One of the most beloved breeds on Earth, people everywhere love the Chihuahua. This special and portable breed truly is a cosmopolitan dog who has made his home in the deserts of Mexico, the boulevards of Paris and the posh apartments of New York City. The Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (1445 to 1510) even sneaked an artistic rendition of a Chihuahua into the Sistine Chapel.
Like a rare and costly spice — a minute bit of which improves the taste of a food — the Chihuahua alters the flavor of life. When this tiny dog enters a room, the atmosphere subtly changes, almost like a king sitting on his throne. More than a dog, the Chihuahua is a presence.
This breed’s special status is declared by his function in life. Other breeds have had to earn their living by pulling sleds, hunting rabbits, herding sheep or retrieving ducks — but not the charming Chihuahua. From the beginning, humans seem to have reserved the Chihuahua for a higher calling: friendship.
What can one expect from a dog whose name sounds like a mix between a Latin dance and a Mexican hors d’oeuvre? Well, you can expect almost anything, so be ready. Trendy but classic, sweet yet sophisticated, tiny but somehow larger than life, the noble Chihuahua inspires a loyal following second only to his devotion to you. Lapdog extraordinaire, your Chihuahua won’t wait until you sit down before getting into your lap.
Absolutely distinct from any other breed, the Chihuahua’s personality is highly individualized. The American Kennel Club breed standard (a written description of the ideal dog) says Chihuahuas have a “terrier-like” disposition, but “terrier” doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of the breed. “There is a difference in the character of every puppy born in every litter,” says breeder Kelly Shattuck of Yucca Valley, Calif.
Some people are convinced that long-haired Chihuahuas — a more recent development than the familiar short-haired ones — show a milder, softer disposition. This opinion, however, is not shared by most breeders. “Long-haired or short-haired, it makes no difference,” Shattuck says. “What makes a difference is the parents’ personality and the generations before them.”
Micki Giroux, a Chihuahua breeder and owner of Proux Kennels in Panama City Beach, Fla., heartily agrees. “There certainly are differences in temperament between individual Chihuahuas, but I don’t attribute them to coat length,” she says. “The same can be said about sex. I have found no universal differences in personality or behavior between neutered males and females, although buyers generally request females, thinking that males are more trouble.”
Because the Chihuahua is so small, perhaps the breed can be described in only one word. To see if this was possible, I took an informal survey of Chihuahua owners around the country. Here’s what some of them said: “Diva!” “Attitude!” “Monster!” “Darling!” “Sassy!” “Bossy!” “Sensitive!” “Nervous!” “Clever!” “Precious!” “Lovebug!” My favorite one-word moniker, however, came from Maryland resident Melody Mitchell Ridenour, who has been rescuing Chihuahuas for 10 years. “In one word? Napoleon!” she says, laughing. There you have it — sort of. The tiny Chihuahua possesses many descriptions.
When the word “Chihuahua” pops up, people tend to think too small. That’s a big mistake. Everything about a Chihuahua is huge, except for his frame: big eyes, big ears, big brain, big heart and big spirit. By looking at these features, we can gauge the size of his personality.
The Chihuahua’s eyes seem to peer right into yours and understand how you’re feeling. This incredible capacity for communication has earned this tiny jewel the sobriquet of the world’s most loyal dog.
Luminous eyes are characteristic of Chihuahuas. Like other dogs, Chihuahuas can see in dim light better than we can, and they detect motion better. They see some colors but not the fuller spectrum that humans enjoy. While they probably can see yellows and blues, greens and reds just look gray. Their peripheral vision is wider than ours — about 240 degrees compared to 200 degrees for people — which is why they notice everything.
The Chihuahua’s eyes seem huge to us, but that’s because the dog is so tiny. All dogs, from the Pomeranian to the Newfoundland, have the same-sized eye orbits. Dogs have less ability than humans to calculate depth, though. Their eyes can’t focus very well on the shape of a motionless object, so things that are clear to us probably appear somewhat blurry to them.
In other words, Chihuahuas have trouble identifying stationary objects by vision alone. It doesn’t help that they are so low to the ground that they have a distorted view of everything above them. This, coupled with the dog’s small size, can make the Chihuahua suspicious of unknown people and things. Some Chihuahuas respond by indiscriminately attacking a strange object; shy Chihuahuas might retreat under the furniture.
