The Italian Greyhound is a toy-sized sighthound known to have been very popular in Italy during the time of the Renaissance (14th -17th century). This breed has been a favorite of the European upper classes and nobility for centuries due to its beauty, grace, and gentle nature. Although often mistakenly referred to as a miniature Greyhound, this breed likely does not descend from that breed, but rather a different, long-extinct sighthound breed. The Italian Greyhound is also known as the Piccolo Levriero Italiano, Levrette, I.G., and Iggy.
While it is true that much is said of the history of the Italian Greyhound, the truth is little of it can be backed up with fact. What is known is that the Italian Greyhound is likely one of the oldest breeds of dogs in the world, and almost certainly dates back to the Roman Empire. The exact location of their origin; howver, is disputed; some experts claim Italy, others Greece and Turkey, while still others Egypt or Persia. The breed is known as the Italian Greyhound because it was extraordinarily popular among the Italian upper classes during the Renaissance, and because the first members of this breed would enter England from Italy.
The Italian Greyhound was certainly bred down in size from a larger sighthound. Sighthounds are a group of dog breeds which were bred primarily for hunting by use of eyesight. Modern sighthounds have incredible eyesight and can see movement clearly at 1/2 a mile's distance, and have night vision that far exceeds that of a human. These dogs are capable of running at great speeds to capture fast moving prey such as gazelles, rabbits, and hares. Sighthounds are also believed to be the first type of dog to be known from the historical record. There is much dispute over how and when dogs were first domesticated. Genetic studies have indicated that domestication may have begun almost 100,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence can only confirm until 9,000 years ago with strong evidence of up to 30,000 years ago. There are also many theories as to where domestication took place or if it took place in many places. The most prevailing current theories believe that the dog was first domesticated in the Middle East and India from the smaller, less aggressive wolves of those regions. Regardless of the dog’s original origins, they are widely believed to have been the first domestic species, and were certainly present at the dawn of agriculture in the Middle East.
Agriculture allowed for large sedentary populations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These regions developed a complex hierarchical social structure ruled by the nobility. The nobility was wealthy enough that they could afford leisure time. The primary pastime of the upper classes was hunting. As much of Mesopotamia and Egypt were flat plains and desert, hunting dogs needed to be able to see far in the distance and to run fast enough to chase down the speedy prey of the region. They developed the first dog breeds in order to do so. Archaeological finds from both Egypt and Mesopotamia include depictions of dogs that were definitely sighthounds, and closely resemble the modern day Saluki. The oldest of the depictions are between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. Trade and conquest brought sighthounds across the ancient world, from Greece to China.
For many years it was believed that the Saluki was the original sighthound breed, and all other sighthounds descend from it. However, recent research has suggested that sighthounds may have been developed independently in many different regions. Research conducted by the Soviet Union concluded that the Afghan Hound and closely related Taigan were most likely the original sighthounds. Controversial genetic studies did conclude that the Saluki and Afghan Hound are among the most ancient of all dog breeds. However, other genetic studies have concluded that the Greyhound and Whippet may be more closely related to Collies than Salukis and may be a relatively modern recreation of an ancient breed. This could be the result of crosses throughout history rather than direct ancestry.
However, they first acquired them, the Greeks and Romans both possessed sighthounds. We know this because both cultures depicted them on their artwork. These dogs were widely spread throughout Roman Italy and Greece, which at that point consisted not only of modern day Greece but also most of what is now Turkey. Some have claimed that the Molossus, the much feared and respected war dog of the Roman Army, was a sighthound, although this is doubtful. Between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, a substantially smaller sighthound begins to be pictured in Greek and Roman artwork. These ancient dogs are remarkably similar to the modern Italian Greyhound.
These dogs were probably bred down in size from larger sighthounds over a number of years, although breeders may have crossed larger sighthounds with much smaller breeds as well. Current opinion favors a Greek origin, particularly in that part of Greece which is now Turkey, as the oldest depictions seem to come from there. However, the ruins of Pompeii have provided evidence that these miniature sighthounds were already well-established there by A.D. 79, including the remains of a tiny sighthound. Additionally, reports from the Emperor Nero’s court from around this time also describe dogs which may have been miniature sighthounds. At this point, Greece and Turkey were both controlled by Rome, and there had been a long trading relationship between the two areas before actual conquest took place. It is very possible that miniature sighthounds were developed in either or both regions and spread to the other.
