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The Pre-historic Spitz
The type of dog know of as the "spitz" (name of German origin) began in the cold lands of the north. Stone Age humans domesticated these dogs and used them as guardians, watch dogs, sled dogs and companions. A spitz is known for his long, straight coat, wolf/fox-like face, upright triangular ears, and a plumed tail that curls over his back. As humans migrated constantly, they took their dogs with them, spreading the spitzes across Europe, Siberia and eventually into northern North America.
 
     
 
The European Spitz

As humans became civilized and ceased constant migration, the spitz dogs gradually evolved into a variety of breeds in isolated locations. No longer needing dogs capable of fighting off wolves, city-dwelling peoples began to selectively breed dogs to breed out their wolf and hunting attributes in favor of smaller companion and watch dogs. Light colors were often preferred to differentiate dogs from wolves that might attack farms and villages at night. Modern descendents of the spitz include Huskies, Eskimo Dogs, Samoyeds and Pomeranians.

The European Spitz, probably between 20 and 40 pounds in size in pre-historic times, evolved as a companion and watch dog in central Europe and Italy, and was the first type of dog to inhabit Europe. Three of the primary descendents of the base European type include the German Spitz, Dutch Keeshond, and Italian Spitz (Volpino Italiano). The photo to the left (taken from the German and Italian Spitz Club of France) well illustrates the variety of Spitzes recognized today in Europe. The dog on the left is a Volpino while the other five are different sizes/breeds of German Spitzes. The largest dog is called a Keeshond in English while the smallest is a Pomeranian.

 
 

Carcasses of bronze-age and later spitzes have been found in peat bogs and in excavated ancient sites throughout central Europe and Italy. Pottery dating to 470 B.C. with artwork portaying European Spitzes has also been found (see photo). Thus it is known that the Volpino and its close cousin the German Spitz have been in existence since ancient times, conforming to the standard breed descriptions of today. Carved and sometimes jeweled collars have been found with remains, expressing the owner's love of these ancient specimens.

The Volpino in Italy

The Volpino descended from the European Spitz in ancient times, and was a very popular breed with Italian nobility, especially the ladies, and common folk since the time of the Roman Empire. They were bred primarily as watch dogs and companions. Favored colors of Volpinos were pure white and pure red, as almost all Volpinos are of these two colors, or a mix. Some pure blacks were bred in Italy, though the darker colors were more popular in central Europe, resulting in the German Spitz and its descendents.

One of the Volpino's claim to fame is that the artist Michelangelo had a Volpino that sat on a pillow on the floor of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican while his master painted the now-famous ceiling. (Pomeranian histories report this dog as a Pom, but read below). He was popular with traveling merchants, tied to his master's cart when the master was away, barking loudly to announce any potential thieves who approached. Similarly Italian farmers kept Volpinos to awaken sleeping Mastiffs and other guard dogs when strangers encroached on their land. Even today one of the Volpino's nicknames is Il Piccoli Guardiani, 'the little guardian.'

Italian shepherds and goatherds also used Volpinos as watch and guard dogs for their flocks. One legend that circulates amongst Italian goatherds praises the Volpino's qualities. For some reason, probably due to nearby fighting during a war, some goatherds decided to take their flock of over 200 goats into the wooded mountains for protection. The flock was guarded and hearded by Maremmas, large Italian herd-guard dogs, and two Volpinos. The forest was full of wolves, and the little Volpinos spotted the killers and barked the alarm. Reportedly they attempted to "help" the Maremmas fight off the wolves, probably providing more of a distraction than any physical threat (but don't tell that to the Volpinos!). When all was safe, the flock and its guardians returned to their pastures without loss of one goat.

An alternative breed name for the Volpino is Cane de Quirinale or "Dog of Quirinal". Quirinal is one of the "Seven Hills of Rome" and is the site of the Quirinal Palace. The palace, built by Pope Gregory VIII in 1573, has served as the home and official office of Popes, Kings, and now the Presidents of the Republic of Italy. "Quirinale" has become synonymous with government bureaucracy in Italy (similar to "The White House" in the USA). This alternative breed name indicates how closely the Volpino has been seen as related to the aristocracy and powerful in Rome over the centuries. The plaza in front of the palace is now a favorite place for Romans to walk their dogs, no doubt including several Cani de Quirinale.

