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New life for ridiculed dog species

The Peruvian Hairless Dog, whose lineage goes back at least 3,000 years, has made a comeback after almost being driven to extinction.
Peruvian Hairless dogs stand at the Huaca Pucllana archeological site in Lima
Josh, left, and his mother, Jala, stand at the Huaca Pucllana archeological site in Lima, Peru. They are Peruvian Hairless Dogs, an ancient species that was nearly wiped out.Pilar Olivares / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

His eyes gleaming with joy underneath a natural yellow mohawk, Josh the Peruvian Hairless Dog heads out to greet tourists at Lima’s Pucllana ruins.

About the size of an English pointer, Josh and his kin are not guard dogs, instead they are guarded behind the walls of this and other historic monuments on the Peruvian coast — the hairless hound’s habitat for more than 3,000 years.

They are part of the historic scenery here, but the canine breed almost became history several years back.

“Now we can say they are safe, saved by this project, but a few years ago the Peruvian Hairless Dog was under threat of extinction in Peru,” said Pedro Vargas, coordinator of the Huaca Pucllana archeological project excavating an ancient temple site of the Lima civilization dating back to 500.

The breed normally has hair resembling a mohawk on the head and a tail brush, but otherwise has naked dark, very warm skin.

Conquistador dog fights
Its history is long and rather sad, especially after the Spanish conquest starting in 1532.

Native pre-Incan civilizations used the dogs for hunting and as pets for company. They are represented on the ceramic pottery of the Chimu, Moche and Chancay cultures found on the coast.

They were sometimes mummified and buried along with people to help the departed find their way to the world of the dead or to continue serving their owners in the afterlife.

The Spanish brought giant war dogs to fight the natives and would often amuse themselves by setting off one such dog against a small pack of the smaller local breed.

“There are reports it could tear four, five hairless dogs in pieces easily,” Vargas said, caressing Josh’s head.

For centuries afterwards, it mostly ceased being a pet animal and would roam along the coast feeding on mollusks, often hunted by people simply for fun or for skins, believed to help with arthritis and used sometimes as thermal bags due to a popular myth that they retain heat.

Pair required at each site
As a result, the breed got to the 21st century on the brink of extinction, and that’s when the government decided to safeguard it by ordering all archeological sites along the coast to have at least a pair -- after Huaca Pucllana’s 1989 initiative. They are now also Peru’s only own world-registered breed.

“We know there are quite a few now, and there are people breeding them and people buying them here and for export — it is a luxury dog now,” Vargas said, adding though there was still a lot of prejudice against the dog’s naked skin.

“Ugly dog, they call it, dirty dog, ‘punk’ dog. But it is much cleaner than hairy dogs — leaves no hair around the place, has no fleas, does not provoke allergies. And it is a great company and a live thermal bag in winter.”

Josh, his mother, Jala, and brother, Cuni, feel quite at home at the Lima ruin, where the breed had lived for millennia.

“It’s rather curious,” Vargas said. “As soon as the museum closes it’s like they say: ‘Our home is ours again,’ and start walking up and down the walls of the ruin. They are the masters here.”