Throughout history, dogs have had designated jobs. Some pull sleds, some fetch fallen birds out of water for hunters, and some protect farmed animals from dangerous predators. But have you ever heard of a dog bred to be a “jester”? That’s just what the Italian Greyhound’s job was in Renaissance-era Italy. For thousands of years, this ancient breed has been making people smile and laugh. These dogs can be shy and sensitive, but when you get to know them, their personalities are simply incredible. Let’s learn more about this breed!
Evidence indicates that for nearly 2,000 years, the Italian Greyhound has been a source of beauty, laughter, and aesthetic enjoyment. Described by the American Kennel Club’s historical archives as being a “jester” in ancient times, these playful, silly dogs have been making people smile since before sliced bread. The Italian Greyhound as we know it descended from Egyptian sighthounds, imported to Rome and Greece.
While the early “Iggy” might have been used for hunting as all sighthounds once were, it’s thought that the predominant purpose of breeding these small dogs was not for utility or work.
The tiny sighthounds exploded in popularity during the Renaissance when they were thought to be kept exclusively as companion animals. Artifacts pulled from the ruins of Pompei are the earliest known depictions of these dogs; paintings, textiles, ceramics, and other art forms indicate that Italian Greyhounds gained traction as a breed in Renaissance-era Italy. Many famous Renaissance artists depicted Italian Greyhounds regularly in their work. Slender, elegant, and aerodynamic, these dogs make excellent painting subjects.
The rapid change in culture during this era, known as a time of artistic “enlightenment,” is reflected in the Italian Greyhound. Rather than playing a role in function or physical service, these dogs were simply bred to be sources of entertainment and joy. Just like so many ancient societies all over the world, the ancient Romans recognized the value of dogs not just as tools to be utilized, but as beloved companions to enjoy.
For thousands of years, Italian Greyhounds have quite literally sat on the laps of luxury. In fact, Renaissance-era royals considered the charming canines to be a status symbol. Italian Greyhounds were not always easy to come by and were highly sought after by the wealthy for hundreds of years. In the early 19th century, it was said that the South African King, Chief Lobengula, swapped over 200 cattle for a single Italian Greyhound puppy!
Over 2,000 years after the first Italian Greyhounds pranced the streets of what we now call Italy, these dogs are still quite special. In the United States, Italian Greyhounds rank 63rd place out of 200 American Kennel Club-recognized breeds for yearly registrations. This means that they aren’t necessarily rare in today’s world, but aren’t an everyday sight, either.
Italian Greyhounds were recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1886 and have been a popular breed amongst celebrity figures ever since. These dogs are not for everyone, and breeds shouldn’t be purchased solely because of celebrity trends! Still, it’s interesting and ironic to see that Italian Greyhounds were once bred by royalty and continue to be popular in modern-day “royal” social circles.
The Smallest Sighthound
This exquisite little dog is the smallest of the sighthound group. Sighthounds, sometimes called “gazehounds”, are exactly what their name might suggest: hounds that rely on sight, rather than scent, to pursue prey. While conventional hounds might track an animal for hours, sighthounds will actually pursue, capture, and often kill their prey without any human assistance.
This enormous feat requires tremendous speed, which is why sighthounds are characteristically long-legged and lean. Elongated snouts and aerodynamic, tapering faces are also common. A few notable sighthounds include Greyhounds, Whippets, Irish Wolfhounds, Salukis, Ibizan Hounds, and more. Though sighthounds are diverse in some aspects (like the show-stopping, long-haired Afghan Hound vs. the no-frills, short-haired Greyhound), they are united by the same general characteristics.
Sighthounds are independent dogs who historically didn’t need to take direction from humans; they get the job done on their own! This means they need a great deal of reinforcement to be motivated to learn and cooperate with us. High value treats and toys that mimic prey, such as flirt poles, are an excellent place to start!
These dogs are also lightning fast and have a strong prey drive toward small, moving animals. This means that recall must be perfected before even considering letting sighthounds off-leash in an unfenced area.