The other common alternate breed name Florentine Spitz is probably of English/British origin, since Queen Victoria of England "discovered" Volpinos while on vacation in Florence, Italy, in 1888 (read more below), and/or because Volpinos were once very common in Florence.

Volpinos in America

Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century brought Volpinos with them to the new world. However most of these were crossed with other breeds, and so the Volpino never became a recognized breed in the U.S.
Most historians of the American Eskimo Dog (called the White German Spitz before WW1) agree that the Volpino is most likely one of the primary ancestors the Eskies, an all-white spitz. Standard Eskies are larger than Volpinos, though in the past few decades breeders have introduced miniature and toy Eskies nearer the size of a Volpino. A ten pound Eskie might be undistinguishable from a Volpino by any but an expert.

Today there are only a handful of Volpino breeders in the U.S., with dogs imported from Italy, and only a few dozen owners of Italian-registered Volpinos or their descendents. There are also dogs, often found in shelters, that closely match the Volpino breed standard and look, however it is impossible to tell if they are true Volpinos or a mix of other spitz types in America. These dogs tend to be champagne colored or champagne and white mixed. They are usually identified as "over-grown Poms", "small Eskies" or a mix of these two, since the Volpino is unknown in the U.S.

Americans seem to have become interested in the Volpino, at least in terms of breeding and showing, after the year 2000. It is believed that Sherry Connolly of South Carolina had the first ever litter of American-born puppies from Italian-born parents in 2005. In July 2006 the United Kennel Club, the second largest in the U.S., recognized the Volpino and it is believed that the first time Volpinos were shown in the USA was at the Mason-Dixon Multi-breed Association (UKC) show near Louisville, KY, in November 2006. According to the American Rare Breed Association, only one Volpino from Canada has been shown in their shows over the years. The first-ever Champion Volpinos in the USA earned their Conformation Champion titles (with UKC) at the Ohio Fox Terrier Association's Multi-breed show in Wapakoneta, OH, in April 2007.

 
     

Decline and Rescue

For unknown reasons, Italian interest in the Volpino fell drastically in the early and mid 20th century. By 1965 only a handful of pure-bred Volpinos were registered with the ENCI (Italian Kennel Club). Ten years later none living were registered. However the Volpinos had not completely disappeared, but were bred unregistered by Italian farmers who prized them for reasons mentioned earlier.

One theory for the Italians loosing interest in Volpinos is political. The the 1930's, the last (functional) king of Italy was a supporter of the dictator Mussolini, who became an ally of Hitler at the beginning of WWII. The Italian people overthrew Mussolini during the war, and switched sides to the allies. At the end of the war, the Italians abolished their monarchy/king and replaced it/him with a republic/president. In 1948 the new republic banned the last king and all of his male descendants from Italy for life. As the Cane de Quirinale, or loosely the "dog of the king's palace", the Volpino may have suffered from the anti-aristocracy sentiments of many Italians.

More likely the explanation is less political. In the late 1880's Volpinos were taken from Italy to England, crossed with small German Spitzes, downsized and refined, and called "Toy Pomeranians" (read more below). When these smaller, more-refined dogs reached Italy, most pure-bred dog lovers preferred the "Volpino of Pomerania", as Italians still call them today, to the larger, rougher, less-refined "homegrown" Volpinos. Fortunately farmers and shepherds continued to breed Volpinos as watch dogs, but not caring about "fancy registration papers" or dog shows. A new generation of Italians realized a national gem they had but were loosing a few decades later.

In 1984 the ENCI set out to rescue and promote disappearing Italian breeds, including the Volpino. Italian farms were scoured for specimens that exactly matched the breed standard. These "rescued" dogs were then registered and bred to provide the foundation of modern registered pure-bred Volpinos. Unfortunately, the solid red variety seems to have gone extinct, though some Italian breeders are attempting to recover solid reds by breeding near-reds. The breed standard lists only solid whites and solid reds as acceptable, along with solid champagne as acceptable but not desirable. Thus almost all registered Volpinos are white.

Unknown outside of Italy, and rare in their homeland, Volpinos are slowly making a comeback. Breeders and showmen participate in Dog Shows in Italy and at the International (primarily European) level where the Volpino is recognized.

