Tue, 08/04/2020 - 6:25am

Age of Aquarius

Long-time Afghan Hound breeder Richard Souza looks to the past in order to reimagine the future

Richard Souza’s memories of his first years in Afghan Hounds play like a vintage newsreel: JFK’s assassination, the cold war, love-ins, lunar landings, Nureyev’s defection, the mire that was Vietnam – an era of American history that seesawed between tradition and transcendence.

Nodding vigorously at that zeitgeist were the dogs themselves. With their flowing hair and exotic bearing, they both harkened back to the hookah-hazed tents of their ancient Afghan homeland and looked forward to the equally smoky gatherings of their new Age of Aquarius devotees.

“The hippie community had embraced our breed as companions, and even referred to them as spirit dogs,” Souza says. “They saw the otherworldy quality, this primal essence that the breed has. It was not unusual at all to see an Afghan Hound walking off leash in Haight-Ashbury.”

Meanwhile, in the insular dog-show world, where stodgy cigar-chomping judges were having to contend with young exhibitors in miniskirts and go-go boots, the Afghan Hound experienced an unprecedented heyday that crescendoed well into the 1970s and early ’80s. Even at small all-breed shows, Afghan Hound entries would easily top a hundred; an entry of 60, which today would be considered a coup at a specialty show, was considered paltry, reason enough to stay home, as it took 125 dogs in California to make a five-point major.

Today, some of those same social issues still rage on, but the tenor of the times is completely different – more partisan than passionate, more cynical that cosmic. And the Afghan Hound’s standing has done a similar about-face, with specialty shows drawing sometimes as few as a dozen dogs total, and recognizable, line-bred families the exception rather than the rule.

But Souza, at least, has remained a constant. Tall and gracefully catlike, quietly observant and at times intimidatingly arch, he is not unlike the breed to which he and his Coastwind collaborator, Michael Dunham, have been devoted for more than a half-century. When Souza started in the early 1960s, some of the Afghan Hound’s marquee names were still actively breeding, providing a treasure trove of pedigrees that he and Dunham sought out to establish their famous line. And today, thanks to an infusion of the serendipity that has marked some of his most profound moments in dogs – not to mention a newfound dedication to yoga that keeps him limber – Souza now finds himself bow-tied and back in the ring with Coastwind dogs after a decade-plus hiatus.


A painting by Sandi Rolfe showing some of the most famous Coastwind dogs of Souza's long career in the breed.


Souza saw his first Afghan Hound while still in high school, at a brunch where a guest walked in with “this incredible-looking creature” that he had never seen before. Several years later, while studying art at UC Berkeley, Souza discovered that Picasso was an Afghan Hound owner, “and that reignited the flame.”

After college, Souza moved to San Francisco and met Dunham, who coincidentally already owned two of the exotic hounds that had so captured Souza’s imagination.

Scouring the newspaper classifieds, they found a litter in the Bay area bred by pioneer breeders George and Mary Smithburn. The bitch they ultimately brought home, Ch. Shaadar’s Blajnje of Karlyle, had a sire who was linebred on Kay Finch’s famous Crown Crest line, and a dam with a shot of the iconic Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur behind her. However, it wasn’t the pedigree that sold Souza – that would come later. When Mary Smithburn lifted the wriggly black-masked silver from the whelping box and commented that she was perfumed, Souza put his face up to the puppy’s muzzle, breathed in that telltale patchouli-like scent – so rare that in the decades since he’s only known a handful of dogs that have possessed it – and decided there and then to take her home.

Fascinated by dog shows, Souza and Dunham starting attending to watch and learn. At the Del Monte Kennel Club Show, they saw consummate handler Frank Sabella show Ch. Sahadi Shikari. Like the dogs Souza found himself drawn to, Shikari was a clever mixture of Sunny Shay’s Grandeur dogs from the East Coast and Kay Finch’s California-based Crown Crest line.

“When he walked into the ring, it was an epiphany for both of us,” Souza remembers of the famous Shirkhan son, who was called “The Chief.” “We were mesmerized by the primitiveness the dog had. It was an image that shaped our concept of the breed and what we wanted.”

At the same time, successful breeder Lois Boardman frequently showed her Akaba dogs in northern California, and brought two littermates, double Shirkhan grandsons, to show to Ellsworth Gamble, a hound expert who was highly respected among breeders and judges alike. Both dogs would become legends in the breed: In 1967, Ch. Akaba’s Sterling Silver won the Afghan Hound Club of America national specialty, and the next day his brother Ch. Akaba’s Blue Devil won the Hound Group at the Garden.

“We saw these two young dogs sitting on crates at a show, heads pulled back, looking down their noses at everything passing by, like cobras,” Souza says of the two Akaba brothers. “From that point on, we knew in which direction we wanted to go.”

Souza and Dunham assiduously followed all the litters born in the Bay area, but were determined to incorporate Akaba blood into their first breeding. One day, a classified ad popped up in the San Francisco Chronicle, offering a 2-year-old red brindle male for sale. Immediately, they guessed who it was: Akaba’s Allah Kazam, a grown littermate to those two crate-topping puppies – and a consummate escape artist. Coincidentally, his owner had lived in the same building in San Francisco’s North Beach as Dunham, who had scooped the naughty Afghan Hound off the street more than once and even took him to training class. Then dog and owner just disappeared.

The ad had been placed by a boarding kennel where Allah Kazam’s owner had left him. Souza and Dunham paid the outstanding bill, worked with Boardman to get the dog’s paperwork sorted with AKC, and then bred Allah to their foundation bitch Blanch – on her first season and before she was shown, both considered no-no’s at the time.

That first litter produced a trio of puppies: the male Ch. Coastwind Gazebo, who became the top-winning Afghan Hound in the nation in 1968; the aptly named bitch Ch. Coastwind Serendipity, who produced their second generation, and another male they placed with a friend and lost track of. A week after the breeding, Allah Kazam dug out from under a fence, wandered onto the highway, and was killed by a school bus.

After producing that first “foundation block” for their Coastwind line, Souza and Dunham decided to take Serendipity to another of Boardman’s dogs, the young Ch. Akaba’s Geronimo Blue – with a double dose of the Grandeur bloodlines, he evoked the type that had so impressed them on that day that Sabella presented The Chief.

As with the previous litter, this one was successful, producing the brindle Aust. Ch. Coastwind Holy Man, who went to David Roche in Australia and made quite an impact there, as well as Ch. Coastwind Nepenthe, an influential stud dog who produced a string of specialty-winning Coastwind offspring.

Then tragedy struck again: Geronimo Blue perished in Boardman’s kennel fire – as with Allah Kazam, before he could be used at stud on any other bitches.

“Now we had two foundation pedigrees, ironically being the only ones in the world to have them. From these we began to tighten up our pedigree,” Souza says, adding that the type they strove for with their dogs was “very hard, very dry, very athletic and very primitive. They had the aloof quality that we always felt was so significant in the breed. Grandeur, through Akaba, was always the basis for our thinking, and it gave us everything – it set the type. It held.”


Ch. Coastwind Abraxas on the move.


In the decades that followed, Coastwind produced a number of influential Afghan Hounds whose presence was felt both in the ring and the whelping box: the blue-brindle National Specialty, multiple SBIS and Group winner Ch. Coastwind Abraxas, who sired a then-record 80 champions at a time when finishing a dog was no easy feat and artificial insemination unheard of; all-breed BIS and SBIS Group winner Ch. Coastwind Obsidian, and a long string of Specialty BIS winners that followed – 17 individual ones to date. A number of exports also did well overseas, including the 1979 littermates Ch. Coastwind Alexian in Japan, Coastwind Alisandra in Brazil, and Coastwind Amulet and Arzu in Canada.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Souza can’t single out his most influential Afghan Hound. “I have to say they all were equally important, and each played an important role,” he explains. “The fancy had their own particular favorites, but to us each successive generation produced what I like to think of as the genetic tapestry that was Coastwind.”


Left: Souza showing Ch. Coastwind Obsidian. Right: Ch. Coastwind Tarza.


Acutely aware of the valuable genetics they were inheriting, Souza and Dunham continued to linebreed to retain the characteristics they valued. Within their family of Afghan Hounds, they deliberately developed two lines of related dogs that they bred more or less separately, giving them the flexibility of crossing back and forth.

While many of the Coastwind dogs were known for their voluminous coats, Souza deeply appreciates – and prefers – patterned dogs. Sadly, many newer judges don’t know what to do with Afghan Hounds who enter the ring with a sparse coat and bare ankles – what in the breed is affectionately termed “Turkish pants.”

“I think patterning had disappeared a lot more in the 1970s and ’80s because coat was an important factor in the show ring back then,” Souza explains, ticking off some exceptions: Ch. Coastwind Ouija, a black-and-tan Gazebo daughter that finished at fifteen months with three five point majors, all on the West Coast, was heavily patterned; the cream bitch SBIS Ch. Coastwind Peony – also a color difficult to put across – was patterned as well. “Reigh and Dewey Abrams of Dureigh regularly showed patterned dogs and won. And there were pockets of patterning in the East, where breeders like Babbie Tongren and Sunny valued it,” Souza explains. “But generally people were very reluctant to show dogs that were referred to by some (even respected) breeders as having a ‘coat problem’ – which I found very annoying, then and now. Happily, we see more dogs percentage wise with that beautiful Eastern look so typical of the breed. I love them, and there are a lot of old-time breeders who feel the same way.”


Ch. Coastwind Peony.


