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The Sobers prefix, owned by Bitte Ahrens of Italy, is today known around the whole world, including the US. The kennel was started in Sweden in the mid-1950s by Bitte’s grandmother Astrid Jonsson, pictured with a group of her first homebred Greyhound champions.

50 Years Around the World… with Sighthounds

When you’re involved in dogs you will almost inevitably meet a lot of colorful people and see a lot of wonderful dogs. All those experiences and memories that dog people gain over the years add up to a giant, potential treasure-trove, whose value is seldom realized until it’s too late. Few of us write down much about our experiences — and when we eventually die, whatever photographs, scrapbooks or memorabilia we’ve gathered over the years are usually thrown out by relatives who don’t realize the value of what they’re tossing on the scrap-heap.

I’ve been involved in dogs for more than fifty years now, a long time by any standards. I’m not planning on quitting anytime soon, but you never know. I have also been lucky enough to travel a lot, spending time with great dogs and dog people in various parts of the world, and I have in that time, as opposed to most others, kept pretty good records of my experiences. (Being a writer, editor and publisher by profession helps, of course. Our garage has wall-to-wall shelves of reference material: old dog magazines, file cabinets full of photos, big boxes bursting with clippings. When visiting dog people see this, some of them go a little pale around the gills and say they wish they could spend a week in my garage. That’s when I know they are real dog history geeks, just like me.)

I shared some of my memories with readers in a monthly all-breed magazine, Dogs in Review, that we published at the time. The response was surprisingly positive, more so than anything I’ve experienced before, which proves there is more interest in the past than many would have guessed, but there were areas I couldn’t get into in an all-breed magazine. Specifically, of course, I couldn’t write as much about Sighthounds as I would have liked, so what follows are some memories of experiences, people and dogs directly related to my life-long fascination with these breeds.

What makes you into a dyed-in-the-wool dog person in the first place isn’t clear. Why are some people so interested in dogs from a young age that it’s difficult for them to seriously focus on anything else? Growing up in Sweden in the 1950s and ‘60s, the idea of a full-time life in dogs certainly didn’t seem like a realistic option: dogs were, at most, a hobby there, as they still are. There was some hereditary predisposition for the interest. A great-uncle had been one of the charter members when the Swedish Kennel Club was founded in 1889, and the old family photo albums are full of different breeds of dogs — not Sighthounds, though, although I remember a crusty old aunt who always said she’d have liked to have two Afghans (and, for reasons then incomprehensible to me, would name them Scarlatti and Sarasate). Some of the old family dogs were even shown, not exactly a commonplace occurrence anywhere in the early part of the 1900s. We had a Cocker and a Dachshund, but what really fascinated my sister and me as kids were the photos of Afghan Hounds we saw in the few dog magazines we came across, hoarded and studied to the degree that we knew them almost by heart.

This is where I have to interject a few words about how different the world was half a century ago. Yes, Virginia, we had electricity, running water and cars, but TV was in its infancy, making an international phone call was a big deal, and there were no computers, no Internet, and definitely no FaceBook. Today the main problem for anyone who’s interested in any particular subject is sorting through an embarrassment of riches, an avalanche of images available almost everywhere, so easily and to such a degree that it’s easy to become jaded. Our problem in those days was the opposite: the scarcity of information made you treasure every little black-and-white photograph you could find. You didn’t get news from the shows the hour they occurred, or even the next day or week. Usually you had to wait for a month or two until the printed show report appeared in whatever publication you could get. (There were telephones, but no cell phones or answering machines, so even that mode of communication was pretty random.)

Anyway, in the fall of 1958 I somehow learned that there would be a dog show in Stockholm. The memories of that show are still vivid after all these years, perhaps because it was a literally life-changing experience and perhaps also because even though you probably can’t really remember that much for so long, the “memory of the memory” gets stuck in your mind. It was not an all-breed show but a group of specialty shows — including one hosted by the Sighthound Club —held in some barracks on army training grounds. 

Looking back, it’s amazing how much of the activity at that long-ago show in that far-away place has connections to latter-day dog activities in the U.S. An Afghan Hound that made an indelible impact on anyone who saw him that day was an extrovert black-masked, heavy-coated silver (the first of that color over there) who had been imported from California and Kay Finch’s famous Crown Crest kennels. (Kay is long gone now, but many of today’s more experienced Afghan Hound and Saluki fanciers took their first dog steps in her shadow.) Carin Lindhé, who later became one of the world’s leading international judges, showed her blue English Greyhound Ch. Treetops Queen’s Beast. Carin was then temporarily out of Wolfhounds, but at least two of the Irish Wolfhound Club of America national specialty judges mention her Mountebank dogs as an early inspiration. Göran Bodegård was probably at the show; he had finished his first Deerhound champion (bred by Carin Lindhé) two years earlier, although we didn’t meet until a little later. Göran, of course, is one of the world’s most travelled all-rounder judges these days; he judges fairly often in the U.S. also. 

