Chihuahuas Get Big Taco Bell Dog Spurs Pet Revolution.

Posted: August 03, 1998

Cognac, Velvet and Autumn are living the good life.

Outside their one-story home, lush plants dangle from the ledge and soft music floats from artfully hidden speakers. As the three frolic in the grass with friends, a waist-high picket fence keeps the adoring public at bay.

It is, breeder Barbara Solinsky says, her babies' kingdom. And her babies suddenly have become all the rage.

With their ears pointing straight to the sky and their vocal cords defying the capacity of their tiny lungs, Solinsky's chihuahuas have become a hot canine commodity. Her phone rings without respite, and when a caller is tying up the line, her beeper dutifully vibrates.

``I get the same line over and over again,'' said Solinsky, a chihuahua breeder who, in her spare time, runs Pet Grooming by Barbara out of her Franklinville, Gloucester County, home. ``People have just seen the Taco Bell commercial, and they want to know more about the breed.''

Solinsky is just one woman in one small town in New Jersey. Nationally, chihuahua breeders and enthusiasts say, the Taco Bell dog with the big, brown eyes, quivering body and deep voice has done for the chihuahua what Lassie did for the collie, what 101 Dalmatians did for the dalmatian, and what Eddie on Frasier has done for the Jack Russell terrier: created a buying frenzy.

Consider these numbers from the Chihuahua Club of America, the national parent club for chihuahuas that is a member of the American Kennel Club (AKC): In 1993, the chihuahua was the 16th most popular AKC-registered breed in the country. Last year, it edged its way up to position number 12. By year's end, club members say, they expect chihuahuas to rank in the top 10.

``The chihuahua is getting noticed,'' said Sandra Whittle, president of the Chihuahua Club of America, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. ``People are beginning to realize that the chihuahua is not a whiny, shivery, yappy dog. It is a strong, loving, loyal, independent breed.''

Indeed, the Taco Bell commercials, inspired by creative directors Chuck Bennett and Clay Williams of TBWA Chiat/Day, an ad company based in Venice, Calif., have created a far cooler image of the chihuahua. (In the process, they have contributed to a 3 percent increase in sales for Taco Bell, which last year netted $4.9 billion.)

In the commercials, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, whose real name is Gidget, hangs with Gen-X'ers, climbs fire escapes, and in the more recent, controversial ads, roams the desert to convert hamburger loyalists into taco lovers under the banner of the Taco Revolution.

According to Bennett, the agency was looking to depict ``a 19-year-old guy in a dog's body who primarily thinks of food and girls.''

Casting calls for the perfect chihuahua followed. With her bat-like ears and lucid eyes, the female Gidget took the prize.

And the cycle of calls began.

``Since those commercials aired, my numbers have been up,'' said Mary Novak, who runs a chihuahua rescue in Toms River, N.J., for dogs that are lost or have otherwise been abandoned by their owners. Between January and June of this year, for instance, Novak received more than 70 inquiries about her chihuahuas. That is at least 30 more than she received in the same time period last year.

``They all ask for the Taco Bell dog,'' Novak said. ``They say they want the tan dog like the one on TV. Many don't know that chihuahuas come in different colors and that Gidget, who I admit is really cute, doesn't even meet the AKC standard.''

Novak said Gidget is too tall, too heavy and too leggy. Her head is not round enough and her muzzle is too long. And don't even get chihuahua purists started on her behind, which hangs too low to the ground.

Under the AKC standard, the chihuahua should have an apple-shaped skull, big, luminous eyes (not bulging), and large, erect ears ``held more upright when alert, but flaring to the sides at a 45-degree angle when in repose,'' according to AKC literature. Chihuahuas should not exceed six pounds, said AKC spokeswoman Valerie Geiss.

Chihuahuas can come in any color - solid, marked or splashed - and can either have smooth coats (which should be closely cropped, soft and glossy) or long coats (which should be ``flat or slightly curly, with an undercoat preferred''). The tail, if it's a long-coat, should be full and long, like a plume.

Gidget, breeders say, is awfully lacking in most of the above departments.

``There are entire discussions on the Internet about whether the Taco Bell Dog has been good or bad for the breed,'' said Sandi Danaher, a member of the Chihuahua Club of America who lives in Maple Glen, Pa.

``The truth is, [Gidget] is as cute as can be, but she is not true to [her] breed,'' Danaher said. ``People will go to backyard breeders and buy these dogs that are not indicative of their breed, and think that they are getting a full breed chihuahua.''

The split among chihuahua enthusiasts is great, Danaher said.

Most reputable chihuahua breeders ``cringe'' when they get calls from people who want a dog that looks ``exactly like the Taco Bell chihuahua,'' said Bob Bohrer, who has bred chihuahuas in Kutztown, Pa. for more than 40 years.

Those people don't realize that chihuahuas are hard to housebreak, are not necessarily great with children, and vice versa (children can accidentally crush them when they are still puppies), and that chihuahuas need a lot of love and attention from their owners, said Myrle Hale, owner and publisher of Los Chihuahuas Magazine, a bimonthly dedicated to the breed.

``This frenzy has put breeders on guard,'' Hale said. ``It has made them very, very careful about where their dogs go.''

Hale is one of the more conservative critics of the commercial's impact on the breed. Annette Mellinger, secretary of the Chihuahua Club of Mid-Jersey, says the commercial is fostering a new breed of breeder: the type that only cares about cashing in on the sudden popularity of the breed without regard to the health or well-being of the dog.

When a buying frenzy for a specific breed occurs, she said, irresponsible breeders rush to get new litters out to stores. With chihuahuas, that can be especially dangerous because the average litter size is two to three puppies.

Compounding the problem is that chihuahuas often require cesarean sections, a costly procedure that some breeders would be less willing to pay.

``Sure, it's fun to see chihuahuas on TV,'' Mellinger said. ``But the only ones benefiting from the sudden popularity are the puppy mills and wholesalers who are distributing to stores.''

Others, like Diana Garren, secretary of the Chihuahua Club of America, are reserving criticism, saying that the commercial's positives have so far outweighed the negatives.

``The commercial has shattered the stereotype of the chihuahua as a loud, angry, little dog,'' Garren said. ``The truth is, chihuahuas have a great little personality.''

Chihuahuas, she said, are loyal, loving and feisty. While they are low-maintenance in the grooming department (they need a monthly bath and, if they are long-coats, a biweekly brushing), they require time and patience when being trained. They can be great and loyal friends to children, but ``they aren't a rough-and-tumble kind of dog,'' and will usually ``bond closest with the adult in the family,'' Novak said.

Consider the upside though: If someone is trying to break into your house, you will know. Chihuahuas tend to bark at strangers. Loudly.

``They have a bit of a Napoleonic complex,'' Solinsky said lovingly of her dogs.

But when socialized properly, Solinsky said, owners will find that within those little bodies lies not a taco-hungry teenager, not a shivering, quivering, tortured dog-soul, but ``the best pet you could ever possibly imagine.''

``There is no perfect dog,'' she said. ``But the chihuahua comes pretty close.''

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