It is possible, however, that Chihuahuas can see things you can’t. After all, the ancient Aztecs used Chihuahuas as spirit guides. Perhaps they had a reason. While I am not absolutely claiming that Chihuahuas can see spirits, there are times when they seemed fascinated by something beyond the neighbor or even your vacuum cleaner. Perhaps the claim that Chihuahuas are psychic stems from the undoubted fact that they see our world in different ways than we do.
Although the world’s smallest dog, the Chihuahua has the largest brain for his size, making him an incredibly quick learner. “If Chihuahuas are famous for being so smart, then why are they so notoriously difficult to housetrain?” you might ask yourself.
A number of factors are stacked against the tiny Chihuahua. Like all toy breeds, Chis have tiny bladders, which make it difficult for them to “hold it” for long periods. In addition, most Chis are indoor dogs. As a desert breed, they have trouble dealing with cold weather, and most dislike the rain. The tendency of some owners to keep them inside except for brief potty breaks makes going outside more of a chore than an adventure.
In other words, there is nothing dumb about Chihuahuas. They are easily housetrained by owners willing to make the effort.
Ridenour gives an example of the breed’s intelligence with Happy, her Chihuahua. With a little training, Happy has learned to understand masterful vocabulary that includes the names for each of his toys, which he can fetch on cue.
Chihuahuas also are athletic and willing, Shattuck explains. “Their size makes them easy for anyone to work with,” she says. Madame Rosina Casselli, a noted Chihuahua breeder and trainer during the early 1900s, owned a team of performing Chihuahuas, which she claimed were descended from “little, wild dogs of Chihuahua.” The breed appears in talent shows and on websites, performing tricks for amazed audiences.
To those they love, Chihuahuas are selfless. Daisy, a 2-year-old shelter Chihuahua living in Las Vegas, Nev., helped four motherless kittens. The kittens were being hand-fed by the shelter staff when Daisy whimpered for the kittens. The amazed staff stood aside while Daisy took the tiny kittens gently in her mouth and carried them to her box. She then, very tenderly, began to nurse them. The day after the story broke, the shelter got enough offers of help to move 45 kittens into foster homes.
The great heart of the Chihuahua is not limited to fellow animals. According to Ridenour, Chis have a unique ability to sympathize with ill humans, sitting quietly beside them for hours. Chihuahuas switch on again to “active” mode as soon as the humans feel better.
Another example is Chichi. One autumn day, while on vacation in Outer Banks, N.C., with his owners Rick and Mary Lane, Chichi seemed to be quietly asleep in his beach chair. All of a sudden, he leaped up and began straining at his leash, staring at the water’s edge. When the Lanes finally paid attention, they followed his eyesight and ran down to the water where two elderly women were struggling in a riptide, unable to scream and completely out of sight of the Lanes’ sunbathing spot. The Lanes were able to rescue them but never would have noticed if not for Chichi’s relentless alert. “Somehow, he knew,” Mary recalls. “I’ve puzzled and puzzled over how.” Chichi received a specially embroidered “Hero Dog” collar and a spot on NBC’s “Today” show.
Chihuahuas are small dogs, but don’t tell them that. “They have proud, protective characters,” Shattuck says. “They’ll guard the door as though they are 10 feet tall, making sure no one enters.”
Mayda Estrella of Richmond, Calif., tells the tale of Manchas, a Chihuahua who died protecting his family from two attacking dogs. Estrella was at home with her newborn baby and her 4-year-old son when the neighbor’s two large dogs chewed through their fence and stormed through the open door of Estrella’s apartment. While Estrella escaped with the baby into her bedroom, the Chihuahua stood up to the two dogs, standing between them and the 4-year-old child. The large dogs grabbed Manchas and ran off. Estrella’s child is alive today thanks to the dauntless courage of a tiny dog.
Then there’s Mina. Sarah Banach and her boyfriend, Mark Brewer, were hiking along Paris Creek in Washington with Mina; suddenly, a bear came thundering down the path. He clearly hadn’t expected to meet Mina. The tiny dog, barking up a storm, flung herself full force upon the massive mammal. True, Mina was swatted aside like a bothersome fly, but her courageous charge did make the bear think twice, and it veered in a different direction. Fortunately, Mina received emergency surgery and recovered from her adventure.
By a curious coincidence, the Chihuahua nickname “Chi” is the word for the interior, invisible energy that powers life. Is this merely an accident? I don’t think so. Longtime Chihuahua owners know what I mean.