Xolo!

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PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY 

Since we adopted Leander in April, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with figuring out his breed. The description on Petfinder listed chihuahua and black lab which didn’t seem plausible without the assistance of a stepping stool during mating, and he didn’t look like any dog I’d ever seen.

I’m not entirely sure why his breed matters. We knew there was a good chance we’d wind up rescuing a mutt and, in my experience, mutts are typically a better bet both health-wise and personality-wise than purebred dogs. The only explanation for my breed obsession that makes sense is that I love him and am fascinated by him and want to know as much about him as possible.

It seemed unlikely that we would ever know with any certainty what he is. To the best of our knowledge, Leander was found by the side of the street in Mexico with his front leg hanging loose. The leg was amputated, he was shipped to Seattle by a rescue group, and his past seemed fairly inscrutable.

My mom was the first one to suggest that he looked like the Mexican hairless dogs—a comparison I didn’t really consider since Leander has hair and those dogs have always creeped me out a little and Leander is downright adorable. Then I started researching Mexican dog breeds and the Mexican hairless, formally called Xoloitzcuintli, was one of the few that I found. I learned, among other things, that not all Xoloitzcuintli are hairless; in fact, the same litter can have hairless puppies and puppies with a fine coat of hair. Once I started seriously looking at photos, it was all but impossible to dismiss the similarities.

Bat ears? Check. In fact, it was the first thing that drew Colin and I to Leander among the hundreds of other photos of adoptable dogs we’d seen.

Wrinkles between his ears? Check. It makes him look like an odd meld of a puppy and an old man.

Rat tail? I feel guilty putting it that way, but yes.

Xolos come in three sizes, and Leander is what would be considered miniature—too small to be a regular-sized xolo and too large to be a toy.

I’d never seen a dog with his shape before, muscular and sleek but with proportions that sometimes make it difficult to determine his actual size.

It’s the eyes, though, that convinced me. He’s got this calm, almost unnerving stare, and the same almond-shaped eyes I’d been reading about. There’s intelligence in those eyes, and sensitivity, all of which I saw long before I read that intelligence and sensitivity are considered characteristic traits of xolos.

Then I got to the section about temperament, and Leander’s anxiety with strangers suddenly made sense. “Wary of strangers” was a frequent phrase, with advice about early and constant socialization to ensure that wariness didn’t become something more antisocial and less manageable. The American Kennel Club put it more politely: “Loyal, alert, calm, trainable; like any good watchdog, they’re wary of strangers.” Other websites called xolos “velcro dogs” because they’re constantly attached to their people, which is so exactly accurate that my boyfriend laughed when I told him. Leander and my cat Jack have been in competition for my lap practically since the moment he entered the house. Leander’s absolute favorite thing in the world is sitting with us on the couch or cuddling in bed, curled against my legs beneath the covers.

He’s easily cold, which makes sense considering that he’s from Mexico and his coat is quite sparse, especially on his underside. He’s mostly silent and rarely barks, except when strangers are nearby. In fact, he can spend the entire day at work with me and no one realizes he’s even there as he sleeps quietly beneath my desk.

I have to confess a degree of wariness as I checked the “health” section, but was thrilled to find that because xolos evolved naturally without human interference, they’re not prone to significant health challenges and tend to live long lives.

As a breed, xolos date back more than 3,500 years and were companions to the Mayans, Zapotec, and Aztecs. In fact, the name Xoloitzcuintli stems from the Aztec god “Xlotl” and the Aztec word for dog, “itzcuintli.” They’ve been considered companions, healers, and guard dogs that ward off evil spirits. Columbus mentioned the strange hairless dogs in his journal, and they’re sufficiently popular in Mexico that they’re the national dog.

When I initially thought Leander was possibly part chihuahua, it seemed like the strangest joke in the world that I, who had never been particularly fond of chihuahuas as a breed, had accidentally adopted one. To have accidentally adopted a breed I knew nothing about, had only seen photos of and dismissed as rather hideous, and that happens to be exceedingly rare in the United States actually makes a lot of sense. As a kid, I adopted a dog that was half coyote (long story, amazing dog) because of his intelligence and the fact that we bonded instantly. With Leander, all it took was a photo, but I wasn’t wrong about Maverick, my half-coyote baby that I still miss and think about constantly, and I know I wasn’t wrong about Leander. If anything I’m delighted that we magically stumbled across this rare, near-mythical breed prized for its intelligence and loyalty.

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