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Int. Ch. Shani Kel Sahoussahaq. Photo by Mia Ejerstad.

The Azawakh: Treasure of the Sahel

Some believe that Azawakhs represent an ancient branch of canis familiaris, near the base of the dog family tree.

I have admired Azawakh for many years, judged them in Europe on several occasions and made a point of trying to learn more about the background of this exotic breed whenever possible. Their appearance is so extravagant and eye catching, it’s difficult to imagine that this breed developed naturally, without interference from Western dog show influence, over a long period of time in the distant area of Sahel, the arid belt of near-desert bordering the Sahara and stretching across the interior of northern Africa.

I often think that the reaction that Azawakhs get now from those who see them for the first time must be similar to how Afghan Hounds were received when they first arrived in the West about a hundred years ago: stunned amazement that nature could create something so distinctly different from any other dogs that had been seen before. With apologies to the other Sighthound breeds that have developed around the world, most of them look very much like Greyhounds mixed with somewhat coarser local dogs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but with Azawakhs it’s more the case that they look like very aristocratic ancestors of Greyhounds and Salukis: more extreme and refined than either, and with upside-down proportions (like a rectangle stood on its short side), this breed has an air of mystery about it that seems to breathe desert romance. The facts are a little less poetic, but we’ll get to that later.

There are few Azawakhs in the U.S. and reportedly none at all in Canada. The breed is not yet registerable by the AKC, although now accepted into their Foundation Stock Service program (a first step on the long and rocky road to full AKC recognition). Although Azawakhs may compete in both ASFA and AKC lure coursing trials, and there are not one but two American breed clubs, it’s to Europe one has to go in order to see the Azawakh being exhibited at regular dog shows. It was therefore with pleasure that I accepted the opportunity to visit a European breeder while on a judging trip to Italy this spring.

Several Azawakhs were entered at the FCI international dog show that I judged a couple of hours outside Rome, but only one turned up. It was quite typical in both conformation and temperament, which meant that I could not touch it. That isn’t necessarily a fault — the FCI standard states that the Azawakh should be “distant, reserved with strangers and may even be unapproachable” — but I was disappointed not to see more and better specimens.

The day after the show, however, my host Patrizio Palliani drove us — Andrew Brace from the UK, Ann Ingram from Ireland, her friend Kay Ryan and myself — to the home of Francesca Zampini, owner of the famous Azawakh bitch Ch. Shani Kel Dahoussahaq, who — amazingly, for any number of reasons — was Italy’s #1 dog of all breeds in 2006. The visit would have been an experience even had it not been for the dogs: the residence consisted of a 2,000 year old restored Roman watchtower and an only somewhat less historically interesting building that gave new meaning to the term “palatial villa” — but it was of course the Azawakh that we came to see. They were a sight to behold: Francesca let out a half dozen of them, bounding out like a flock of young horses, with that amazingly upright carriage and elastic, supple movement that set them apart from any other breed I have ever seen.

The dogs would not, of course, let us touch them: although demonstratively affectionate and trustful with Patrizio, Francesca, her husband and the staff, they saw to it that there was always at least a few feet’s distance between them and us strangers. (Earlier in the day the young bitch that Patrizio kept at his home, together with a couple of very friendly Salukis, had allowed me to put my hands on her; Patrizio told me it was the first time she had let a stranger touch her.) I wouldn’t say that these dogs were afraid, rather that they simply didn’t care to deal with strangers; many owners of Salukis and Afghan Hounds will know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, Azawakh can make very good watchdogs: on occasion they can behave almost like Doberman Pinschers on guard.

It was also noticeable how especially the older ones thawed towards us after a while. This is typical; I was told that if we had stayed for a week the dogs would have become quite affectionate. By the time Francesca invited us in for “a cup of coffe” — the understatement of the day, as it turned out, with an elaborate display of crystal, china, servants and a stunning spread of palate-tempting dishes — one of the older bitches stood behind my chair, quitely nuzzling my hand. I decided then and there that if I had been a few decades younger I would have happily undertaken the huge responsiblity of helping to preserve this rare but magnificent breed for future generations. Fortunately I don’t think that would be necessary, as long as the breed has devoted fanciers like Francesca and Patrizio in its corner. 