Italian Greyhounds might have been bred as companion dogs, but at their root, they are still true sighthounds. This plays a predominant role in their behavior. Learning more about sighthounds as a group can help prepare you to care for an Italian Greyhound or any of their close relatives.
Behavior and Temperament
Italian Greyhounds are still true to their sighthound nature, and there are not many clear-cut temperament differences between this breed and its larger counterpart, the Greyhound. Living on the lap of luxury for thousands of years has not changed their desire to chase and run as all sighthounds should. No matter how posh of a lifestyle these dogs live, their biological needs still need to be fulfilled.
These spirited little creatures can still show spectacular athleticism; they’ll just look fabulous while doing it!
One might imagine that a sighthound needs hours upon hours of exercise daily, but this actually isn’t the case. Sighthounds are “sprint” hunters, so they are meant to run in short but fast bursts. Outside of a daily jaunt, Italian Greyhounds are capable of lazing around the house, being true couch potatoes.
Having access to an open place to run daily can help these dogs blow off some steam, as a brief sprint is typically enough exercise. Organized dog sports such as Fast CAT and lure coursing can give Italian Greyhounds a chance to show off their speed.
Behaviorally, Italian Greyhounds tend to be on the reserved side. In fact, many “Iggys” are incredibly shy and sensitive dogs, with a tendency to be fearful of the unknown. Positive socialization from a very young age is deeply beneficial for this breed. Confidence-building exercises are also highly recommended, regardless of the dog’s age.
The breed is known for trembling, both in fear and because of their lack of ability to retain much body heat.
The Breed Standard
At just 13 to 15 inches tall and weighing seven to 14 pounds, these tiny dogs have earned their title as the smallest sighthound. Italian Greyhounds come in a wide array of colors, including fawn, red, blue, sable, black and white, seal, and more.
They have large, dark, endearing eyes that give off an almost cartoonish appearance.
Italian Greyhounds are often mistaken as being underweight, when in reality, these dogs are simply bony by nature. Everything about these sleek dogs is built for aerodynamic perfection. From their nose to their tail, every extremity is as sleek and long as possible. Their neck is described as being “gracefully arched,” and their snout “narrow and long.”
Though their chest is deep, a visible rib or two should not be considered alarming. These dogs carry very little body fat and are lean by nature. This allows sighthounds to perform their job of running down prey.
Special Care Considerations
In addition to being prone to fearful behavior, Italian Greyhounds are also sensitive to chilly weather.
Their bony structure, lack of body fat, and incredibly thin hair make them very susceptible to the cold. A sweater wardrobe never hurt an Italian Greyhound! Dressing these dogs up is not just for fashion, but to keep them comfortable and healthy on colder days. Pairing positive rewards with clothes can help prevent Italian Greyhounds from developing an aversion to being dressed up.
Italian Greyhounds are extremely fragile dogs. Paper-thin skin and tiny bones make Iggys extra prone to playtime injuries. Dog parks can be dangerous for all dogs, but a busy dog park with mixed sizes is an especially bad idea for a fragile Italian Greyhound. Greyhounds face this same issue, which is why they wear muzzles while racing; an accidental nip can leave long tears in these dogs’ fragile skin.
Heed extra caution when arranging doggy playdates for both Italian Greyhounds and Greyhounds. Dogs with overarousal issues, a lack of play boundaries, extra mouthy tendencies, or who are significantly larger in size can be dangerous playmates for these fragile pups.
Using stairs and ramps around the house for furniture access can eliminate a dog’s need to jump on and off of furniture, decreasing chances for accidental injuries. Italian Greyhounds are also poor candidates for homes with small children, whose roughness can unintentionally cause harm.
Lastly, socialize, socialize, socialize! Active, positive socialization is critical for young Italian Greyhounds. These dogs should never be forced to interact with people or handled by strangers without consent; taking it slow, respecting their body language, and providing plenty of reinforcement can expand a fearful pup’s comfort zone.
Many Italian Greyhounds will never be comfortable in loud, chaotic social situations, but being comfortable out and about in public is a great goal to set for your Iggy’s socialization. The more you can expose them to from a young age, the better.