Dogs of Italy
Inspired in equal parts by National Dog Day and my dog’s birthday earlier this week, I recently set about looking into what’s involved in owning, or being, a dog in Italy. As I write, my 7 year-old labradoodle Tippery is curled up by my side. He happens to be tired, so not as hyper as usual. He isn’t currently digging in a trash can or eating something disgusting. He has a new haircut and is bathed and brushed into his best soft, sweet-smelling self. These, to me, are the finest moments of dog ownership. But as any dog owner knows, there are many other moments. And we love Tippery even in his grossest, least well-behaved, most rage-inducing moments. Any dog owner knows that feeling too.
So back to the question – What is life like as an Italian dog? First of all, being a dog in Italy means being called a cane (pronounced “KAH-nay”), which seems like a lovely word compared to “dog.” It also involves orders being delivered at you a little differently. For example, my neighbors are probably tired of hearing me yell “Tippery COME!” out the back door. If Tippery were Italian, he’d be expected to respond to the much more pleasant, singsongy word vieni (pronounced “vee-EN-ee”). My neighbors might like the sound of that better, as everything seems to sound better in Italian. I’m not sure Tippery would be any more likely to obey, but that’s another story.
Through my research, I learned about some interesting dog breeds of Italian descent, including the Volpino Italiano (“little Italian fox”), a small, cute, long-haired dog weighing up to 12 pounds and dating back thousands of years. This breed was widely loved across Italy. Rumor has it that famous Renaissance artist Michelangelo had a Volpino. Apparently in the 1960s, only five Volpino were known to exist in the world, until a concerted effort began to breed them as guard dogs on farms. I guess they’re good at chasing away little Italian foxes of the wild variety. There are thought to be a few thousand Volpino around today.
Another interesting breed is the Neapolitan Mastiff, a large, muscular breed thought to be descended from dogs used by Ancient Romans as guard dogs and for their wars across Europe. These beauties can weigh up to 200 pounds. Tragically, the Romans also trained them as gladiator dogs to bait bears, bulls and jaguars in amphitheaters. One look at a photo of these ominous creatures, and you almost feel bad for their enemies!
Of course, there are many breeds of dog living and thriving in today’s Italy. When I’ve been there, I’ve seen all kinds and haven’t noticed any particular standouts. However, a recent study of Google searches across Europe indicates that the most-searched breed in all of Europe is the Cane Corso, which is a Mastiff of Italian descent. Also high on the list are the Rottweiler, Pug and French Bulldog. Small breeds fit in well in cities like Florence. My friends there also have labradors and poodle mixes. Tippery (a poodle-lab mutt) would fit in just fine in Florence.
In fact, Tippery might fit into Florentine life a little too well for the tastes of some. In 2008, Florence passed the most dog-friendly law I’ve ever heard of. Dogs are permitted with their owners in almost any public place you can think of, including restaurants, museums, stores, art galleries and post offices. And they are not required to be on leash, so you may find them roaming freely along the streets. While this sounds pretty strange to Americans (personally I can hardly find a park or beach to allow my dog to run off leash), this is a concept steeped in the history of Florence. As far back as Roman times, dogs were seen as a symbol of strength and loyalty even as the Egyptian Empire across the sea favored cats. During the Renaissance, many key Florentines famously kept and loved their furry canine friends. The Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent is said to have had great affection for his hunting hounds. Young women leaving their families for marriage would bring a small dog for companionship and to remind them of home.
With such a rich and privileged history, it’s no wonder that Florentine dogs are permitted to rule the city’s cobblestone streets. As for Tippery, for now I’ll keep him safely on leash and away from the nearest trash can.