Studying the many pedigrees and the magnificent photographs they provided — some of which accompany this article — gave me a little more solid background to the breed’s history.

The first Azawakhs were brought to Europe in the early 1970s by a Yugoslavian diplomat, Dr. Pecar, who was given a male as a gift by the nomads. He wanted to bring a bitch home with him as well, but none could be bought; the story goes that he bartered his services as a hunter by killing a bull elephant that had been terrorizing the tribe in exchange for a female Azawakh. Dr. Pecar was stationed in Burkina Faso, one of several countries (Mali, Niger, southern Algeria) in the sub-Saharan region which can claim the Azawakh as a native breed. That these dogs, in spite of their unique appearance, had escaped the notice of Westerners for so long may seem surprising: Afghan Hounds, Salukis and Sloughis had, after all, been brought to Europe as early as in the late 1800s. The inaccessibility of the region where Azawakhs come from, and the small number of Western visitors there, must account for this.

Although obviously related to the Sloughi — which hails from Morocco, north across the Sahara — the Azawakh supposedly has less in common with other Sighthounds genetically than with e.g. Basenjis and similar dogs further south in Africa. Exactly how they originated is not known, but it’s worth noting that the Sahara region 8,000-10,000 years ago was a verdant green, abounding in animal life, and that petroglyph rock art from that time shows cursorial dogs with hunters. Archaeologists have, in fact, found dog bones buried in Holocene settlements in Sahara. Some believe that Azawakhs represent an ancient branch of canis familiaris, near the base of the dog family tree. To quote one breed historian, “evidence suggests that the Azawakh population has a unique genetic heritage that has been largely isolated from other dog populations for millennia.”

According to most sources the Azawakh has accompanied the Tuareg and other nomadic tribes for hundreds, even thousands, of years, although little concrete evidence of this can be presented. It is a fact, however, that the Azawakh is used in its native country both as a guard dog and to hunt gazelles and hare at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. The dogs are rarely treated as pets or companions, and the austerity of the surroundings means that only the strongest puppies survive; when food is scarce the tribe may allow only one puppy in each litter to survive — usually a male.

Upon arrival in Europe the Azawakh was first considered as a variety of the Sloughi. In 1981 it was accepted as a separate breed by the FCI but still referred to as “Sloughi-Azawakh” until 1986, when FCI dropped the “Sloughi” part of the name. The Yugoslavian imports bred on, but the first breed standard in the 1970s was based on seven Azawakhs that had been exported from the Sahel to France, primarly by French civil servants returning home when France lost political control of what was then French Colonial West Africa. These dogs came from the same area and were most likely closely related, as evidenced by the fact that they were quite similar in type, color and markings. Their characteristics became, naturally, those considered the most desirable: the FCI still accepts only various shades of fawn, from bright red to pale beige, with a white bib and a white tip of the tail desirable, and white “stockings” on all four legs compulsory — even if only in the shape of a little white on each foot. Black brindle is allowed, and although dogs with quite a lot of white on the body crop up on occasion, particolors are not mentioned in the FCI standard.

The color requirements are perhaps the biggest difference between European and American Azawakhs. Although few active dog people in the U.S. have seen them, the Azawakh has been in this country for almost a quarter century. The first ones arrived in the mid-1980s; the first litter was whelped in 1987 and bred by Gisela Cook-Schmidt, whose Reckendahl kennel has produced Saluki champions as well. Later not only brindles but also other colors have been imported, and both the American Azawakh Association (founded 1988) and the Azawakh Club of America (founded 1998) allow for a much wider diversity of color than the FCI does. The AZCA standard in fact states that any combination of colors and markings, including the absence of markings, is acceptable. The club supports the work of an organization conducting field research of the dogs and peoples in the Sahel, the Association Burkinbé Idi du Sahel (ABIS). The group has mounted 15 expeditions to the Sahel over the past couple of decades and imported more than fifty desert-bred dogs. According to some sources it is becoming increasingly difficult to find “purebred” Azawakhs in its country of origin as the nomadic lifestyle of the native tribes is changing and dogs of foreign origin are getting mixed with the locals.

