The Italian Greyhound: Tiny, beloved of royalty and anything but fast (until they put their minds to it)

Italian Greyhounds are a conundrum: for all their speed potential they're usually infuriatingly slow, miniature-sized – and they're not even Italian. No wonder they've entranced people since the heyday of the ancient Egyptians, as Katy Birchall explains.

When considering an Italian greyhound, ask yourself: ‘Do I mind being late?’

If the answer is no, proceed to the next step.

If, however, this strikes fear into your heart, do not apply. With an Italian greyhound trotting at your feet, you should prepare to be stopped wherever you go.

Often mistaken for whippet puppies, the Italian greyhound is the smallest of the sighthound family – the breed is officially classed in the ‘toy’ group in the UK, but, for all intents and purposes, is recognised as a sighthound – and is less well known than its cousins, sparking immediate curiosity.

‘People are so intrigued by them,’ discloses Jane Moseley, proud owner of Romi and Zeppo.

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‘They want to know what the breed is and whether they’re fully grown. Everyone is amazed when I tell them Romi is seven.’

Jane Moseley's Italian Greyhound Zeppo (©Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

Jane Moseley’s Italian Greyhound Zeppo (©Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

Having previously owned German shepherds, Mrs Moseley was on the lookout for a smaller breed, but wasn’t convinced by the idea of a lapdog.

‘I was on holiday in the South of France and saw a family walking by with this beautiful little sighthound. After researching the breed, I realised Italian greyhounds ticked all the boxes: a small dog with a big personality,’ she says.

‘It’s astounding that the breed isn’t so well known when you think about how long it’s been around.’

The Italian greyhound’s history is fascinating and its name misleading. With evidence of origins in Ancient Egypt, making it one of the world’s oldest breeds, the Italian greyhound is thus called thanks to its prevalence in Renaissance art. Its sphinx-like appearance, with a narrow chest, slender neck and legs, long muzzle and bright, expressive eyes, naturally lends itself to an artist’s brush.

Jo Amsell with her husband Martin and her Italian Greyhounds (©Joe Bailey / Country Life)

One of Jo Amsell’s greyhounds (©Joe Bailey / Country Life)

However, its popularity as a loyal companion dog to the prominent and privileged throughout history has also played a large part in securing its spot on canvas. Once a fashionable favourite with British nobility, the breed has counted Queen Victoria, Charles I, Anne Boleyn and Mary, Queen of Scots among its fans.

‘The first time I set eyes on an Italian greyhound was when I opened my history textbook in school and there was a painting of Catherine the Great with one at her feet,’ explains Christine Chau, co-founder of luxury dog-bed company Charley Chau.

‘Years later, when I was thinking about getting a dog, I remembered the one in that painting: elegant and slightly mischievous-looking.’

Now the owner of five Italian greyhounds – Charley, Anna, Tino, Theo and ‘manic’ Mabel – Miss Chau affectionately credits them for sparking her business venture, which today has customers in more than 45 countries.

Christine Chau with her dogs

Christine Chau with her dogs (Photo ©Grzegorz Gebik)

‘At the time, I was working in the City and had Charley and Anna,’ she recalls. ‘I’d ordered many expensive dog beds, but they were all lumpy and poorly made. My sister and I decided to have a go at making one ourselves and so our signature Snuggle Bed was born. It’s perfect, because it has the cover for them to burrow under – Italian greyhounds are real creatures of comfort.’

Heat-seekers through and through, these little dogs will hunt down the cosiest spot in any house (duvets are particularly tempting). Owners tend to be lenient when it comes to furniture privileges – a decision made easier thanks to the Italian greyhound’s silk-like coat, which doesn’t leave hairs all over the place – and those in the know are well-versed in checking lumps under blankets before sitting down.

However, don’t be fooled – these are no lapdogs.

‘I’ve walked to the top of Snowdon and back with mine and I’ve taken them to the Alps,’ says Jo Amsel, who owns 12 Italian greyhounds, a dachshund and a Spanish galgo.

‘They’re real sighthounds. You can walk them as far as you want and they’re still bouncing.’

Jo Amsell with her husband Martin and her Italian Greyhounds

(©Joe Bailey/Country Life)

A trustee of the Italian Greyhound Rescue Charity, Mrs Amsel emphasises that these are very much small hounds and shouldn’t be bought as a toy dog: ‘They’re extremely agile and need a lot of free running. It’s a beautiful sight to watch them go.’ Italian greyhounds are bundles of energy and can run at speeds up to 25mph.

The combination of agility, curiosity and a headstrong nature makes these dogs a mischievous and high-maintenance breed. They won’t take kindly to being left alone for hours and crave human interaction.

Guernsey-based photographer Ben Bailey-Davies grew up with whippets and lurchers, but reveals that it was the big character of the Italian greyhound that won him over. He now has two, Serge and Coco, from the same litter.

‘They need plenty of attention and don’t really understand the concept of personal space, preferring to sit on you than next to you,’ he says.

‘They’re very “me, me, me”.’

Jo Amsell with her husband Martin and her Italian Greyhounds

Jo Amsell with her husband Martin and her Italian Greyhounds (©Joe Bailey / Country Life)

Mr Bailey-Davies finds himself laughing on a daily basis at their misdemeanours. ‘We used to have a clothes-drying rack in the house and every time we had a dinner party, Serge would make a point of going off and returning with a pair of pants to show everyone. He always looked very pleased with himself.’

Italian greyhounds can be greedy and will happily hop up onto kitchen counters and help themselves if you’re not careful. Mr Bailey-Davies once discovered Serge tucking into a bowl of Parmesan and Miss Chau’s Charley managed to consume an entire roast duck that she’d left on the side to cool – ‘he was lying on the sofa in a comatose state for hours’.

This wilful streak requires patience when it comes to training, but, for its advocates, it’s also one of the breed’s most charming and amusing qualities. ‘I often feel that Romi has a certain expectation of luxury I have to meet,’ Mrs Moseley admits.

‘She hates getting wet, so if we’re on a walk and it starts to rain, she heads straight home. She won’t wait around for me.’

Jane Moseley's Italian Greyhound Romi (©Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

Jane Moseley’s Italian Greyhound Romi (©Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

As with all dogs, research before buying is an absolute necessity and potential owners should be wary of puppy farms – interest has recently been piqued in Italian greyhounds thanks to celebrity owners such as Kylie Jenner, youngest of the Kardashian empire.

‘Irresponsible breeding can result in health problems such as poor bone density, which causes leg breaks,’ warns Mrs Amsel, pointing out that advice can be found on the rescue website and Facebook page.

‘It should be kept in mind that it’s rare for a responsible breeder to advertise puppies for sale on the internet.’

Talk to an Italian greyhound owner and it will quickly become clear that, once these little dogs burrow their way into your heart, there’s no going back.

‘They’re fantastic characters, brilliant company and will go everywhere with you,’ Mr Bailey-Davies concludes. ‘The perfect little hound.’

Find out more about Italian Greyhounds at the Italian Greyhound Rescue Charity –