There is substantial debate as to what the original reason for creating a small sighthound was. Some believe they were used for hunting rabbits and hares. Others claim that their original purpose was vermin eradication, such as ratting. Many claim that their original purpose was solely for companionship. The truth will probably never be known for sure. Whatever they were created for, miniature sighthounds became popular companions throughout the Italian Peninsula, and possibly throughout the Mediterranean. While it is impossible to know for sure if these Roman era dogs are the direct ancestors of the modern Italian Greyhound, it is extremely likely. Depictions of ancient dogs are remarkably similar to those found from the Middle Ages and modern times from the same regions of Italy.
The miniature sighthounds of the Romans apparently survived the Barbarian Invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is a testament to the breed’s popularity that fanciers continued to keep these dogs through centuries of conflict and turmoil. It is highly likely that the German and Hunnish tribes who raided and conquered in Italy found these dogs just as delightful as the Romans had. As the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the wealth and population of Italy boomed, and with it a cultural revolution began in the cities of Northern Italy such as Florence, Milan, Genoa, and Venice. Accompanying the cultural revolution was an explosion of fine art, and a number of the world’s most famous artists are known to have worked during this period. Many artists worked on commission for the Italian nobility and upper classes, as it was considered fashionable for one to have a portrait created. Many rich patrons wished to be depicted with their beloved pets. It is clear that the Italian Greyhound was a favorite breed, as these dogs were portrayed in a number of paintings. The dogs depicted from Renaissance Italy are almost identical to the modern day breed, if somewhat less refined and more variable.
The European nobility has long been connected through a complex set of political, personal, and familial relationships. From the Renaissance onwards, the Italian Greyhound spread throughout Europe. This breed became particularly popular in Southern France which is very similar to Italy in many respects. The first Italian Greyhounds to reach England in the 16th or 17th Centuries from Italy and Southern France. In England, they became very popular among the upper classes. The only sighthound common in England at the time was the native Greyhound, so English fanciers named the breed the Italian Greyhound. This has resulted in the common mistaken belief that this breed is a miniature form of the Greyhound, to which the Italian Greyhound is not closely related or descended. In most of Europe, the breed is known as a miniature or Italian Levrier or Levriero which is a generic term for sighthound or gazehound.
Although perhaps most popular in England, France, and Italy, the breed was owned by some of the most famous historical figures from many countries. James I and Queen Victoria of England both owned Italian Greyhounds, as did Catharine the Great of Russia and Anne of Denmark. Frederick the Great of Prussia was so devoted to his Italian Greyhound that his dying wish was to be buried alongside it. On the 205th anniversary of Frederick’s death in 1991, his family had his corpse moved so that he could be next to his beloved dog’s grave. During the age of exploration, the Italian Greyhound was spread throughout the world.
A famous story describes how a King of the Matabele tribe of Southern Africa became enamored with an Italian Greyhound owned by Mr. Murcombe Searelle, that he paid 200 head of cattle for it, an unimaginable sum at the time. Although some Italian Greyhounds were apparently used to hunt very small game in the company of falcons, the Italian Greyhound was almost exclusively a companion animal by this time. In 1803, Taplan described the breed as a useless fancy of the aristocracy, and claimed that any Italian Greyhounds used for coursing or ratting were actually terrier/Italian Greyhound crosses.
Although dogs have been deliberately bred for many thousands of years, ancient breeders kept no records of the process. In many cases the selective breeding of dogs predates writing. In others, certain breeds were created and kept by the common man who may have very well been illiterate or chose instead to pass down his secrets from one generation to the next as oral tradition. Whatever the reason records were rarely if ever kept prior to the late 1700’s when English breeders began to keep studbooks for foxhounds. By the middle of the 19th Century, dog shows had become incredibly popular throughout Europe, and especially the United Kingdom. Organized breeding programs were set up for many different breeds. This trend heavily impacted the Italian Greyhound, and the breed began to be more refined and standardized. The Italian Greyhound was one of the most popular breeds in early dog shows due to its beauty and elegance. Some of the most important show dogs in history were Italian Greyhounds, including Gowan’s Billy and McDonald’s Molly.
British breeders are responsible for the modern look of the Italian Greyhound, which they based on the larger Greyhound with which they were more familiar. The Italian Greyhound probably reached its peak of popularity in England towards the end of the Victorian Era. These beautiful and elegant dogs were not only favored by the upper class but by the emerging middle class as well, possibly in an attempt to emulate the nobility. However, breeders began to experiment with the breed in order to win championships and a number of Italian Greyhounds were bred that were not of the original variety. Many were too large. In 1891, James Watson described show winning Italian Greyhounds as, “simply monstrosities,” and, “little better than racing dogs.” Around this time breeders tried to shrink the Italian Greyhound, but in order to do so they added a substantial amount of English Toy Terrier blood. This created dogs which were not of the correct proportions and often had prick ears. In 1900, the Italian Greyhound Club was founded, and began to repair the damage that had been done to the Italian Greyhound as a result of poor breeding practices and return them to their original form.
It is unclear when the Italian Greyhound first reached America. However, these dogs first became established in the United States in the second half of the 19th Century. The primary stock was from Britain. The American Kennel Club (AKC) first registered the Italian Greyhound in 1886. The first registered dog was a female named Lilly. The first known Italian Greyhound kennel in America was founded in 1892, and was known as Aira Vana. Other early American kennels included D’Arco, Hilador, Kashan, Lyonhil, and Joh-Cyn. Although the breed was well-established in America by the turn of the century, it never experienced anywhere near the popularity it had in Europe. However, these American dogs apparently remained truer to the original form of the Italian Greyhound than British dogs, and never suffered from either size increases or the introduction of English Toy Terrier blood.
The World Wars were devastating to the Italian Greyhound population of Europe, especially that of Britain. The Italian Greyhound almost disappeared completely from England during both wars. However, American dogs were used to resuscitate the breed both times, and also helped to restore the breed to its original form. Italian Greyhound populations gradually rose, but have never reached those found in the late 1800’s. The Italian Greyhound continued to rise in popularity in the United States as well. In 1948, the United Kennel Club (UKC) first registered the breed, and in 1951 the Italian Greyhound Club of America was founded to protect and promote breed interests. In 1954 the first Italian Greyhound breed specialty show in America was held in Rye, New York.
As the Italian Greyhound is many centuries old, it should come as no surprise that the breed has been influential in the development of many other dog breeds. Throughout history, many breeders have added Italian Greyhound blood to either reduce the size of their dogs or to increase their speed. Italian Greyhound blood likely flows in the veins of a number of toy and small hunting breeds. In the early 1800’s small Greyhounds were mixed with Italian Greyhounds to create the Whippet. Later in that century, this breed was highly influential in the development of a number of terrier breeds. It has also been suggested that the Italian Greyhound was used to create several varieties of Feist (small American squirrel hunting dogs related to curs), but it is unclear how likely this is. The Italian Greyhound is becoming popular as a breed to mix with other breeds to create designer dogs. Although many of these mixes will not develop into unique breeds, it is possible that some will eventually breed true and become breeds in their own right.
The Italian Greyhound is eligible to compete in certain lure coursing events, and is a more than capable racing dog. This breed has also experienced some success in agility competitions. However, the vast majority of Italian Greyhounds in America and throughout the world are companion dogs, a task which this breed both excels at and enjoys. This breed has never been exceptionally popular in America, and remains comparatively rare for a breed of its size. This is much preferred by the many Italian Greyhound fanciers who do not wish to see their breed damaged as a result of poor breeding practices designed to supply mass demand. However, in recent years a slowly growing number of fanciers are discovering this diminutive and delicate breed. In 2010, the Italian Greyhound ranked 67th out of 167 breeds in terms of AKC registrations.
The Italian Greyhound is best described as elegant and refined. It is easy to see why this breed has long been a favorite of the nobility. The Italian Greyhound is a very small breed, particularly in terms of weight. This breed is typically between 13 and 15 inches tall at the shoulder. Although breed standards to not specify an ideal weight, most Italian Greyhounds weight between 6 and 18 pounds. Most fanciers consider the lighter dogs to be ideal. Although male Italian Greyhounds are typically slightly taller and heavier, this breed exhibits less difference between the sexes than is common for most breeds.
The Italian Greyhound is perhaps the most slender and thin of all dog breeds. Most breed members have clearly visible ribs and extremely thin legs. Those who are unfamiliar with the breed often think that they have been starved. Despite its slender nature, the Italian Greyhound is substantially more muscular than many toy breeds. In every way this breed resembles a small sighthound, right down to athletic ability. Other features which the Italian Greyhound shares with larger sighthounds include a long neck, a noticeably arched back, and a very long, very narrow tail.