In the FCI countries the Azawakh, although not common anywhere, has become a serious contender for the highest honors in competition with more popular and longer established Western breeds. France is the breed’s official country of “patronage” (as FCI rather quaintly terms it), but other countries in Europe have produced many top winners. The French breed club, SLAG (Club du Sloughi, des Levriers d’Afrique et du Galgo) caters to some of the other rare Sighthounds as well and hosts an annual specialty show for all these breeds. Probably the single most outstanding dog show achievement for a French Azawakh was when the bitch Ch. J’Fillingué de Garde-Epée won Best in Show over 6,200 dogs at the annual all-breed show in Longchamps outside Paris in 1997. Her breeder, Corine Lundqvist, lives in France but J’Fillingué was also shown at rare breed shows in the U.S. Another remarkable first for the bred was when dog bred by the Al-Hara kennel of Ingrid Aigeldinger in Switzerland was exported to Mexico: Ch. Al-Hara’s Urey achieved the distinction of being #1 Top Dog of all breeds in that country in 1992.

Germany has a strong line in Azawakhs, can get more than 50 entries at its annual Azawakh show, and is the home of what’s probably the most successful long-term Azawakh kennel in Europe, Aulad al Sahra, owned by Dr. Ulrich and Anne Hochgesand, who have bred a long line of international champions and Best in Show winners for more than 30 years. In recent years, however, no Azawakh anywhere has won asmuch as the bitch I saw in Italy, Ch. Shani Kel Dahoussahaq — who, incidentally, has both Garde Epée and Al-Hara breeding close up in her pedigree. If you were at the AKC/Eukanuba Invitational show in California in 2007 you may, in fact, have seen her: she was invited to the World Tournament as Italy’s representative, and I don’t think I am the only one who remembers with a thrill the way she looked down her aristocratic nose at the judges…

For an Azawakh to top all breeds in Italy is no mean feat: Italy, you should know, is a high-class dog country and has produced Best in Show winners at both Westminster and Crufts. It was obvious from the start, however, that this young bitch was something exceptional, and together with her handler Mia Ejerstad she trounced the competition as Italy’s top dog in 2006. When they won Best in Show over 3,694 dogs in Luxemburg that year, Karl Donvil wrote in Dogs in Review:

 “Bitte Ahrens […] judged Group 10 and sent the Azawakh bitch, Ch. Shani Kel Dahoussahaq, from Italy into the main ring to compete for Best in Show. Shani was bred by Monika Kessler and is owned by Francesca Zampini from Italy. This bitch is not yet two years old and already a champion. Bitte also judged the breed and must have been very proud to see the Azawakh later win Best in Show under Mrs. Knoll. In fact, the behavior and good temperament of the winner were impressive: Azawakhs are known to be very aloof and reserved towards strangers, but Shani proved the opposite and stood like a statue on the podium among all the judges without any sign of discomfort.”

What the future has in store for the Azawakh is uncertain. It is certainly not the breed for everyone, not the fashion accessory you want to see with the hip crowds in Manhattan, Beverly Hills or anywhere else. Whether it is even possible to retain the breed’s unique character and conformation in an increasingly homogenized Western word is also doubtful … but although it certainly demands a great deal of its owner, the Azawakh provides a unique link with distant countries, a distant past and a very different manner of living. As such, it represents a rich cultural heritage and deserves to be preserved for future generations.

This article is reprinted from 2009. Since then the Azawakh has gained full AKC recognition. The American Azawakh Association is now the breed's AKC Parent Club. - Ed.

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