Alaska has the Alaskan Malamute, Massachusetts the Boston terrier, North Carolina the Plott Hound, but Arizona has nothing to call its “official” state dog.
Unofficially, however, the state dog of Arizona is 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, says 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 is the Judges Education Chair for the Chihuahua Club of America. As a historian of the Chihuahua breed, Miller says throughout his research and studies, most archeological evidence does support that Chihuahuas are a native of Mexico.
Today, the Chihuahua has become emblematic of Arizona as much 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 its annual Chihuahua races, which takes place the Saturday before Cinco De Mayo.
Negatively stereotyped today as noisy obnoxious dogs, the Techichi, which Chihuahuas are descendants of, were highly regarded in the eyes of the Toltecs and Aztecs, whom they were first associated with, says Miller.
“The Chihuahuas were kept in large packs, typically owned by the royalty,” says Miller.
These packs could reach over 100, as the amount of Chihuahuas one owned became a symbol of wealth.
In fact, 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.
With the Aztecs believing the journey to heaven required one to swim across a river, they sacrificed the blue-colored Chihuahua, containing a more gun-medal gray color.
“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,” says Miller.
In addition, the Aztecs thought the Chihuahua would absorb the sins of the deceased person. There is archeological evidence of Chihuahuas being buried next to Aztecs.
Other colored Chihuahuas, such as those having a “gold” color, also provided importance for the Toltecs and Aztecs. For example, this colored dog symbolized luck.
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 entire different level.
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 (predecessor of modern day Chihuahua), there are still some unknowns and theories regarding the makeup of the dog and its exact origin.
Some debate that the Chinese brought the Chihuahuas with them to the Southwest and Mexican region on their journey through the Bering Strait.
Throughout its evolution, the coat of the Chihuahua has also been an issue of debate, as Miller says some argue that the short hair and long hair Chihuahua is not the exact same dog. Miller dismisses this accusation, saying this long cut gene is recessive. Miller says 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.
From writers who have identified them as wild creatures who climb up trees, any small dog for a long time was considered a Chihuahua. This was best seen in the United States during the late 1800s.
Miller acknowledges that much of his knowledge and studies of the Chihuahua comes from the writings and excerpts of James Watson, an early pioneer and collector of the breed. Reciting a passage in, “The Complete Chihuahua,” Miller says 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 was given earlier advice that the desert town was where he could find many Chihuahuas. In Tucson, Watson says he only found a single black and tan colored Chihuahua that was acceptable to him. The others 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 animal shelter at the Pima Animal Care Center, where she witnessed first-hand the desperation the Chihuahuas were facing because of their large presence in the state.
With many of these Chihuahuas having no choice but to be euthanized at the time, something, which Brick emphasizes, is not the case anymore, Brick was approached with an idea to start a Chihuahua rescue. Today, Save A Chihuahua Rescue of Tucson has been in existence for eight years.
Brick says she never considered herself fond of the breed, before 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,” says Brick.
“Their 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,” adds Brick.
Brick describes these dogs as protective, brave, and fearless. Sometimes, they can be too fearless, leading to dangerous situations.
“In this area, you have to be careful with mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes… If there’s something that’s invading their territory that’s bigger than them, they don’t care, they’ll go after it,” says Brick.
Michelle Perez, whose Tucson family have long been Chihuahua fans, says the dogs mirror the family’s dynamic.
“Mexican families are really protective of each other and when you own a Chihuahua their super protective. We (Mexican people) also tend to be very loud and my Chihuahua would always bark at every little thing,” says Perez.
Zach Pleeter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.