The head and face of an Italian Greyhound are almost identical to those of a larger breed such as Whippet. This breed has a very long and narrow head, which often seems somewhat small for body size. This head looks aerodynamic, and it in fact is. The muzzle of an Italian Greyhound is also long and narrow. As a sighthound, the Italian Greyhound has large eyes which have an unobstructed view of its surroundings. Italian Greyhounds should have dark eyes with a fully pigmented rim. However, dogs of certain color varieties may not have only a partially pigmented rim.
The nose of the Italian Greyhound should be dark. Black is preferred in the show ring, but brown or blue is also acceptable if it matches the dog’s coat. This breed has small, delicate ears, which are usually held back against the head like a Greyhound’s. When this breed is alert, the ears are held forward at a right angle to the head. At one point Toy Terrier blood resulted in Italian Greyhound’s with upright ears. This is now considered a serious fault.
The Italian Greyhound has a very short, smooth coat. The fur of the Italian Greyhound is one of the shortest of any dog breed excluding the hairless breeds. This coat is primarily uniform in length and texture over the entire body. This coat is much more pleasant to the touch than those of most breeds and is often described as fine or soft. The proper coat coloration and pattern of the Italian Greyhound is the cause of some dispute between major kennel clubs. Most major kennel clubs allow white only on the chest and feet, while the AKC, UKC, Kennel Club, and Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) do not share this restriction. American Italian Greyhounds may come in any color or pattern except for two. Brindle dogs and dogs with the black and tan markings of breeds such as the Doberman, Rottweiler, and Manchester Terrier are not allowed to be shown. This is a result of breeders trying to eliminate the influence of the Toy Terrier and other terriers from the breed.
The Italian Greyhound is generally more similar in temperament to a working sighthound breed than it is to most other toy breeds. This breed is very sweet and gentle, making it an excellent companion animal. Italian Greyhounds often become extremely devoted to their owners, and love nothing more than snuggling on a sofa. This breed usually gets along well with children, and is considerably less snappy than many toy breeds. However, most dog experts strongly advise against keeping Italian Greyhounds in households with children under the age of 12. This has little to do with the breed’s temperament but with its fragility. This is an extremely delicate breed, and young children are very likely to seriously injure them entirely accidentally.
Also, sudden noises and jerky movements which almost all children make can be very nerve racking and stressful for an Italian Greyhound. However, this breed is known for being one of the most ideal companions for senior citizens due to its gentle nature. It likely goes without saying that the Italian Greyhound does not enjoy any rough play. Socialization is very important for the Italian Greyhound. Properly socialized Italian Greyhounds are generally very polite and calm with anyone they meet, if perhaps somewhat reserved. Italian Greyhounds which have not been properly socialized tend to be very nervous and skittish, often fleeing when confronted with a new person. This breed makes a good watchdog and will typically sound an alert bark. However, these dogs would make extremely poor guard dogs due to their small size and gentle nature.
Italian Greyhounds are extremely sensitive dogs. They have a seemingly innate ability to detect stress in a home. Italian Greyhounds which live in a home with frequent arguments and fights often become so upset that they become physically ill. If you live in a rowdy or rambunctious home, you may wish to consider a different breed. Italian Greyhounds also love to be with their humans and suffer from severe separation anxiety. If you have to be gone for long periods of time, this may not be the ideal breed for you.
Like most other sighthounds, the Italian Greyhound generally gets along well with other dogs, but don’t crave their company as most scenthounds do. As they are with strangers, how accepting an Italian Greyhound is of other dogs will depend on how well-socialized they are. Well-socialized Italian Greyhounds are generally polite and reserved, while poorly socialized ones will often be nervous and timid. Italian Greyhounds are rarely especially possessive, dominant, or territorial. Italian Greyhounds do not like rough play with other dogs, and would prefer to live with dogs which feel the same. It is not advisable to have Italian Greyhounds with larger dogs as they are easily accidentally injured.
If it were not for their size, and Italian Greyhound would likely make an excellent hunting dog, and this breed has a high prey drive. It is inadvisable to keep Italian Greyhounds with very small pets such as hamsters, as they are likely to pursue and attack them. This breed will also chase squirrels and dispatch lizards, insects, and frogs. Most Italian Greyhounds will get along with cats if properly socialized, as many cats are the same size or larger than Italian Greyhounds. Some of these dogs may be cat chasers, however.
