The Caravan Hound: exotic to us, maybe. Photo courtesy of Neil Trilokekar.
Fri, 02/09/2024 - 8:18pm

Wokeness in Sighthounds

It's a truism in dogs, one that is almost universally overlooked: Cultures create canines

We can be woke in dogs, too.

No, I’m not talking about acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness of our dog sport. (Though that’s a worthy — to say nothing of under-discussed — topic.) I’m talking about the cultural entitlement — colonialism, even — inherent in the Western fancy, which itself is, of course, relentlessly white. So, full circle.

Most of my close friends know that I have been researching a book on the Azawakh with my dear friends and mentors Francesca Zampini and Patrizio Palliani of Azamour fame. Friends near and far know this because I discuss every new development with them — a telltale sign that I’m ready to start typing instead of talking.

But I didn’t always feel that way: It’s not an exaggeration to say that it took me about three years of reading, researching and interviewing before I knew enough to even start thinking about the keyboard. That’s because the African continent is incredibly varied and complex — racially, ethnically, religiously, culturally, environmentally. As with the desert itself, nothing is as it seems. And like the blind men who each grab a different part of that proverbial elephant, the unknown is easily miscategorized.

It's a truism in dogs, one that is almost universally overlooked: Cultures create canines. Just as wine lovers know that soil and climate give each vintage its distinctive terroir — literally, in French, “sense of place” — the culture of a place and time determines the function and form of a breed.

That the Scottish Deerhound looks as if it walked out of a chapter of “Wuthering Heights” is no accident: The breed is of, by and for the moors, right down to its expression, which combines the hardscrabble beauty of endless stretches of heather with brooding Scottish sentimentality.

“If you look at a Deerhound and the word wistful comes unbidden into mind; if suddenly you seem to see a long vista of Deerhounds stretching away into the past, it is probable that the hound is typical,” wrote breed authority Norah Hartley of Rotherwood fame.

Cue Heathcliff.

Like any expression of culture – whether language or cuisine or fashion or architecture — dog breeds are always evolving. But in our purebred fancy, we have chosen to freeze-frame them at a specific – if arbitrary – pulse point in time. In the case of the Afro-Asian Sighthounds, that moment is almost always the point of revelation — to the West, that is. Like the explorers who “discovered” cultures that had endured for millennia, these breeds began to exist for Westerners the moment we stumbled across them.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Eastern Sighthounds were introduced to Europe by military men who brought them back as living souvenirs from their colonizing expeditions, a canine version of those souvenir T-shirts they sell in Key West, right next to the Margaritaville shot glasses: “My dad went to colonize North Africa, and all he brought back was this lousy Sloughi.”


Zardin, whelped in 1902, was the first Afghan Hound to arrive in Britain in the early 1900s. Like many early Eastern Sighthounds, he was acquired by a military man — Captain John Barff — in India.


Invariably, these breeds earned the label “exotic,” another nod to Western self-absorption. After all, these Sighthounds are exotic only to us – not to the peoples who developed and nurtured them for centuries.

So when we talk to Africans or Middle Easterners about Saluki or Sloughi or Azawakh, we are always speaking the language of appropriation. And our own tone deafness — coupled with an ignorance of any history that predates our involvement — only blurs the picture more.

What’s the difference between a Berber and a Bedouin? Before I started my book project, I couldn’t tell you. Who exactly were the Moors, other than a cheap joke in that Seinfeld Bubble Boy episode? Ditto.

And for that matter, what’s the difference between an Azawakh and a Sloughi and a Saluki? It’s just as knotty a question for many — most? — judges.

Once, during a comparison seminar on those three breeds at which I presented the Azawakh, I opened the PowerPoint to reveal a photo of a red smooth Saluki.

“What breed?” I asked the attendees.

Saluki was their last choice.

The great irony, of course, is that if you asked a Bedouin about those three breeds, he would reject the premise: It is only we Westerners who insist on carving families of dogs into ever-smaller chunks.

In their countries of origin, those Western-proclaimed breeds are more like points along a continuum. (And there’s another slap to the side of the head, the forced plurality of “countries of origin,” given that their borders were artificially created by the West after World War I.) There, a Saluki or Sloughi is not a tidily distinct breed— retract those capital letters! — but rather an ancient template that adjusts itself in various ways, from size to coat to color, depending on where and with whom it must work to survive.

I used to be profoundly frustrated with the AKC Saluki standard, which someone once astutely observed reads more like a haiku. (Or is that the Greyhound standard?) How was I to understand what this breed is supposed look like when its breed standard is maddeningly silent about its body or head proportions, eye shape, croup angle, and on and on?

