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Xoloitzcuintle: Mexican dog said to ‘guard men through the underworld’

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Verónica Garibay Saldaña is a Mexican columnist, communications major, and poetry enthusiast. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Their unique appearance — no fur, no teeth, and thin limbs — has given them a distinct look that is now widely cherished. 

But back in the day, when the Spaniards arrived from Europe, they initially mistook the grayish hairless dog for a dwarf horse. This animal was actually the Xoloitzcuintle, an ancestral canine native to Mexico and Central America.

Xoloitzcuintles are more than 7,000 years old without human intervention in their breeding, which makes it one of the oldest breeds in the world. Photo: Courtesy

Origin of the Xoloitzcuintle

It lived with ancient Mexican cultures as an unconditional companion of its owner, even after his death.

“It was believed that they accompanied their owners on the road to the Mictlán — the underworld or site of eternal rest — and served as funeral offerings for their masters,” says Jorge Alvarado Granados, a breeder with more than 20 years of experience and scholar of what is also called the Aztec dog.

The term Xoloitzcuintle — which in English is known as “Mexican hairless dog” — originates from the Nahuatl “xólotl” which means strange, deformed, slave, buffoon; and from the word “itzcuintli,” meaning dog.

Other breeds such as the Peruvian dog and the Chinese Crested have been derived from this breed. Photo: Courtesy

The word Xolotl is also used for the god of the sunset. Venus, the star of dawn and sunset, is named Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli in Nahuatl, and was made up of Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, represented the morning star and Xolotl the evening star. They represented the same planet but two different aspects of it. 

While Quetzalcoatl announced the arrival of the sun, the most important star for the Mexica, Xolotl, announced its retreat and its entrance to the underworld. That means that Xolotl was in charge of accompanying the sun in its journey through the kingdom of death in the same way that the Xoloitzcuintle accompanied men through the Mictlan. 

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The legend details that the dogs carried the souls of the deceased on their backs, helping them cross the city of the dead. However, they could refuse if the traveler had treated dogs badly during their life.

Xolotl, god which the Xoloitzcuintle symbolizes, is also the deity of twins and everything related to the double. He was also the patron god of sorcerers. Photo: Courtesy

Apart from their significance in the Day of the Dead festivities, they were used to treat rheumatic ailments by letting them sleep on affected areas and were excellent company for asthmatic people.

According to studies by the Institute of Anthropological Research at UNAM, the origin of this breed can be traced back 7,000 years. 

Xoloitzcuintles were on the verge of extinction during European colonization. Conquistadores saw them as a food source for their expeditions and, as they sought to eliminate the religious traditions which surrounded the breed, they were heavily hunted. Thus, they were forced to take refuge in the mountains of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Xoloitzcuintles in today’s world

Like many symbols of Mexican and Central American idiosyncrasy, the Xoloitzcuintle represents a cultural legacy.

Frida, from Galería Álfaro antigüedades, is one of the most famous Xoloitzcuintles of Mérida. Photo: Verónica Garibay

After the Mexican Revolution, the image of the dog was adopted by artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and Raúl Anguiano as one of the nationalist symbols that tried to recover the Mexican identity Europeanized during the Porfiriato. After this period, the dog became an intrinsic image of folklore and history.

Today, the Xoloitzcuintle is an iconic dog deeply tied to Mexican traditions. They are often found roaming around the parks of Mexican cities, and in Mérida, one can find the famous Frida just outside an antique shop over Calle 60. 

She’s often found wearing her blue Hipil and staring at passing cars. Photo: Verónica Garibay

Their life expectancy ranges from 12 to 14 years. Their skin is delicate, and although it naturally secretes oils that protect it from the sun and mosquitoes, dermatological treatments are sometimes required.

But being a primitive breed, it is unlikely they will contract diseases or congenital problems, which is why they have also become a popular breed to have as a pet.

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