On a bright Saturday afternoon this past June, something happened for the very first time. A small, lively, exuberant dog with dark, round eyes, a joyful expression, fine straight lines, neat oval feet, and an abundant white coat trotted gaily into an American Kennel Club conformation ring at a Foundation Stock Service Open Show hosted by the Greenwich Kennel Club. Spectators were charmed, and his owner-handler, a board member of our national breed club, spent the next several hours introducing the Volpino Italiano to a new audience of dog enthusiasts. None of the spectators knew it, but those two minutes in the ring were the culmination of more than 17 years of dedicated effort by the founders of the Volpino Italiano Club of America (VICA) to see this ancient, rustic breed exhibited at an AKC event.
Meeting a Volpino is an uncommon, but almost universally delightful, experience. She is a small, squarely built dog with a wedge-shaped head, pointed ears, and a pointed, straight muzzle that give her the appearance of a small fox. Indeed, the literal translation of the word volpino, a diminutive form of the Italian word volpe, is “little fox.” Her bright, round eyes are always very dark and expressively curious. Her little black nose, sitting in line with the top of a slim muzzle, rests above black-lined lips which part to give the effect of a dog that is smiling or laughing with you.
She stands at most 9-12 inches at the shoulder and her body is compact and harmonious, with straight, well-muscled lines, light but strong bones, a smooth, graceful gait, and an elegant, high-set tail carried permanently curled over her back. She has a long, standing-off coat of straight, glossy guard hairs over a dense undercoat that gives her the appearance of being wrapped up in a muff or abundant collar. Most often a clear, milky white, she can also be found in red and black variations (though black is not currently an accepted color).
When she is out with her family, she is friendly to strangers but never fawning. When prompted, she is happy to make new friends, but she is equally content to observe from a distance. With other dogs she is polite but dignified. She is not nervous or timid and lacks aggression in any form; however, she is aloof and perfectly willing to correct any dog she finds disrespectful or overly familiar.
On first impression, one could be forgiven for dismissing the Volpino as a beautiful little lapdog, meant to sit daintily on his mistress’ lap as she laughs at his antics. It takes only a few more moments, however, to realize the Volpino is everything you would not expect from his appearance. He is a true rustic working dog with strength, courage, playfulness, and intelligence. Even his beauty is functional, for his glossy white coat defies rain and snow and mud, and ensures he can be easily seen at a distance or in poor light.
For two and a half thousand years, artists and writers of the Mediterranean have drawn, sculpted, or written of the small, fox-like, vigilant watchdog that was the beloved companion of children, royalty, and commoners across the Italian peninsula. Compare a living Volpino Italiano to a figurine sculpted in the 4th Century BC, or a portrait painted in the 19th AD, and the Volpino appears frozen in time.
This impression only strengthens as you have an opportunity to work with the dogs. Following the Roman era, the Volpino was best known as the companion of Italian farmers. He had his admirers in the great houses and palaces of the Italian aristocracy, of course, but it was in the fields and yards of the rural Italian farm that the Volpino thrived. In a December, 2020 article from Fine Dining Lovers titled, “The Dark Side of the White Truffle,” an elderly man recalls growing up in a truffle hunting region of Northwest Italy:
“The dog was more than a member of the family. I remember when we were children… the dog would get to eat raw eggs because they give strength, while we were only eating bread… Both the truffle dog and the Volpino ruled the house. The dogs were sacred in our home.”
In the south, the Volpino was the frequent companion of one of Italy’s ancient livestock guardian breeds—the Cane Corso. In this partnership, he played the part of the vigilant watchdog, noisily sounding the alarm to call over the farm’s protector to neutralize any threat. In addition, the Volpino hunted vermin, and herded poultry and smaller farm animals, and he rode with the farmers and merchants on their carts as they took their wares to market.
Sadly, following World War II, and later, the collapse of the Italian mezzadria system of share-cropping in the 1960s, both the Volpino Italiano and the Cane Corso teetered on the brink of extinction. By the mid-1960s, the Volpino had all but disappeared from the dog fancy world. Fortunately for those of us who love the breed, in 1968, Italy’s national kennel club (ENCI) and a man named Dr. Enrico Franceshetti began an effort to recover the Volpino Italiano from obscurity. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Dr. Franceshetti traveled the Italian countryside, finding pockets of dogs still living and working in farms and rural areas, and slowly recovered the breed’s rustic genetic base. Today, the Volpino Italiano remains rare, but continues to grow in recognition. Recognized by ENCI in 1903, FCI in 1956 and UKC in 2006, the Volpino was recognized as an AKC FSS breed in December 2021.
With FSS recognition, VICA members are excited to begin attending AKC events. The Volpino is an athletic dog and loves the mental work of training. Her long history has created a tremendously flexible dog. She has a moderate-to-high drive, but an excellent off-switch. She is gentle with children and small animals, gets along well with other dogs (though she prefers the company of people), and is alert to, but not frightened by, horses and other large animals. Her keen intelligence and close human bond make her delightfully easy to train, and she often picks up new commands simply by watching other dogs. Her eyesight is quite good, her hearing is sharp, and her nose is exceptional. She is quick and nimble and tends to excel in Agility, but she is also naturally inclined to succeed in Obedience, Rally, Tracking, Barn Hunt, Coursing, Scentwork, and Trick Dog competitions.
At home, the Volpino is an easy companion and a generally healthy and hardy breed. His luxurious coat is impossibly simple to maintain and sheds very little except when he blows out his undercoat twice a year. Regular nail trimming and tooth brushing, a healthy diet, daily exercise, and the companionship of his people are all he really needs to stay healthy and happy.
In Italy, they say, when you look at a Volpino, what you are seeing is the “pure joy of life.” After the last few years of challenges the world has faced, VICA is excited to share this joy with you.