Other changes, however, are not so appreciated. Today’s more hi-how-are-ya temperaments are a galaxy away from those two deathly serious Akaba cobras perched on their crates. And that atypically gregarious temperament, Souza says, affects even how the dogs move, with faulty construction also playing a significant role.

“Many dogs today have stovepipe necks, almost perpendicular to the ground – very erect – and their handlers move them really fast,” he says. “The speed and animation are flashy, and confuse judges who haven’t really seen correct carriage. But what it really amounts to is a lot of wasted motion.”

Other common conformation faults include “big overdriving rears without enough reach in front to balance them.” Add to this fast, furious motion, and what do you get? Wasted motion, a stark contrast to the correctly “free and easy motion” that covers just as much ground, but seems to do so effortlessly – that last word being the operative one.

While much is made of the Afghan Hound’s distinctive “spring” when it is deployed on its reconnaissance trot, Souza notes that many of these breakneck speedsters typically bounce instead, trying to disperse their overpowering rear drive. “The right amount of spring comes from a combination of correct drive from the rear accompanying proper extension in front,” he explains, “as well as correct head carriage that is slightly forward – not straight up in the air.”

In his early days in the breed, Souza had access to some of the most famous names in Afghan Hounds, including Juliette de Baïracli Levy, the acclaimed herbalist and breeder whose famous export, Turkuman Nissim’s Laurel, was piloted to the breed’s first-ever Hound Group win at Westminster in 1950 by Sunny Shay. After Levy complained to him that her Greek home was being buffeted by the radioactive winds of the Chernobyl fallout, Souza suggested she explore the Azores. (Souza’s grandfather was a native of those Portuguese islands and left him a “pile of rocks” that Souza has since transformed into an antiques-bedecked retreat called Villa Beyonda, with a guest house rising in the adjacent lot.) The two visited whenever Souza was in the Azores, giving him the opportunity to ask Levy about the evolution of the British standard (essentially, the result of horse-trading between breeders with different style dogs), size (her stud dog was enormous) and eye color. (She said the sheiks approved of a light eye, correlating it to hunting ability. “The look of eagles, you know.”)


Souza exhibiting the current generation, Coast Jada.


Today, Souza and other long-time breeders like him are the Levys of our day, but they might as well be living on a remote archipelago for all their collective wisdom is overlooked. “I don’t think I’ve had two or three people ask me an in-depth question in the last 20 years,” he says matter-of-factly. “People don’t talk about breeding the way they did before – today they show their dogs and go home. There isn’t the academic interest there used to be. I think that’s lost.”

So too, arguably, are the breed’s glory days, with entries routinely in the triple digits. But what remains, Souza stresses, is still workable. As an active breeder-judge, “I still find dogs that I think are really good. The drawback is there aren’t too many,” he says. “But when all is said and done, if there are imaginative, intelligent, inventive breeders, they can with commitment and vision perpetuate the right things in the breed. The ingredients are still there. With a handful of complementary dogs and bitches, you can work them in such a way pedigree wise so you can start building on their quality. I think it’s still possible.”

For his part, Souza has done just that, thanks to a few strokes of that ever-present serendipity. When Wendy Roscher decided to stop breeding several years ago, she offered Souza and Dunham her Finnish-bred bitch, who was sired via frozen semen by Ch. Coastwind Bowman – “again,” Souza points out, “from a litter that nobody else in world had or could have — no more semen.” Simultaneously, Vicki and Warren Cook came to the same conclusion about breeding and offered their stored semen on Ch. Fermoys the Apostle, an important dog whose roots go back to the Coastwind stock imported to Australia by David Roche.

Souza and Dunham have plans for using that important “Sydney” semen on a Coastwind bitch, but first things first: Taking the Finnish bitch, Gilthoniel's Pilgrim Of Lyonesse, to Ch. Coastwind Anuttara Archetype (whose sire, Divalis Bowler on the Green, has much Coastwind in his background), they produced the most recent Coastwind litter of 13. “The biggest we’ve had in 50 years,” Souza says, and the first in more than a dozen years. Except for two or three of the puppies, the entire litter was patterned.


Souza showing Ch. Coastwind Suez to an Award of Merit at the 2018 Afghan Hound Club of America national specialty under breeder-judge Robert Stein.


“Our creative juices and breederly inclinations were reinvigorated,” Souza admits. “I don’t particularly enjoy showing dogs anymore, but I love people to see what we’ve done because we’re so proud of them. Having puppies again reenergized our old breeding habits. We loved watching them on a daily basis, growing and changing. That breeder’s instinct is still intact.”

If there is any downside to this reawakening of Souza and Dunham’s inner breeder, it is that it makes them ache for another 30 years to build on what has been reignited. But when serendipity taps you on the shoulder, there’s no way to predict where or how far it will take you. Age of Aquarius, indeed.



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