Out of Africa : The Azawakh

Nan Bodine

 They are as much at home in the harsh realities of the desert as they are stretched out across their owner1s bed on a cold winter night. They have evolved able to adapt to their surroundings, are able to sustain themselves on very little, and yet do not mind sharing a steak sandwich when the situation arises. Within their tribal camp they can become as fiercely aloof as any guard dog, the antithesis of the loyal, playful, loving companion to the family’s smallest child. A formidable courser, a guardian of the flock, a devoted family pet: they are all of these. « They » are Azawakhs.

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I was attending a local ASFA trial close to home and had left early, planning on staying only long enough to get some good coursing shots with my new camera, do some interviews and return home. The weather forecast had assured me the now steady rain would pass and sun was predicted for the afternoon. At the last minute I tossed my full length Aussie style raincoat in the van. A wise decision. The sun never peaked its shiny head. Actually there was little else than rain, drizzle and back to rain again. By mid-afternoon, long past when I thought I’d be back home, I was, like most of the others, chilled to the bone and contemplating someplace both warm and dry.

It was there that I had my first real introduction to a breed still quite rare (there are approximately 130) in this country, the Azawakh. Because this was an ASFA trial and miscellaneous sighthound breeds are allowed to enter, two breeders from the Fredericksburg, VA area, had brought a total of four entries. Deb Kidwell, and her friend, Rhonda Mann, also had with them an older dog whom, because of a previous injury, could only run practice distances, and two four and a half-month-old bitches, recent imports to this country.

Looking somewhat like a cross between a desert bred smooth Saluki, a Sloughi and perhaps some Greyhound thrown in, the Azawakh, though new to our country, is old in terms of antiquity. The breed, who’s at home in the harsh deserts of the Sahara, comes from the countries of Republic of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. They can still be found today living with the Tuareg, a nomadic tribe that has preserved their purity down through time.*

The French were the first to bring these dogs out of Africa when they returned to France following the end of French colonial rule in West Africa.. About the same time a foundation pair were imported to Yugoslavia. Thus today French and Yugoslavian bloodlines dominate the pedigrees of most western hounds. *

Characteristics of the Azawakh put it close to that of the other swift running, long-legged sighthound breeds, especially those who can trace their roots to Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Yet the Azawakh differs in some fundamental ways. His back is either flat or slightly higher in the rear. Standing atop long legs and coupled with a short body, the breed has a rather angular appearance, somewhat like an inverted rectangle.

Their running style differs from Salukis and other sighthounds because of the relatively short back in proportion to leg length. The best way to describe it is that of an « upright gallop », a term coined by Dominique Capron de Caprona, an American breeder of Sloughis, as opposed to the double suspension gallop common to other sighthounds. Yet like their cousins they must have speed if they are to successfully hunt hare, gazelle, wild pig, or other game found in their land of origin.

In the correct head of the Azawakh, one would look for one that is smooth over the eyes, that is, no lumps or bumps interfering with the forehead. Pendant ears are correct, laying flat against the head, level with the head when alert, but lower when relaxed.

But it is in the body of the Azawakh that can be seen major differences from the other sighthound breeds. When viewed head on, the narrowness throughout the body gives them an almost two-dimensional look. This is coupled with the chest which is not supposed to be below the elbow, making many of them appear pinched in front since there is no chest to hold the elbows away from each other. Viewed from the side, the Azawakh should show an abrupt rise to the loin (a departure from most of the other sighthound breed standards that call for a slight rise over the loin). If the topline slopes off toward the rear it is considered a major fault.

Two types of underlines are found. Both are acceptable. The French influence tends to have a more rounded underline with a bit of forechest, while the Yugoslavian type leans toward being flat on the bottom with a sharp angle rising quickly in what could be construed as herring gutted in some other breeds.

An interesting feature to note is that the tail is carried above the line of the back, with most having a curl. Some will have really too much curl, almost a double curl which is not desired, the ideal being that shaped like a sickle or like a correct Afghan tail, this being the preferred type.

The coat on an Azawakh is generally short and fine, thin coated with the abdomen being almost hairless. The tail should be bony. Those coming from the mountain regions have a bit heavier coat than they should have, including a bushy tail. While this is not desirable, it is nevertheless common to that particular type.

While the most common color in Africa is red, sand and brindle are also popular. However the breed also can be seen, though rarer, in parti-colors, blue, black grizzle and cream. Many are black or grizzle masked and black saddled. According to David Moore, who owns six Azawakhs and has traveled abroad, the prevalence of a particular color often depends upon the region or Kel (clan) or a combination of both.

In this country we mostly see varying shades of red and white. These can be anywhere from a pale sand or cream color through shades of fawn up to a rich dark red, with or without a black mask. Brindle, thought not as common, is also found in this breed. A slight white blaze is permitted, as is some white on the chest and tip of the tail, however, there must be at least a tracing of white on every foot, high white stockings being very desirable. A spot on the neck is also accepted. use they currently pay the same fee to enter a trial as do recognized breeds.

While Azawakhs can be run in the miscellaneous class at an ASFA trial, the points they win are only counted by the breed club who may or may not award honors within the club. They may find themselves competing against other not-yet-recognized sighthound breeds and they do not run for Best In Field. Also because they are not yet a recognized breed, there are no classes for them in AKC trials. Since no points are kept, the owners themselves must keep their own records. At this time the parent club, American Azawakh Association, does not award a breed championship.

What is it like to live with Azawakhs? Kidwell stated that she has eleven currently living with her in the house, in addition to four other dogs (two Borzoi, a Shepherd and a Standard Poodle). She feels they need room to run to make them great house dogs. Like most other sighthounds, they do not do well when left in a kennel environment. Without frequent human contact they can become « psychotic and neurotic ». They need the socialization of living with people. For examples she sighted her adults who were friendly and enjoyed the attention they received at the trial. In contrast, her two four and a half month old puppies, who’d recently been shipped to her from Germany, had not had the early handling she gives her own litters. As a result they tended to be shy or at least reserved toward strangers. After walking them about, the puppies began to warm up to the petting, but she stressed the need for early and consistent socialization to avoid this result.

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The average temperament varied from aloof to friendly. What is not to be tolerated are either of the extremes, aggressiveness or shyness causing fear biters. As with any of the sighthound breeds, the breeder must be very discriminating about where they are to be placed. Due to their rarity little is known about the breed, even among other sighthound owners, making it hard to place them. Kidwell stated that she, like any responsible breeder, is very particular about who gets her puppies as they are not an easy breed to own and can be misunderstood. Like many working dogs, she finds they can become easily dominant in personality and willful. It is rare to find one that is soft. Therefore the new owner must be firm from the start, learning control at an early age. Otherwise they will have the upper hand. It is recommended that they receive obedience training, preferably formal instruction. Dominance exercises, particularly imprinting, when started from infancy can save hours of work later.

Azawakh owners agreed that when these needs are met their breed is easy to live with as long as they are given the freedom of exercise and plenty of socialization. They are found to be clean in the house, settling on their favorite sofas after outside exercise. Kidwell maintains two one acre size yards for running and several smaller paddocks. She never runs more than three at a time unless someone is with them as she has found they do not do well in larger packs, tending to become frenzied if something unusual occurs.

She is always willing to take back one of her puppies at any age. She did feel, however, that in Europe there is a different culture, one that values the dogs more. There they are a recognized breed, there are more of them and they are shown at all the shows.

Though found today in many European countries, a strong core of breeders are located in Germany. In fact Germany hosts the National Specialty each year. Last year’s show had 49 dogs, the largest entry held to date. Kidwell herself makes the effort to attend each year, not unusual considering she has continued to work closely with the German breeders, both through her imports and in turn the puppies she exports back to Germany, thereby insuring better homes and continuing the bloodlines.

In Germany the German Sighthound Association controls what is bred and tells potential breeders if they may breed. Not only is the quality of the parents essential before a breeding can take place, the owner must also have the right facilities to raise the litter. Those who choose to breed outside of the Association lose their sanction.

A unique breed, the Azawakh, intensely loyal to his family, traditionally suspicious toward strangers, a dog created by the sands of a harsh climate, and one that has withstood the sands of time. A survivor.

* With grateful acknowledgment to David Moore, Al-Ifriqiya, for the previous information.