But when I spoke to knowledgeable fanciers on the African continent — chief among them Tarek Tahari, an Algerian Sloughi breeder and scholar who is writing a book about the roots of the Eastern Sighthounds and their influence on other breeds — we found common ground in the conformation of the animals themselves.

When I first learned to judge Sighthounds, I was taught to place my hand between the hip bones to assess width of pelvis. Tarek across the ocean expressed this a different way — the distance between the knees — but same concept. A capacious chest, adequate fill (can’t knock down prey with an empty front), width of pelvis, compact loin, powerful underjaw, finely articulated tail, low-stationed withers (a near impossibility to find) — these are the details I weigh heavily now.


BIS It. Ch. Ashaki Aenbel, whelped 2006. Quiet, but so correct, she had so many of the virtues missing today in the Azawakh: A true taller-than-long profile, appreciably long upper arm, undeveloped withers, short loin (a very common pain point today) and “a general impression of great fineness.” Photo courtesy of Francesca Zampini.


Let’s focus on running gear for a moment, because arguably this is where many Sighthounds have lost their way.

In desert hounds, the rear is the unassailable engine of the dog. Simply put, there must be sheer strength there, without sacrificing fineness. The Azawakh and Sloughi standards are excellent in this regard, emphasizing points that over centuries of Bedouin breeding tradition have come to be valued, from strength of loin to fineness of the tail, especially at its insertion and tip. (Foreign blood invariably manifests in a relatively coarse, thick tail.) While the front assembly is still important, without powerful rearquarters the dogs go nowhere fast.

Among our Afghan Hound, Azawakh and Sloughi fanciers, a sloping topline is a cardinal sin. But it’s not the backline that is the area of concern — rather, it’s the withers. Animals built for pure speed do not have well-developed withers. There should be no slope, no matter how fluid or seamless, that flows down from the neck, often at a 45-degree angle, into the withers.

Well-developed withers are a Western conceit, obsessed as we are with front assemblies. Think of the British sporting dogs, working at a trot in terrain that is relatively constrained in size and congested with vegetation. For such breeds, built to suit a temperate climate, well-developed withers make sense: All that connective tissue over the withers is what enables the dog to trot with its head carried up and out. And that development – which requires more flesh — almost always results in a loss of the dryness that is so distinctive of desert breeds.

It's the ultimate irony: The breeds that so fascinate us become caricatures of the cultures they represent. It’s a slippery but short slope from sitting down with knife and fork before a crisp margherita pie at a Roman trattoria to ordering a pineapple-studded pie at California Pizza Kitchen. I suppose the latter is technically a pizza, but I would argue it has jumped the shark.

Knowing what we know and knowing what we like, it’s easy to see the evolution of our modern “show Salukis,” beautifully made and fronted, but with a shift of emphasis from the rear to front that arguably confounds purpose. A stunning picture, but far from the conformational cornerstones that helped these dogs survive in an inhospitable, almost lunar landscape. (And by the way, there are no indigenous feathered Saluki in Africa, only smooths.)

That said, just because a dog is desert bred doesn’t make it superior; clueless breeders exist everywhere. Nor does a functional Sighthound need to be, well, ugly. Beauty is an integral part of life when you are surrounded by a landscape often devoid of detail.

One of the most powerful conversations I had was with an elder statesman in Mali who voiced that last point more eloquently — if harshly — than I ever could.

“All that is ugly, all that is not beautiful, is not maintained” by us, he explained. “This is why when a woman is not beautiful, she cannot find a husband, she is not maintained, she does not receive much love, she is not surrounded with much care, unlike the beautiful woman. This is valid for camels, dogs and horses.”

It is easier than you might think, thanks to Facebook and various other platforms, to reach the world’s remotest corners. Even in the Sahara, your WhatsApp pings. That tribal elder’s contact information came from a single mother from the Bronx who lives about 20 miles and one bridge crossing from where I type this. It is a small world, after all.

In a Midwestern city, I dined with an ex-pat Tuareg nomad who still maintains a herd of camels in Niger. The criterion for a stud camel that will produce good milking cows, he explained, is large testicles. That confounded me until a savvy breeder-friend — thank you, Jeff Bazell — pointed out that there’s only a chromosome’s difference between those dangly bits and the udder of a camel cow. Sometimes, the observations of good stockmen and women are just as insightful as a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal.