If you’ve been around Sighthounds at all you must have heard of the Sobers Greyhounds, responsible for several top winners in the US as well as many other countries. (Ch. Sobers Galathea was one of the top Hounds in the US in 2008.) Well, Sobers had just gotten started in Sweden in those days: the aforementioned Queen’s Beast sired some of their early champions, and one of the first people I met in dogs was Sober’s founder, Astrid Jonsson, grandmother of the present owner, Bitte Ahrens Primavera in Italy. (The past and present dogs are also related, but by a lot more than two generations.)

Salukis were fascinating: the most famous of all the dogs I saw was the gorgeous black and grizzle Best in Show bitch Ch. Ibinores Fatima. Since Ibinores later begat Ben Huris, and Ben Huris in turn produced the background of most later Swedish Salukis, quite possibly Fatima is way back in the pedigrees of the Swedish-born Salukis that have done so well in the US in more recent years.

Borzoi and Whippets, I have to admit, are two breeds where there really isn’t much, if any, connection to today. The former were of mostly Continental European breeding, possibly of good type but often with doubtful temperaments, and with little connection to the best Scandinavian winners of later years. And the Whippets shown that day didn’t hold much appeal for me: most of them were solid fawn, very skinny and rather sad-looking. It would take a few more years and a different kind of impulse to trigger an interest in what would eventually become my main breed.

No Pharaoh or Ibizan Hounds were as yet shown, of course, in Sweden or anywhere else, nor any of the related, more recently added Sighthound breeds. There were no Italian Greyhounds either: the breed was virtually extinct in Sweden at that time, and the Sobers and Benares breeding programs that would have far-reaching international consequences were still in the future. If the above proves anything, I hope it is that the world is much smaller than we think, and what happened far away and long ago may have consequences here and now. For me and my sister, though, the most immediate consequence of that particular show came from seeing the “el Khandahar” Afghan Hounds and meeting their owner, the irrepressible Ingrid af Trolle. We didn’t know it then, but el Khandahar would be of immeasurable importance for the world’s future Afghan Hound breeding, first through the great El Khyrias line, wholly based on el Khandahar, and then through the Danish Boxadan kennel, which started with El Khyrias dogs and has produced Afghan Hounds of the same “old” type that have won at Westminster and World Shows, inEngland, all across Europe and as far away as South America in recent years.

You could perhaps call Mme. af Trolle the Sunny Shay of Sweden, which immediately makes it clear to American Afghan Hound fanciers of a certain vintage what kind of colorful, charismatic and sometimes tempestuous personality she was. The exotic, rather feral, looking-down-their-nose-at-you Afghan Hounds from el Khandahar were not that many generations removed from the wild, original Afghanistan imports, and why our parents agreed to let us get an Afghan Hound I’ll never understand…

No matter. My sister and I were determined, and all thoughts of a simple, sweet little Shetland Sheepdog were gone. The following spring we picked up our puppy at el Khandahar, and life would never be the same again.

It still had not dawned on me that dogs, dog shows and Sighthounds were a truly global fascination. In those days nobody knew much about foreign dogs. Trans-Atlantic flights were only beginning to become a realistic option; the exchange of dogs, judges or just plain spectators was in its infancy. But that would soon change, with far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.

 

Photo Captions and Credits.

1. Afghan Hound Am. Ch. Taejon of Crown Crest, sire of one of the few U.S. exports of any breed to Sweden in the 1950s, Ch. Crown Crest Kaejorg. Taejon won the Hound group at Westminster in both 1954 and 1955; Kaejorg was a top sire in Scandinavia in the 1960s. Photo Ludwig.

2. Scottish Deerhound Ch. Mountebanks Sylvia, born in Sweden but sired by the English import Ch. Mainline McArthur out of Ch. Runach of Ballykelly. Sylvia was the first champion owned by Göran Bodegård, later a Greyhound breeder of global importance and today an international all-rounder judge. Photo Münch.

3. Saluki Ch. Ibinores Fatima, possibly the breed’s first Best-in-Show winner in Scandinavia in the 1950s. She was born in Sweden but her grandparents came from the classic British Windswift, Mazuri and Zomahli kennels.

4. Afghan Hound Ch. Kohinora el Khandahar, one of the homebred champions from a kennel which features heavily in the Scandinavian lines that produced winners around the world in recent decades. 

5. Picking up the first puppy: the author (left) and his sister Inga (holding the future Ch. Ariadne el Khandahar) with breeder Ingrid af Trolle and some of her dogs in 1959.

 

 

This article was originally published in Sighthound Review in 2011; it has been lightly edited. - Ed.

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