Chihuahuas to spare

Chihuahuas, the world's smallest breed of dog, have been big in the news lately, most notably on Jan. 6 when 15 of them were flown from California to New York in an event called "Operation Chihuahua Airlift."

The diminutive dogs were flown, courtesy of Virgin America airlines, from the West Coast, where there are too many of them, to the East Coast, where New Yorkers were lining up to adopt them.

Unwanted Chihuahuas have become a problem in California, where they make up more than 30 percent of dogs in animal shelters.

The city of Wichita's 2008 database of licensed dogs shows Chihuahuas as the third-most popular breed in town, behind only Labradors and dachshunds.

And more of them are showing up in area animal shelters.

Pals Animal Rescue has nine Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes for adoption right now, and has turned down others at the Wichita and El Dorado animal shelters because its program is full, said Pals director Ellen Querner.

"We are in a serious situation with Chihuahuas," Querner said. "They don't always make good pets. They are cute, but people get them for the wrong reasons."

David Frangipane, humane officer for Chihuahua Rescue in Los Angeles, says three factors combine to create the problem of too many Chihuahuas: pop culture, ignorance about the breed and the fact that the dogs are easily exploited.

"Chihuahuas are ingrained in pop culture and have been for a long time," Frangipane said.

From the Taco Bell spokesdog of the late 1990s, to "The Simple Life" with Paris Hilton to "Legally Blonde" and 2008's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," the portable pups have become a "must have" pet, he said, often acquired by people who aren't aware of their special needs and then abandon them when they don't live up to expectations.

Chihuahuas are prone to health and behavior problems, Frangipane said. They are one of the most difficult breeds to train, and they "tend to bond with one person, and be hostile to everybody else."

For that reason, many Chihuahuas may not pass the temperament tests that many shelters and humane societies use to help decide whether a dog is adoptable.

"I imagine the majority of Chihuahuas do not pass that test," Frangipane said.

The dogs' small size — they typically weigh between 2 and 6 pounds — works against them in many ways, he said.

Because "they take up so little room," more people — particularly in California and in a tough economy — breed them in an effort to make money, Frangipane said. "They'll raise a litter of Chihuahuas in a corner in a cardboard box."

And because they're small, parents will often buy one as a pet for a child — then get rid of the dog when it nips at the child or the child accidentally injures it.

Chihuahuas need "mature handlers — and that's not necessarily age-wise," Frangipane said. "You need to be prepared to meet a Chihuahua on their own terms."

Chihuahuas can have "attitude issues" and, if not properly socialized, are often fearful, "which may make them seem unadoptable in a shelter situation," said Querner, of Pals Animal Rescue.

She thinks the problem with Chihuahuas is that "they are so cute that people treat them like babies."

"The dogs grow up without discipline or having been socialized like larger dogs would be," she said. "As they transition from cute, tiny puppies to spoiled adult dogs, they then are not as desirable to own. Thus they are often discarded."

The Kansas Humane Society currently has 13 Chihuahuas at its shelter, said spokesperson Jennifer Campbell. She said adoption counselors there will recommend that a Chihuahua go to a home with adults or older children.

"They are tiny but they are tough," she said.

People tend to let small dogs get away with behavior they wouldn't tolerate in a large dog, Campbell said.

If an 80-pound Lab is barking obnoxiously or acting aggressive, "you are more likely going to correct that behavior than pick it up and put it in your purse and say it's OK."

Chihuahuas have "great personalities, and people adore them," Campbell said.

"They can be wonderful, really sweet dogs, and they look great in a sweater.

"But people need to be responsible with them, particularly with their behaviors."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle