by   David Hancock

With fewer of us having to hunt for our food, it is understandable for hunting dogs, sighthounds especially, to decline. Already, in Southern Europe, the old Grecian Greyhound and the Old Bosnian Sighthound have disappeared. The Old Croatian Sighthound may just have been saved but ten years ago only two dozen or so remained. Despite much holidaying there, British sportsmen seem to know little of the hunting dogs of the Mediterranean littoral. You are unlikely to find the blood of say an Ibizan Hound, a Pharaoh Hound, a Portuguese Podengo or a Cretan Hound featuring in the lurcher blends of Britain. This is a loss for these breeds are robust, breed true to type, have superb feet, good noses, lightning reactions to quarry and proven prowess on rabbit, a more difficult catch than many realise. These Mediterranean hounds hunt by sight and scent and cannot be pigeon-holed as either scent or sighthounds. This alone should attract the interest of lurcher men looking beyond outcrosses to pastoral breeds, however clever and biddable the latter may be. But as the range of quarry here is legally limited and rabbit or rat hunting easily-available sport, a look at these all-round sporting dogs makes some sense.

At the start of the last century, one enthusiast here imported a Portuguese Warren Hound, one of the Podengo breeds of all-round sporting dogs from Southern Europe. It didn't gain supporters; if it had been imported under its proper title: Portuguese Rabbit Dog, it might have done better, there's a lot to a name. In the last few years, Betty Judge has brought in a number of the small variety of the Portuguese Podengo. They look a little like Cairn Terriers, but are commendably nondescript, with no fancy coats, special heads or breed features for the exaggerators to get excited about. They are alert, robust, keen-eyed and determined little sporting dogs.

When I was in Portugal fairly regularly some thirty years ago, I was impressed by both the medium-sized and the small-sized Portuguese Rabbit Dogs; they were brilliant at hunting rabbits in trying conditions, such as cork farms, where there are dry stone walls and terraces, which provide enormous scope for agile rabbits. Similar podengos can be found all along the Mediterranean littoral. I found a remarkably similar hunting dog in Malta and Gozo half a century ago, where a pack of local hounds, strengthened by a red Whippet and a tan Manchester Terrier, left behind by departing servicemen, provided great hunting. Their agility was hugely impressive.

Years later, I was bemused to find that a British enthusiast had imported some Maltese Rabbit Dogs and persuaded our Kennel Club to name them 'Pharaoh Hounds', with a syllogistic provenance linking them directly with ancient Egyptian hunting dogs. No one makes such a claim for the other breeds of this exact type, found in Crete, Sicily, the Spanish Islands (as the Ibizan Hound demonstrates), Spain or Portugal. The little bobbery pack of Gozoan Hounds which impressed me when hunting rabbit, in terrain demanding great agility and hunting skill, didn't require an invented heritage, they deserved recognition in their own right. I don't know of a single one, of those imported here and subsequently bred from, being used here on rabbit, or indeed in the sporting field at all.

Britons holidaying in the Canaries may under-rate the sporting potential there; but the Podencos Canarios, or hunting dogs, find plenty of sport on rabbit there, even in Lanzarote. This type of sporting dog is found too in Majorca, as well as Ibiza. The rabbits there don't live underground but in crevices, piles of rocks or in crumbling stone walls. They may be classed as vermin and sneered at by the more privileged hunter but they can make a good hare-dog look stupid. The Sicilians pride their rabbit-dog, the Cirneco dell'Etna, on its scenting skill just as much as its speed and agility. Dry stone walls and rocky hillsides really test a dog's hunting ability. Volcanic lava really tests a dog's feet. The rabbit is worthy prey; Ibizan Hounds would be better in open ground, Greek Hounds, Portuguese Podengos and Cirnechi dell'Etna in hedgerows, quarries, deserted mines or abandoned industrial sites.

Dutch hound expert Leo Bosman links this latter breed with historic references to the Cane Cireneico, the dog of Cyrenaica, or eastern Libya of today, hinting at a desert origin. But others have held that the breed title comes from the Latin, cernere, to sift or separate (as in our word discern) or seek out or ‘sniff out’ its prey. Cyrenaica was based on the ancient Greek and then Roman city of Cyrene, with close trading links between Greece, Rome and the North African littoral. Sicily would be the closest part of Italy to Africa. Our word gazehound, using the original meaning of the word ‘gaze’, means a par force hound, shows how a name alone can indicate the function of hunting at force in a pack, as opposed to sighthounds that hunted by speed either singly or as a brace. The two words gazehound and sighthound are not synonymous. The Cirneco dell’Etna could have been ‘the hunting dog from the Etna area that fastened on to its prey using sight and scent’. Old breed names can usually be linked with function, as  pointers, setters, terriers, bouviers and retrievers all demonstrate.

It’s of interest that in Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopaedia of 1934, a 3 volume summary of dog knowledge at that time, reference is made to the breed: “The Cernecchi are undoubtedly the Sicilian Segugi”- the latter being the racy, long-eared and drop-eared, 22”, 50lb hunting dogs, used on rabbit, hare and even boar, of mainland Italy. But going on to state “They are not coursing dogs, like Greyhounds, neither are they retrievers, or dogs going to ground, although many sportsmen use them for hunting rabbits.” This coverage points out that Sicilian sportsmen made use of a hybrid between the Cernecco and a pointing dog, used with ferrets and hunting with guile rather than speed. Sounds like a Sicilian lurcher to me! But today the purebred Sicilian hunting dog is worth a glance by sportsmen here.