Sadly, however, some of my overseas informants have been less than trustworthy. One requested that I send him money for “tea” so that he could contemplate my questions while appropriately caffeinated. I did not comply, nor was I surprised at the request: In their naiveté at best and self-absorption at worst, Westerners are easy targets for misinformation, whether intentional or not.

Indeed, Tarek sometimes snickers at the Sloughi brought to France in the late 19th Century, labelling them mongrels for all intents and purposes. Similarly, our conversations prompted me to take a closer look at the Arabians imported by Lady Anne Blunt to form her world-famous Crabbet strain; contrast them to the ethereal creatures in the royal Egyptian stables, and see what you think.


Early Sloughi import to Europe. Note heaviness of head and thickness of tail.


Arguably, no breed has suffered more from our disregard for its cultural underpinnings than the Azawakh, starting with the incongruity of naming a nomadic dog after a fixed place. Some fanciers have grown enamored of “rustic” examples sourced far away from the Menaka area of Mali, from which all the founding dogs hailed. Here in the U.S., previous educational material has stated — erroneously, according to my research — that the breed was also bred by the Bella, the subjugated slave class at the very bottom of the Tuareg social hierarchy.

Over dinner with my camel-breeding friend, I asked about the Bella. Very evenly, he replied that his father had always told him that the Bella were their “brothers.” In some cases, this is literally true: Being a matrilineal society in which the identity of your mother determines your social standing, Tuareg keep black concubines, even today. While their mixed-race children speak the Tuaregs’ Tamasheq language and observe their customs, they are nonetheless relegated to their mother’s social circle.

“What kinds of dogs do the Bella own?” I asked.

He raised his eyes from his dinner.

“The Bella don’t have dogs,” he replied patiently, as if speaking to a child. “They don’t own anything.”

Given that the AKC standard was changed to accommodate the spectrum of colors of Bella-procured dogs, among others, that’s a little concerning, to say the least.

(It should go without saying, but best to say it anyway: Many racial attitudes found in North and West Africa do not align with social values in most Western societies, but to describe them is not to endorse them. If we hope to understand where these dogs come from, then we have to understand the cultural attitudes surrounding them, even if they are unpleasant or offensive. And as for the anything-goes description of color in the AKC Azawakh standard, if that’s what the standard says, that’s how judges must judge, even if they have good reason to disagree.)


A particularly fine Azawakh, Kel Tarbanassen Firhoun, whelped in 1990.


Of course, maybe I protest too much. Maybe due to the observer effect — in which something is changed just by virtue of the fact that someone has noticed it – it’s impossible to truly be faithful to a breed’s beginnings. Maybe we are doomed to always re-create these breeds in our own image, because we cannot be anything we are not, and the elements of our age and culture inevitably creep in.

What I do know is that I have been woefully underinformed about the world outside my window, and how it came to be. When I judged in Pisa, Italy, several years ago, I was more fascinated with the city’s baptistery — the largest in Italy, used, as its name suggests, for christenings — than its eponymous tower. Completed in 1602, the baptistery’s bronze doors famously depict a rhinoceros — proof that medieval folks got around.

We think of Arabs as desert dwellers, completely ignoring the seafaring prowess of their urban traders — they have been navigating the Indian Ocean for millennia. And there’s that minor matter of the Berbers conquering the Iberian Peninsula before the end of the first millennium; Spain, Portugal, Sicily were all under their thrall. They saw value in some of the dogs they found abroad, and brought along some of their own — ancient crosses that still resonate today.

I watch on Facebook as fanciers rush to own and promote “rare” Sighthounds, from the Caravan Hounds of India to the Tazy of Kazakhstan. Those who are really in the know — Neil Trilokekar comes immediately to mind — confide that most are crosses. Neil knows this because he has ties to this part of the world. For him, the dogs of his beloved India are important aspects of cultural expression — not the latest “it” breed.


Branded Caravan Hound bitch. Despite the fascination of Western fanciers, Trilokekar says there are no purebred examples that he is aware of in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Neil Trilokekar.


At the end of the day, I suppose everything boils down to respect: Respect for the cultures that produced these breeds, respect enough to acquire some depth in them. Cultural appropriation takes without regard for context or tradition. We stomp our feet over blue Frenchies and merle Siberians, but type is about more — far more — than just color. If the changes we make to a breed are more subtle — and prompted by our own cultural setpoints — does that make them any less problematic?

In the end, where does that leave us? On the brink of discovery, I hope. Only by looking back can we make our way forward with some degree of authenticity.


A version of this story originally appeared in the 2022 Sighthound Review Annual.


© Dog News. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.

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