Italian Greyhounds are a relatively trainable breed and have experienced success in obedience and agility trials. These are intelligent and responsive dogs. However, this breed does pose some training difficulties. Italian Greyhounds have a tendency to be independent and stubborn. They would much rather do what they want to do than what you want them to do. Additionally, this breed senses an owner who is not in control and will gladly take control themselves. Harsh training methods should never be used with Italian Greyhounds as they respond poorly to them and often become nervous and fearful as a result.
Any training regimen for this breed needs a large amount of treats and positive reinforcement. Even the best trained Italian Greyhounds may choose to disobey when it strikes their fancy. Italian Greyhounds are very frequently difficult to housebreak. Many dog trainers claim that the Italian Greyhound is the most difficult of all breeds to housebreak, or at least in the top ten. This is a result of a combination of factors from the dog’s tiny bladder size to its dislike for being outside in inclement weather. This breed takes many months longer to housebreak than most breeds and many Italian Greyhounds are never fully housebroken. Many owners give in and create an extra large doggy litter box.
Like most hound breeds, the Italian Greyhound should never be allowed off-leash when the dog is not in a secure area. This breed is likely to see a squirrel or bird and go running after it at full speed. Not only is the breed far to fast for most owners to catch, they are also likely to ignore calls for return. Dangers such as cars or getting lost are much more severe for a dog this small. Any fence which keeps an Italian Greyhound must be at least six feet tall, as this breed is more than capable of jumping and climbing.
The Italian Greyhound is generally very calm and relaxed when indoors. This breed loves to lie on the sofa. However, this breed is more athletic and energetic than most similarly-sized dogs. Italian Greyhounds must have their exercise needs met, otherwise they become frequently become nervous, destructive, and snappy. This breed enjoys a regular daily walk, but prefers to run freely. These dogs are capable of reaching very high speeds and jumping quite high. While Italian Greyhounds are capable of competing in agility, flyball, and other canine sports, this breed does not prefer to have a task in the same way that a Collie or German Shepherd will.
Italian Greyhounds adapt better to urban environments than many breeds. In fact, many Italian Greyhounds prefer being inside and avoid leaving the house. These dogs are generally quiet and rarely bark outside of occasional watch dog bark. Additionally, they tend to be very clean, and are said to have a significantly less strong odor than many breeds.
The Italian Greyhound has one of the lowest grooming requirements of any breed. All that is required is a regular brief rubbing with a soft washcloth or chamois. Bathing should be done only when necessary, and care must be taken to ensure the dog is dry and warm afterwards. Most Italian Greyhounds shed very, very little, and some dogs hardly shed at all. Any fur shed is less visible and unpleasant to the touch than that of most breeds. This makes the breed an excellent choice for allergy sufferers or those that hate the thought of cleaning dog hair. The most time consuming regular maintenance that the average Italian Greyhound requires is a tooth brushing and toe nail trimming. Due to the breed’s proclivity for periodontal disease, most fanciers recommend brushing an Italian Greyhound’s teeth daily.
The Italian Greyhound is a small breed, and often reaches advanced ages of 12 or 14. However, this breed is known to suffer from a number of health problems, and has special care requirements. Because the Italian Greyhound has very little body fat and even less hair, this breed is extremely sensitive to the cold. They should always have a sweater and booties in very cold weather.
Additionally, this breed has very little padding and should not be required to sleep on the floor. This breed needs soft bedding. If you do not want to allow a dog on the furniture, an Italian Greyhound is not the breed for you. Additionally, this is an extremely fragile breed, and care must be taken to avoid breaking their bones.
Italian Greyhounds are very, very sensitive to periodontal disease. A number of factors contribute to this sensitivity from the breed’s large teeth in relation to jaw size to its scissor bite. Many, and perhaps most, Italian Greyhounds develop severe periodontal disease from the ages of 1 to 3, and a high percentage loose teeth as a result. Breeders are working to eliminate this fault, but for now Italian Greyhound owners are advised to thoroughly brush their dogs’ teeth every day from puppyhood.
Italian Greyhounds tend to be extremely sensitive to anesthesia. They have considerably less body fat for their size than other breeds. This means that doses which would be safe for most dogs can kill an Italian Greyhound. It is important to alert your veterinarian to this sensitivity if they are unaware.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
Although most common canine health problems are less prevalent in the Italian Greyhound breed, some conditions which have been found in a number of Italian Greyhounds include:
Retained Baby Teeth
Anesthesia Sensitivity and Allergies
Bone Fractures (particularly of the legs)