by   David Hancock

In his The New Book of the Dog of 1912, Robert Leighton wrote: “Turning again to the south of Europe one may include a reference to the hound known in Spain and Portugal as the Podengo. This dog, with its racy limbs, its pointed muzzle, erect ears, and keen, obliquely set eyes, reminds one at once of its probable ancestor, the jackal, and the resemblance is rendered yet more close when the coat happens to be red. In build it is of Greyhound type, and it is frequently used for coursing rabbit and hare; but in the Peninsula, and more especially in La Mancha, Andalusia and Estramadura, it is slipped to the stag and the bear, and is also employed as a gundog.” Such a wide range of employment would demand not just a wide spread of hunting skills but also hounds of varying size. Horowitz, writing in Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopaedia of 1934, gave the view that these dogs came to Iberia with the Moors, likening them to similar hunting dogs found in North Africa. He gave details of variations in size, coat and colour in the Portuguese dogs not found there today. Even before that, van Bylandt, in his monumental work Dogs of All Nations of 1904, referred to the Podengo or Portuguese Greyhound but in one size only and the Charnique or Balearic Greyhound, our Ibizan Hound of today

A Spanish writer on dogs, Carlos Salas Melero, editor of Revista Del Perro, has written: “Spain has been considered a paradise for different hunting species as is proven by the etymological sense of the word ‘Spain’ which comes from Span – Hispania, which means ‘the land of rabbits’…As far as we know hare hunting with Greyhounds is a procedure introduced into this country from French Gaul, although later the Arabs imported their Sloughis. Out of the cross of both types the Spanish Galgo also emerged – a tough, resistant, tenacious animal and also the fastest racer.” Such a dog was mentioned by Cervantes when writing of Don Quixote being accompanied by a ‘rocin flaco y galgo corredor’ – a skinny horse and the fastest dog. A sighthound with a likely Asiatic origin, it is undoubtedly the result of an admixture of hounds brought into Spain by the Gauls, hence its name, and those brought in during the long occupation of Spain by the Moors.

This sporting sighthound owes little to the show ring for its survival. In a breed feature in Chiens de France in 1984, veterinary doctor Christian Bougerol wrote: “That the Galgo has survived to the present is because essentially it has been modelled by a harsh environment and conserved by a traditional society which ahs held it in high esteem.” Rather like our lurcher, poor shepherds and peasants used them to supplement their daily fare, and, unlike our Greyhound, the Galgo was never the preserve of the aristocracy. To respond to the demands of the track in Spain they have been crossed in more recent times with our racing Greyhounds. Males stand 62 to 70cms at the withers, bitches 60 to 68; the hunting type is renowned for its long, strong, elastic trot, giving it great stamina in the field. Brindle is the favoured colour. Quite a number of the hunting variety strongly resemble a Greyhound lurcher. 

Some Spanish patriots have even claimed their sighthound breed as an ancestor of our Greyhound, quoting accounts of the trading in dogs between the two countries throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. And there are marked physical similarities between the two breeds, although the Galgo can feature the rough coat too. Dr Bougerol ended his article by stating that the Galgo has nothing to gain by becoming exclusively a companion dog or ‘beauty hound’, writing: “If it merits attention, it is by reason of its ability to catch the hare under the most difficult conditions. What is feared is that it finally loses its identity, classified with the rare, misunderstood breeds, breeds to be reconstituted or preserved and to become a breed bred for its beauty.” In the quarter century since he wrote those words, so many sighthound breeds have gone that way and more will surely and sadly follow, without coordinated efforts by breed devotees - across national boundaries.

Sadly, the Galgo has been described as the ‘most brutally abused dog’ in Spain, due to its high rate of abandonment by hard-hearted hunters, its poor quality breeding establishments and misuse by misguided owners unable to cope with a hunting dog in urban areas. Every year over 350 are rehomed by worthy rescue organizations, but it is estimated that twice that number are put down each year, some without much compassion from their recent owners. At least one of the leading rescue organizations is run by British expatriates who are appalled by the casual attitude of local so-called  sportsmen towards the welfare of their dogs, which are discarded after three years of age, their coursing life behind them, together it seems with their actual life. There is evidence from time to time of their lives ending in quite horrifying ways, acts which disgrace the name of sport and the reputation of sighthound owners everywhere. The Spanish government has now been persuaded to act over such callous animal cruelty.                         

In his superbly illustrated book Where Hunting Dogs Rest of 2014, the gifted photographer Martin Usborne sets out the compassionate case for the better treatment of hunting dogs in Spain. Some of the images used to illustrate this article are taken from Usborne's book, picking up the sadness behind the callous treatment of hunting dogs in Spain. Coarsely-bred hounds, rather like the batards and briquets of France, often a lurcher-like mix of scenthounds like the Sabueso and the old braque-type of bigger hound with lighter hounds such as the Galgo, still resembling the old podengos, can be found in rural areas. When based in Gibraltar and often driving through southern Spain, I regularly saw rough-haired hunting dogs, some being almost pointer-like, others much more like a French Griffon. Many looked like strays and most were not cared for. Far better looked after were the hunting mastiffs, the Alanos, descendants of the powerful dogs used in the Spanish colonies.

The Spanish Alano has only just survived the 20th century, at one time the last two were believed to be those exhibited in Retiro Park in Madrid in 1963. But then some were discovered in Cantabria, in the western area of Vizcaya, in the Carranza and Llera valleys. The breed was originally used as a hunting dog, in the classic catch-dog role of the broad-mouthed breeds. They were used as cattle driving dogs, especially with half-wild cattle. They were used until the mid-19th century in the bullring, in one of the phases of the bullfight known as the 'dogs' turn'. Not surprisingly the breed was mainly used, in the hunting field, in the 'gancho' method of hunting boar, in which the dogs 'held' the boar until it was despatched by the human hunter's knife. Around 25" at the shoulder and weighing between 35 and 45 kgs, the ones displaying the fawn coat, black mask and black muzzle could be mistaken for Bullmastiffs at first glance. The Sabueso is the Spanish scenthound, coming in two sizes, the Sabueso Espanol de Monte or Mountain Hound, a large, heavy-boned, long-eared hound, once used by the Spanish police as a man tracker, and the Sabueso Espanol Lebrero or hare-hound, usually white and red, the size of our Harrier.

The Sabuesos I have seen at World Dog Shows, especially in Porto and Lisbon, have been impressive. Some of the Alanos imported into Britain have been good quality dogs. The Galgos at World Dog Shows have also been notable but much more Greyhound-like than those encountered in rural Spain. I found it difficult to distinguish them from another Greyhound-like foreign sighthound, the Magyar Agar of Hungary. Perhaps the Greyhound blood used to install consistency of type is coming through too strongly. But once the show specimens are trapped inside a closed gene-pool, they could eventually lose that local element that all national sporting breeds should display. Being purebred can mean becoming victim to the strongest ancestor-blood; no dog breed developed from entirely purebred stock, each one was a mongrel once!