While canine specialists and historians debate the origin of the Chihuahua, one thing is for certain: They are named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They were given the name in the 19th century, though it wasn't until the 20th century that the American Kennel Club formally recognized the breed. The Chihuahua himself may have originated overseas, but his name is purely Mexican.
The American Kennel Club considers Central America as the Chihuahua's official home, but the breed as we know it today may have been heavily influenced by dogs from across the ocean. While the ancient Aztecs and other Central American cultures kept dogs that were at least similar to Chihuahuas, the lineage may have been changed by the introduction of dogs from Spanish explorers. Whatever outside influences may have affected the breed's history, they existed in Central America in at least some form before European explorers landed.
According to Modern Dog, American tourists in Mexico during the 19th century became increasingly infatuated with Chihuahuas, which at this point in history, were relatively common. Tourists to the northern state of Chihuahua would bring these dogs back to the United States, and referred to them by their locale of origin. In 1904, the American Kennel Club formally recognized the breed when it officially registered its first Chihuahua, who was named Midget.
The graves of the wealthy from ancient Central American cultures reveal that Chihuahuas were sometimes buried alongside their owners. Before they were dubbed Chihuahuas by 19th and 20th century Americans, these dogs were companions in both life and death, sacrificed after their owners' passed so they could offer protection in the afterlife. The dogs may have been sacrificed and buried with their owners so they could travel together in the afterlife, or so the dog could carry the weight of his owner's sins after death.
Though Central American burial sites indicate that Chihuahuas were once owned primarily by the wealthy, by the time they were discovered in northern Mexico by the Americans who would give the breed its name, they had become common even among lower classes. They may have been common among peasants as early as the 16th century -- Modern Dog reports that the Conquistador Hernando Cortes noted markets selling small dogs en masse, though not necessarily as pets.
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