Also known as the Mexican hairless dog, the striking Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo (show-low), was revered by the Aztecs and other ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica as a healing soul companion that guided individuals through death and into the underworld. The breed’s name originates from the dog-headed god of sunsets, Xolotl, and the Aztec word for dog, itzcuintli.
In Aztec mythology, at the end of the sun’s journey across the sky, when it descends below the horizon into the depths of the perilous unknown, Xolotl is solely responsible for guarding the sun and ensuring it returns safely for a new day. This canine deity has the power to escort the sun — and our souls — through the night, from death to rebirth, from dusk to dawn. The Aztecs believed that our time is the ﬁfth era of a creation and destruction cycle; all life on our planet has been obliterated four times — four suns — before our present age. At the end of the Fourth Sun, the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, and his dog-headed twin, Xolotl, ventured into the graveyard of the underworld to retrieve the bones of life, and it is from these bones that humanity was restored and an earthly dog companion, the Xolo, was created. One of the oldest dog breeds in the world and potentially the ﬁrst known in the Americas, the Xolo crossed the Bering Strait into the new world about 11,000 years ago. The oldest statues of Xolos date back to 3,700 years ago, with ceramic eﬃgies found in a staggering number of burials throughout Mexico, possibly as a symbolic representation of their guardianship through the afterlife. Generally, we see these depictions of Xolos in ancient Mesoamerican art, with their well-deﬁned, spade-shaped, erect ears and wrinkles in the skin to indicate a lack of fur.
As the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan — present-day Mexico City — ﬂourished through trade, couriers walked long distances to the coasts of Central America and back, accompanied by the larger, standard-sized Xolos, which acted as vigilant companions and cuddled up with their owners at night to provide warmth for an aching body. The miniature and toy-sized Xolos generally stayed behind in the villages, protecting homes from evil spirits, watching for anything out of the ordinary, and keeping their humans cozy in their beds. Xolos typically bond strongly to one person, needing a great deal of interaction from them, but they treat the whole family, including other pets, to warmth.
The bodies of the hairless Xolos radiate heat more intensely than those of coated dogs, at around 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping these divine canines close is an eﬀective remedy for pain as their heat boosts circulation, increases oxygen-rich blood flow, repairs damaged muscle s, relieves inflammation, and alleviates stiﬀness. Xolos have been known to draw out other types of sickness and chronic pain, from arthritis to ﬁbromyalgia and rheumatism. Accounts also tell of Xolos curing insomnia — and even toothaches if you used one as a pillow.
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Their hairlessness is the result of a dominant genetic mutation, one that may have been adaptive at some point, perhaps as respite from prolonged exposure to intense heat or as protection from skin pests that burrow away in fur. The thing about stunted hair growth, genetically speaking, is that the teeth go with it; dogs with canine ectodermal dysplasia, as it is known, have missing or abnormally shaped teeth in addition to near or complete hairlessness. This makes identifying remains of this breed relatively easy at archeological sites, as the skulls typically lack premolars and sometimes incisors and canines. That said, some litters of Xolos contain a mix of coated and hairless or semi-hairless puppies, who have tufts of hair on their heads, feet, and tail. In addition to being covered by a short, ﬂat layer of fur, the coated varieties have all of their teeth.
The thick skin of hairless Xolos should be cared for like a hide, bathing with a moisture-rich shampoo, such as argan oil. Afterwards, a coating of coconut oil will help keep their skin hydrated, focusing particularly on the back, head, and ears, areas which receive direct sunlight. Sunscreen, as you can imagine, is recommended for harsh sunlight. Adolescent acne can happen, especially with a suboptimal diet, and some owners believe that diet is more important for skin health than a high-maintenance skin routine.
Another fascinating anatomical feature of the Xolo is its dexterous paws, with finger-like toes that are excellent at grasping and pulling. They can open doorknobs and cupboards, figure out how to reach under doors to pull them open, and wrap their paws around you for a true embrace. Genetic and archeological evidence reveals that Xolos evolved naturally, rather than being shaped by human inﬂuence, so the breed has a high level of genetic diversity, and as such Xolos generally do not suﬀer from congenital diseases. They retain genetic traces of ancient indigenous dogs and are still somewhat primitive in their behavior. Therefore, the Xolo is adaptable, athletic, extremely intelligent, and often reacts instinctively, with swift reﬂexes. Socialization is key, and structure and consistency help them feel secure. An animated and elegant breed, Xolos move lightly and bound gracefully, jumping with the agility of a gazelle.
It’s easy to understand why the Aztecs were so enamored with this otherworldly creature. In their culture, sacrifice was one of the most respectable ways to die, and beloved Xolos were sacriﬁced to be buried with their humans, and even consumed for ceremonial purposes as these domestic animals could provide a reliable source of protein for a large gathering of people. Not for daily subsistence though; their meat was said to be medicinal, enabling prophecy. When Spanish conquistadors claimed Mexico for the crown, however, they demanded the renunciation of ancient rituals, exterminating and consuming dogs en masse. By the end of the 16th century, Xolos were rare, surviving mostly in remote mountain villages of Mexico.
Fortunately for us, Xolos subsisted, and today we can enjoy their fables as we rest our heads against their warm, hairless bodies.
If ancient legends are right, we are lucky to have a beloved soul companion that will stay at our side and accompany us into the unknown. This mystery lies just under the horizon, and through its shadows, the loyal Xolo will bring us into the light.
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