where people say they are barky and bitey. They will fight to the death to protect you. If somebody is coming after you or invading your space, these dogs are just so overwhelmingly brave — and that’s what people joke about, that little dog syndrome,” Brick said.

“They're such a great companion dog. You cannot sit down, and not have your dog on your lap snuggling and cuddling. They just have so much love in them,” she added.

Brick described these dogs as protective, brave, and fearless. Sometimes, she said, they can be too fearless, which leads to dangerous situations.

“In this area, you have to be careful with mountain lions, bobcats, and coyote. If there’s something that’s invading their territory that’s bigger than them, they don’t care, they’ll go after it,” she said.

Michelle Perez, whose Tucson family have long been Chihuahua fans, said the dogs mirror her family’s dynamic.

“Mexican families are really protective of each other, and when you own a Chihuahua, they're super protective. We (Mexican people) also tend to be very loud and my Chihuahua would always bark at every little thing,” Perez said.

If you were casting a vote for the state dog of Arizona, what breed would you pick?

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Zach Pleeter/Arizona Sonora News

Long and short hair Chihuahuas sit next to each other.

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