It's that time of year — where hair dryers, treadmills and lush hotel rooms aren't reserved for us Homo sapiens, but for our canine best friends. The 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is off and running this week at New York City's Madison Square Garden. Organizers say it's one of the oldest sporting events in the country, second only to the Kentucky Derby.
There are 2,000 top dogs in competition this year, but there is one breed garnering much of the spotlight. The xoloitzcuintli, pronounced Shoh-loh-eets-kweent-lee, is one of six new breeds debuting in this year's competition. It is the national dog of Mexico and is perhaps best known for being hairless. The xolo (short for xoloitzcuintli) comes in three sizes: toy, miniature and standard.
The xoloitzcuintli is one of the world's oldest breeds and can be traced to pre-Columbian times. It has been highly regarded, as the Aztecs believed it had healing abilities and warded off evil spirits.
Amy Fernandez, a xoloitzcuintli expert and breeder, describes its demeanor as "a real dog kind of dog. They have very strong instincts." They are also protective and bond closely with their owners, she says.
After nearly 30 years of advocating for inclusion in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Fernandez is thrilled the xoloitzcuintli has been included this year, saying the acknowledgement will make it easier to get support for healthy breeding.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On a much lighter note, did you know that one of the oldest sporting events in U.S. history has been held long before the Super Bowl, the World Series, before March Madness, even before the automobile was invented? It is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and today marks the beginning of the 136th annual event held in New York.
And there's a new dog in town, previously known as the Mexican hairless dog, and it will make its debut at this year's show. Joining us to tell us more is Amy Fernandez. She breeds this - well, breed. She has two of them at home. She's covering this year's Westminster Dog Show for Dog World magazine, and she's with us now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
AMY FERNANDEZ: Nice to be here.
MARTIN: Now, I'm afraid to pronounce the dog's name. I'm afraid I'm going to mess it up. So help me out. What's it called?
FERNANDEZ: OK. Well, I got this from a cab driver in Mexico City. I know exactly how to pronounce it: Xoloitzcuintli. It's an Aztec Indian word.
MARTIN: But we can call him Xolo for short?
FERNANDEZ: Oh, yeah. Everybody just opts for Xolo. It's much safer.
MARTIN: And describe the breed for us, if you would.
FERNANDEZ: We call it a primitive breed, meaning that it was molded by natural selection. Most breeds, you think of them in terms of artificial selection and dog breeding. This breed, it's graceful, it's athletic and the most important thing is it's hairless.
MARTIN: It's hairless, although some have a little - kind of like a Mohawk. Right?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. They have a few hairs on the top of the head, on the toes and the tail tip. That's normal. And there's two varieties. They can come with hair and without.
MARTIN: And I understand the Xolo comes in toy, miniature and standard, like a number of other breeds. Do I have that right?
FERNANDEZ: That's right. Yes. You have three sizes. The toys range up to 13 inches. The miniatures up to 18, and the standards are big. They're 23 inches, about the size of Doberman.
MARTIN: How did you fall in love with this breed?
FERNANDEZ: I was showing Cresteds at rare breed shows way, way before they were recognized. And this was the only other hairless breed that I would see at the show. So naturally, you're curious and you get interested and the breed had almost no following then. It was really just about dying out in this country. There was no organized club. There was nobody really keeping it on track and trying to make an effort to get it back into AKC, and it had been AKC recognized once.
MARTIN: And by AKC, you mean the American Kennel Club?
MARTIN: Which is the kind of official body that recognizes breeds and, I guess, sets standards for dogs?
FERNANDEZ: The clubs set the standards, but it's the official registry for this country.
MARTIN: You've been advocating for the breed to be included in the Westminster for a long time now. And why is that important?
FERNANDEZ: Well, unless you have AKC recognition, it really makes a difference in terms of keeping the breed on - it gives you a platform to advocate for the breed and protect the breed. You have to keep the breeders in touch with each other, especially if it's a really rare breed. They have to be able to find each other and work together to promote the breed and continue healthy breeding programs. The breed could die out, otherwise.
MARTIN: Tell me a little about the personality of the Xolo, if you would. I mean, is it mainly a looks thing with you? You kind of like how they look or do they have a nice personality? Are they fun?
FERNANDEZ: Well, it's a real dog kind of a dog. They're survivalists. They have very keen senses, very keen instincts. They're hunters. They look out for themselves, and they bond very closely to their owners because this is one of the first things that - I mean, this is the thing that set the wolves and the dogs apart. They began bonding with humans. That partnership is what kept both species ahead of the game for thousands of years. So Xolos really tune in to their owners. They're very, very devoted dogs, but...
MARTIN: Now, the hairless thing would be kind of a stop for some people, kind of petting the dog is kind of part of the fun for some people, and that implies fur for a lot of us. I don't know. So is the hairless thing...
MARTIN: Or is it a thing of - forgive me. I know some people hate this expression, but are they so, like, ugly they're cute?
FERNANDEZ: Nobody's neutral. Nobody warms up to them later. You either love them on sight or you just don't want anything to do with them. But...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So I understand, finally - before we let you go - and thank you for coming over from the show, because I know it's a busy time. I understand that Best in Show will be picked tomorrow, and it seems that terriers or spaniels have been favored in recent years. Might we see a Xolo upset this year, or do you think it's a little too soon for that?
FERNANDEZ: Well, I mean, this is traditionally the show of upsets, and the top-winning dog of the year goes into this with a big chance and very rarely wins. So, hey, anything can happen.
MARTIN: Well, best of luck, anyway.
FERNANDEZ: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: Amy Fernandez is a Xoloitzcuintli expert. She is the author of several dog books. She's covering this year's Westminster Dog Show for Dog World magazine, and she was kind enough to join us today from our bureau in New York.
Amy, thanks so much.
FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.