Written by Doris Donnerman (last updated August 17, 2009)
The Italian Greyhound is a rare and ancient breed of dog. Except in its native land, it has never been extremely popular in numbers. Yet the grace, beauty, and easy keeping qualities of this smallest member of the Greyhound family have ensured a steady supply of good breeding stock in many countries.
As to the origin of the breed, there is no question. It comes from Italy, where it is called the Piccoli Levrieri Italiani. And it is a miniature of the large Greyhound which has been man's sporting companion longer than any other breed.
When the breed was dwarfed to its present size is not known for certain. One British writer states that a mummy of a miniature Greyhound has been found in the tomb of one of the Pharaohs of Egypt. He does not, however, name either the Pharaoh or the location of the tomb. Yet thousands of mummies of dogs and cats have been found in Egypt, notably at Abydos.
Claims have been advanced that the Italian Greyhound is a prominent figure in canine art of the Roman period. But other writers have stated that these claims are not well supported. All agree, of course, that it would be strange if the Romans, with their love of breeding fancy animals for their ladies, had not bred miniatures of the Greyhound.
By Renaissance times, however, the Italian Greyhound was well established. He was the darling of the great court ladies, and he appears to have been bred with no other thought than to supply a lady's lap dog.
In 1790 it was written: "The small Italian Greyhound is not above half the size (of the Greyhound) but perfectly similar in form. In shape it is exquisitely beautiful and delicate. It is not common in this country (England), the climate being too rigorous for the extreme delicacy of its constitution."
Thirteen years later: "No plausible or satisfactory suggestions as to the origin of the breed" has been found, which breed "seems only calculated to soothe the vanity and indulge the frivolities of antiquated ladies."
The breed had indeed become the darling of royal ladies. Anne of Denmark, consort of James I of England, owned an Italian Greyhound. So did Mary Beatrice D'Easte, consort of James II. As an Italian, she brought her dog from Italy.
Strangely enough, the breed in England appears to have prospered in the north and in Scotland, despite the comparatively severe weather in those areas. Rigorous weather conditions in Canada have not injured the Italian Greyhound. It is as popular in that country as in the United States, if not more so.
The British crossed the Italian Greyhounds with certain small Terriers. The reason for this is not known, but the experiment was a failure. The dogs became very coarse, and it took many years to bring them back to the true type. However, the breed still maintains a Terrier's love of ratting.
Italian Greyhounds appear to have enjoyed a reasonable popularity in the United States between 1875 and 1900. By the time Watson wrote his famous The Dog Book he reported that there was only one breeder. The New York show had withdrawn classes for the breed, and Watson remarked that this did not happen until a breed was about extinct.
Yet the breed did not die out, whereas in England, World War I almost brought the extinction of the Italian Greyhound there. Strangely enough, when a British committee began to revive the breed it turned to the United States for help. The British are not accustomed to coming to America for bloodstock, and perhaps no other breed can boast of this.
Despite their apparent fragility, Italian Greyhounds are strong and active, and are no more susceptible to injury than are other toy breeds; in some cases they are less so. They almost never require baths. Their coat does not change so that shedding is imperceptible. They are probably more likely to chill in transit. They are as hardy as other dogs in their daily life about the house. Their bark is very deep for their size, but Italian Greyhounds are not "yappers," and are easily controlled in this, as in other respects.
The Italian Greyhound is very affectionate. He is most content when this affection is returned and is happiest with his owner and immediate family. He is intelligent, sensitive and alert. He is a playful breed, getting along well with children and other pets.
In general appearance the Italian Greyhound is slender in all proportions, and of ideal elegance and grace in shape, symmetry and action. Their tail is rather long, and fine with a low carriage. The coat is skin fine and supple being thin and glossy like satin. Average ideal height is 13-15 inches.
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