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Xoloitzcuintli: The Mexican Hairless Dog, Ancient Guide to the Underworld

Xoloitzcuintli
The xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican hairless dog, also called the xolo, is well-known among owners for being loyal and protective. In ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, they were thought to be ushers into the underworld. www.anitapeeples.com/Getty Images

Also called the Mexican hairless dog, the xoloitzcuintli (pronounced "show-low-itz-QUEENT-ly," and called "xolo" for short) carries a storied history that goes back 3,500 years to the pre-Columbian era — before Italian explorer Christopher Columbus colonized the Americas in the early 1490s and indigenous cultures were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans. One of the most ancient of dog breeds, according to the Xoloitzcuintli Club of America, Aztec and Mayan civilizations looked to this hairless, ugly yet cute dog not only as a healer (their fur-free bodies are excellent heat conductors, making them a kind of ancient hot-water bottle for the ill and the elderly), but also an occasional food source (along with turkeys, xolos were one of the only domesticated animals eaten by ancient Mesoamericans).

The xolo (pronounced "sho-lo") even was considered as a symbolic guide to the underworld — hence its name, which is derived from two words in the Aztec language: Xolotl, the god of lightning and death, and itzcuintli, or dog. According to Aztec belief, the Dog of Xolotl was created by the gods to guard the living and guide the souls of the dead through the dangers of Mictlán (the underworld).

"Xolos are still, to this day, a national treasure in Mexico, with a long and respected history in the country," says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover.com, in an email interview. "Despite the xolo's long history, however, they are still quite a rare breed in the U.S. That doesn't mean you won't see someone with one though, as they have slowly been gaining popularity in the past few years."

Today, the xolo can be found in different sizes, ranging from toy to standard, averaging from 10 to 23 inches (25 to 58 centimeters) tall, and is either hairless or coated, according to Ellis. "The breed is generally a dark color, either black, gray or bronze, and occasionally bronze or red," she adds. "Their faces are described as being 'thoughtful,' and their overall looks is that of an elegant, but rugged creature." Read on to find out what some experts have to say about one of the most unusual dogs in the world.

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They Are Faithful Companions

"They have an amazing temperament, but are known for being loyal and protective, which can translate into some barking," says Lazhar Ichir, founder of Breeding Business, a popular platform educating dog breeders and breed fanciers worldwide, via email. Adds Ellis: "It's important with this breed to do lots of socialization as a young dog to set them up for success as an adult. They are known to be intelligent, and if properly trained, a xolo will grow into a well-mannered watchdog that is great in the house."

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They're Not Recommended for Newbies

"In general, xoloitzcuintli do not make the best pets for families who are first-time dog owners," says Steffi Trott, owner and head trainer at SpiritDog Training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in an email interview. "Due to their watchdog origin, they are wary of strangers and can become reactive and aggressive without the right training." She adds that they also can be timid about new situations and slow to make friends. "They are usually highly attached to their owner and require a lot of interaction and stimulation," she says. "Within their family, xoloitzcuintli are very loving and affectionate dogs."

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They Are Highly Intelligent

That means they learn very quickly, but they should be trained with positive methods due to their sensitive personality. "Because they have a high prey drive, they can be difficult to train in the presence of wildlife," says Trott. "It can, for example, be difficult to train your xoloitzcuintli to not chase rabbits. They enjoy learning tricks, and playing fetch and Frisbee."

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They Have a High Need for Exercise

Because they are rather high-strung, they don't do well with limited activity, according to Trott. "Even though they might look fragile with their hairless skin, they enjoy rigorous exercise and actually excel at dog sports, such as agility. They are not suitable for sedentary owners who do not enjoy being outside and active with their dogs."

While they do need lots of exercise it's a good idea to measure activity levels at each unique, individual level, says Russell Hartstein, CEO of Fun Paw Care, via email. "I have known several Golden Retrievers who didn't want to retrieve or go for walks and lots of English bulldogs who retrieved and wanted to exercise often. It depends on the individual."

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They Aren't Exactly Maintenance-free

In addition to a regular exercise regimen — which includes long walks and plenty of play time — Ichir recommends bathing them every few weeks, using grooming wipes in-between to clean specific spots such as the paws and stomach. Ellis, meanwhile, says some people actually apply coconut butter on them to prevent dry skin, and some of the paler or reddish xolos need to have sunscreen applied to them before going out in the sun for an extended period of time.

"They are generally very healthy dogs (usually living between 12 and 15 years), but they get cold easily and must not be left our during rain or cool temperatures," says Trott. "In winter, they need to wear a sweater (or two)."

As you would expect, the hairless Mexican dog does not shed, according to Ichir. "This makes this breed an ideal hypoallergenic dog," he says, "just like the Chinese crested dog, which is also mostly hairless." Adds Ichir: "People suffering from pet allergies tend to have virtually no issues with a xolo."

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They Don't Come Cheap

"In Mexico, a xolo can be bought for $750, but in the U.S., you would have to pay $1,500 to $3,000 on average," says Ichir. "However, at this price, the puppy should come with paperwork and American Kennel Club (AKC) registration." But where can you even find one? "Breeders across the U.S. (you can see a list on the AKC's website), a xoloitzcuintli-specific rescue or in Mexico (where they are more popular) from a breeder," says Ellis. Adds Ichir: "There are breeders of xoloitzcuintli dogs in some U.S. states, but you may prefer an original Mexican breeder for increased authenticity."

The best place to find a well-bred xoloitzcuintli? "Through a breeder registry, such as the AKC," says Trott. "Because they are a rare breed, be prepared to have to travel by plane to pick up a puppy."

"Like all breeds, finding a rescue is possible, but not very common with xolos," says Ellis. "Like all breeds, there are breed-specific rescues for xolos and you can look on Pet Finder for them, too. You can always reach out to breeders to see if they have any that need re-homing." Ichir adds that while you may be able to find some xolo in rescues throughout the country, a better source is the nonprofit Xoloitzcuintli Primitive Breed Rescue.

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