EARLY HISTORY OF ITALIAN GREYHOUNDS

No own knows the absolute beginnings of the Italian Greyhound breed.    But the IG can  be seen in illuminated manuscripts and in master painters such as Blake, Carpaccio, Van Dyck, Teniers and Ward.   According to current theory this breed is around 2000 years old.  Most authorities believe the breed was dwarfed  for pet purposes from a Gazehound of long ago.   Some authorities believe that the breed is of Turkish descent  but there is strong evidence that the Italian Greyhound was a favorite in the days of ancient Pompeii as there are numerous relics throughout Italy that point to the breed as the only known pet dog for many centuries. 

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The high-stepping,  dancing action of an Italian Greyhound has been a delight to commoners and royalty alike.  This breed has graced royal palaces of such noted historical figures as: Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, Queen Anne, Queen Victoria as well as Frederick the Great.  One of the most popular stories is the Matabele King, who was so pleased by the high-stepping action of this breed that he gave 200 head of cattle to Mr. Murcombe Searelle for one of these dogs. At that time, no other such price had ever been paid for a dog.

The Italian Greyhound probably reached its greatest popularity  during the Late-Victorian period.   The exact date that this breed made an appearance in England is unknown, but by the 1800s IG popularity could be gauged by the rising number of breeders and owners.  England and Scotland must be credited for having brought this little breed to a high state of perfection. 

One  frequently asked question is:  Were Italian Greyhounds bred for hunting or strictly as a pet?    While the origins of the breed are shrouded in mystery it is most likely that the early IG ancestors were most likely used for practical purposes - hunting small game or controlling rodents and other vermin.   However, there are many paintings from the sixteenth century that clearly showed that this breed was a popular pet in England.

In 1803 Taplin wrote an essay in which he exaggerated the extreme delicacy of the IG.  He derided the breed by stating that its very existence was :    "only calculated to soothe the vanity and indulge the frivolities of antiquated ladies".    In 1872 Reverend Pearce wrote, "This toy dog, the most elegant, but alas! The most delicate of the small breeds, has existed from time immemorial and has always been in fashion.  There is no doubt that it is simply a small specimen of the larger dog, refined and dwarfed by inbreeding and selection, and first introduced from Italy and the South of France, where they are more abundant, but not light, graceful or refined as those which are occasionally exhibited in England."    Another famous author of that time period, Stonehenge (credited as being one of the first authorities on dogs) wrote, "In England as in its native country, it (Italian Greyhound) is only used as a pet or toy dog, for though its speed is considerable for its size, it is incapable of holding even a rabbit."  Stonehenge also went on to claim that those who would say the breed did course were referencing a mix breed, a cross between the Italian Greyhound and the terrier.

While size was most prized when the dog weighed between six to eight pounds, it had to be tempered with perfect symmetry and color.  Beyond 12 lbs was considered definitely NOT an Italian Greyhound.

 

Pictured above is Gowan’s Billy, a little black dog who won the silver collar in 1856. He was considered by the breed experts to be perfect in all his points. The engraving gives his proportions most exactly, but represents him altogether to large according to Stonehenge. He was 14 inches high and 8 lbs in weight.

In 1871 one of the most important dogs of the time, Mr. MacDonald’s Molly, was an unbeatable entry.... winning at the London Show.   She was dove-colored and won so many honors and prizes that it is said she went to her grave literally burdened down by her many prizes

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Published in 1835 titled "In Playful Humor"

In 1885 Gordon Stables, in his book "Our Friend the Dog", writes that the Italian Greyhound is, "A fairy edition to his big brother the coursing Greyhound."

In the years that followed the breed scarcely held its own.  Very small dogs judged sufficiently fine in all points.. enough to win were, "almost as scarce as blue moons". 

In 1891 James Watson wrote an article on the Italian Greyhound.  He wrote the following:  "Italian Greyhounds are a special Fancy.  The dogs exhibited at our shows (Edinburgh Scotland) during the last year or two as Italian Greyhounds are simply monstrosities.  The Italian Greyhound should not exceed seven pounds in weight and should be as much under that as possible; whereas the dogs which now win prizes are ten or twelve pounds weight and but little better than racing dogs."

In 1895 Sir Walter Shelley and Miss Mackenzie did much to save this breed by offering special prizes and classes at local shows.

But by the last years of the 1800s,  a crisis was occurring.   Breeders, in their quest for the smallest specimens... were found introducing Toy Terrier blood which nearly succeeded in destroying the character of the breed.  Apple headed, prick ear dogs were winning!   Fortunately, the Italian Greyhound Club was founded in 1900 and proceeded to take drastic steps to revive the breed.

 

In 1914 WWI began.   Dog breeding and showing came to a dead standstill until the war‘s end in 1918.  The First World War nearly wiped out the breed in England.   The Italian Greyhound Club which in the the early 1900s had been  flourishing... was resuscitated after the war.    Ms. Clara C. Porter (of England) did much to revive the breed back into existence.   Her kennel, Isola, was noted for outstanding dogs.  Mrs. Porter imported two bitches from the USA  Aira Vana kennels - Isola Daphne and Isola Princess.    These two bitches were much credited to refining the heads of the remaining dogs in England.  

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Bottom photo of Ch. Carita, 12/1927

In 1934 one bitch, Ch Scylla, when exhibited in her breed classes always won.  One hundred pounds was offered for her at the Kennel Club Show in 1932 but was refused.    She was considered perfect in every point with a normal weight of 5 lbs.

In addition to the Isola kennels, other quality dogs were assured through such kennels as Pinea, Oldetimes and Spieland.   By the start of the second world war in 1939, the breed was well known for quality.

But history repeated itself during the Second World War and once again the breed was nearly wiped out.   The Italians suffered greatly and breeding stock was extremely rare.   However, much thanks and praise need to be given to those few enthusiasts who managed to overcome the difficulties caused by the ravages of war. 

Breeding kennels such as Mrs. Garrish of Fleeting fame  exported several of her dogs to the United States.    Many  an IG enthusiast will recognize the name Ch. Fleeting Feather In My Cap.  

And of course another equally well known name in England was Mr Morgan and his Nagrom kennels.  He was known to house no less than seventy dogs, every one which received daily personal attention.  Many carried Championship Certificates including International Champions.

In America the breed was first registered with the AKC in 1886 with a bitch named Lilly.   Aira Vana was  the oldest known American kennel, established in 1892.   Early Famous kennels of the past, such as D’Arco, Hilador, Kashan, Lyonhil , Joh-Cyn, and many more equally important but not mentioned here should be given much credit for the dogs we have today.

While there were kennels, breeders and dogs, the Italian Greyhound  Club of America wasn’t established until 1951 and not until 1954 was the first specialty held in Rye, NY.

The next great breeders who stepped forward to carry on the torch were such kennels as: Wavecrest, Giovanni, and Dasa, to name a few.   Great strides and much of the dogs we see today can be credited to the dedicated breeders from our past.    Their contributions, diligence to type, soundness and character have given us the Italian Greyhound we cherish today.

REFERENCES:

Edward Ash "The Practical Dog Book"
"The Complete Book of the Toy Dog" - Wimhurst
"Our Friend the Dog" - Gordon Stables
"The Dog" - Stonehenge
"Italian Greyhounds" - Hutchinson's Magazine 1934
"Italian Greyhounds" - James Watson Article 1891.