The history of the agile and adaptable toy breed known as the Italian greyhound can be traced back more than two centuries, but artistic depictions of the tiny sight hound place his origins back two thousand years in the Mediterranean region. From ancient Egypt to modern America, the lithe and lively little Italian greyhound has become a pampered companion and prized lap warmer through the ages.
Ancient Art and Architecture
Images of dogs that resemble the Italian greyhound depicted on ancient Egyptian tombs and in works of art from Turkey and Greece have turned up among artifacts roughly 2,000 years old. These findings suggest that the Italian greyhound likely descended from these small dogs -- but this sight hound's specific genetic ancestry is largely unknown. Also unclear is whether the Italian greyhound was primarily a companion or a hunter of small game.
Introduction to Italy
While the Italian greyhound’s progenitors may have been ancient Egypt’s smallest sight hounds, it was not until the fifth century B.C., when Phoenician seafarers introduced the dogs to the Italian peninsula, that the Romans began to develop the breed into the dog we recognize today as the Italian greyhound. By the 16th century, the graceful and loving dog had become highly sought after across the southern Mediterranean countries.
Rising Popularity During the Renaissance
During the 1500s, the little dogs became popular among the noblemen of Italy and thus acquired their breed name. Their elegant physique and playfulness charmed Renaissance artists, and works by Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling and Giotto raised their profile. The breed’s popularity steadily escalated, infiltrating other parts of Europe over the next three centuries.
The Lap of European Luxury
Admiration of the Italian greyhound followed him on his introduction to England during the 1600s, where he went on to become a cherished companion of English royalty, including James I and, later, Queen Victoria. Other European nobles who were captivated by the Italian greyhound included Denmark’s Queen Anne, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great of Russia and Prussia’s Frederick the Great.
Arrival in America
Queen Victoria’s reign was the height of Italian greyhound popularity, when the breed was first introduced in the United States. The American Kennel Club first recognized the Italian greyhound in 1886 (Reference 1), welcoming registrants into the toy group. During the post-World War I period, the breed’s numbers declined to near extinction in England. (Reference 1) A few quality specimens were sent to England from America for the purpose of reviving the breed. In 1954, the Italian Greyhound Club of America was established. Today, the Italian greyhound remains a beloved canine companion worldwide.