Volpinos and Pomeranians

When one breed evolves from another over time, it is difficult to draw the line between the two, with breed names used interchangeably. Breed standards can change over time as well, especially as breeders size down a breed toward the toy size. This is the case with the Volpino and the original Pomeranians.

The history of the Pomeranian begins with Queen Charlotte of England, wife of King George III. Charlotte, of German origin, imported German Spitzes in 1767 from a region of Germany and Poland called Pomerania (in English). Thus these dogs were called "Pomeranians," though it is unclear if Queen Charlotte invented the breed name herself. These "Pomeranians" were mostly white and weighed 20 to 30 pounds and would not be called a Pom by anyone today because of their size (the modern breed standard for Poms is 3 to 7 pounds). Charlotte's "Poms" experienced limited popularity in England.

In 1888 Queen Victoria of England discovered Volpinos in Florence, Italy while on vacation. She brought home some of these dogs and called them "Toy Pomeranians" since they so resembled the descendents of Queen Charlotte's (her grandmother's) "Poms", but were much smaller. Her first Italian "Pom", named Marco, weighed 12 pounds and had a solid red coat. The painting shown here is "Marco on the Queen's Breakfast Table", by Charles Burton Barber, 1893. It is said that Marco's small size (a 12 pound Pom is "small"??!!) gave Victoria the idea to breed even smaller "Poms." Another "Toy Pomeranian" (a white Volpino) from Florence, pictured below, was named Gina and was one of Victoria's champion show dogs.

Victoria cross-bred the Volpinos with imported small German Spitzes providing the founding stock for the breed now called the Pomeranian. Victoria made the Pomeranian popular with the British and encouraged breeders to breed them smaller and smaller. After a few decades, the small three pound Poms we know today were the result.

Many Pomeranian histories brag of famous people before and including Queen Victoria who where "Pom" owners. Odd that photos of these "Poms" are never shown, even though paintings of the dogs exist from the time they lived, up to 500 years ago. Of course one reason these "famously owned Poms" are not pictured is that anyone seeing such photos would realize that they are not Poms at all, by modern standards. Some websites even refer to a "tiny, cute Pom" owned by Michelangelo, Marin Luther, or others...when those dogs were actually Volpinos or German Spitzes of 10 to 20 pounds! The TRUTH is out!! If you see a reference to a "Pom" that lived before 1900, know that this dog probably weighed 10 pounds or more and would have been called a German Spitz or Volpino by its original non-English breeders.

Mystery of the White Pomeranian?

Solid white is the rarest color for a modern Pomeranian. Breeders of white Poms have encountered a "problem", "phenomenom" or "mystery": breeding white Poms with white Poms, even of the same size, often produces white Poms which are larger than both parents when fully grown. [ref: whitePom.com] As generations of white Poms are bred, the offspring continue to get larger. What could explain this? Perhaps a devilish Volpino!
When Queen Victoria started the modern Pomeranian breed, she quickly became a fan of the colored (non-white) dogs. Soon there were very few white "Poms", and the ones born were rarely bred as white was not popular 100 years ago. Later in the 20th century, rare white Poms became very popular. But how to get a white dog from a breed where white had been bred out for 50 years or more? The answer: breed with a (larger) white spitz-type dog. The smallest of the usually all-white spitzes (Eskies, German Spitzes, and Volpinos) was the Volpino. Obviously no one wanted a 15 pound white Pom, so it was most likely the Volpino or white German spitz (only slightly larger) that was chosen to cross with a tiny Pom. Eskies were not bred down to toys until decades later. [The dog in the photo is a 15-pound AKC-registered Pomeranian that looks very Volpino.]

So if it is true that some unscrupulous breeders bred Volpinos or white German Spitzes with tiny Poms to get tiny white Poms, these white Poms have the genes of their larger white ancestors. Thus the genes that make them more white also make them larger (more Volpino). The history of the German Spitz mentions that the first of the modern breed imported to England was done so to try and recover white Poms. So the next time you see a ten pound white Pom (that's not overweight), you can guess he probably has somewhat recent Volpino or white German Spitz ancestors! Of course since Eskies now come in the toy size, they may be culprits as well! This is especially true since the aforementioned white spitzes of 10 pounds or more may be classified as "Pomeranians" in foreign registries that do not have the strict 3-7 pound limit of the AKC.

Source: Kevin Joiner, Volpino Club of the United States

     
     
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