Further north the only Italian sighthound we have now is the fragile-looking Italian Greyhound. Despite its name, and the depictions of small sighthound-like dogs on Roman statues, this breed was developed in Britain and was probably originally just a miniature Greyhound. Many breeds can throw a small variety and they often become more popular as pets than their standard size sporting or working equivalents. The breed is allocated in Britain to the Toy Group but in some places in N America and on continental Europe their fanciers try to satisfy any latent sighthound abilities. It is, I believe, entirely fair to state that just as British breeders developed the breed they also have to take the blame for its deterioration too. In her authoritative book Toy Dogs of a century ago, Lillian Raymond-Mallock writes: “The original Italian seems to have been a much larger dog than is now in vogue, and weighed in the neighbourhood of fourteen pounds, while the present-day specimens must not exceed seven and one-half pounds, and the smaller they are the better. Reducing their size has also greatly reduced their stamina, and the inbreeding found in most purebred dogs, does not tend to improve their constitutions. Great difficulty is experienced in producing very small yet typical animals, without impairing their health, and unfortunately a toy terrier cross is sometimes used, which though it has the effect of producing diminutiveness, brings serious defects, notably the bulging eye, and the apple head, both of which are most difficult to eradicate. In appearance the Italian greyhound should resemble his ‘cousin of the leash’, in miniature…” Those final words should provide any breeder with a clear mandate. Yet at shows I see some almost handicapped specimens of this little breed, often it seems bred to be fawn-like rather than small sighthound-like.  

In at least two places in North America, Michigan in the USA and Ontario in Canada, Italian Greyhounds take part in lure-racing, many of them show champions. The top hound in the breed in 2006 in Canada’s competitions was described as having ‘the prey drive, tenacity and enthusiasm of any good running sighthound.’ I would fear serious injury, being aware of the breed here, but I am assured that no Italian Greyhound has ever been severely injured while lure-coursing, with the only minor injury being, quite predictably, pad burns. Most of these trials are run on hay or horse pastures and not on specially-prepared surfaces. I was pleased but not surprised to read the critique of the Crufts 2010 judge for this breed, which contained the important words: “I just feel we must not overdo the hind angulation any further.” Already this feature looks harmful but seems not to bother many in the breed. Having been at the show, I could see what the breed judge at the 2010 Bath Dog Show meant when writing: “…why did I come home feeling worried about the future of the breed?…Rear movement is often disappointing…there is a lack of forechest, straight upper arms and consequently appearing out at elbow.” The breed in Britain desperately needs an elementary field test; any breed with Greyhound in its title really needs to honour that word. For me, too, it is most unwise for our Kennel Club to label its smaller companion dog breeds Toy breeds and collect them into a Toy Group. This can encourage some owners to regard their dogs as 'toys' and treat them as such.

Ibizan Hounds have been worked by enthusiasts here to retrieve shot game to saddle; they are adaptable hounds, more intelligent than many sighthound breeds. The Sicilian hounds have their own field trial regulations, covering shooting over game and trials without guns. Around 150 hounds are newly registered there each year. It is worth noting that their field trial regulations stipulate that: Dogs that do not make a tenacious effort in their work; that hesitate on a scent trail; that are distracted and do not cover the ground designated for their turn within the first five minutes will be eliminated. They are used to working with ferrets and at 46 to 50 cms (18 to 20 inches) lack the legginess of the 22 to 29 inch Ibizan Hound. Some have been imported, and registered with the KC, but not so far by sportsmen.

  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.                         

German scientist Max Hilsheimer has linked all these Mediterranean hounds to a common ancestor the Tesem, writing: 'This breed has died out in modern Egypt, but still exists in Crete, the Balearic Islands and Pityusa...The island of Ibiza is the chief breeding centre...'  Long-time Ibizan Hound breeder, Rafael Serra of Vinebre near Catalunya in Spain, has written that: 'The Ibizan Hound is a farmer's hunting dog...which hunts rabbits in packs over rough rocky terrain, mainly at a ground-covering trot, but which needs repeated short bursts of speed involving extreme agility and high jumps.'  There is, unusually for this type of hound, a rough-coated variant, believed to come from an outcross to hounds from further north. Ibizans will retrieve live game to hand, having soft mouths despite their sharp muzzles. They are distinctive, with their pink noses, large mobile ears, amber eyes and a wrinkled frown. They are renowned for their 'suspended trot', an effortless economical 'hover-stride', of value in a hot dusty energy-sapping terrain.

The blood of the Ibizan Hound brings with it well above average hearing, a priceless attribute in an all-round hunting dog, like the lurcher. Breeders here may not favour the bat-ear but its shape and position acts like a radio-receiver, enhancing sound considerably. We talk of sight and scent hounds, but hunting dogs, terriers especially, rely on their hearing much more than we admit. If you ally this benefit to keen eyesight, discerning scenting powers, astonishing agility for a tall dog and impressively-quick reflexes, you have some very desirable lurcher ingredients. The Ibizan Hound may not be making great progress here as a breed, for although 25 were entered for Crufts in 1980, only 8 were registered with the Kennel Club in 2010, but that doesn’t mean they do not have value by way of introducing fresh blood.

Known throughout the Balearic Isles and across into Valencia and Barcelona, with a Catalan name of Ca Eivissenc, known as the Charnique in the south of France and the Balearen Laufhund in Germany, its hunting sequence has been graphically described as: find and flush, pursue at 40 mph, kill with a neck-break, then retrieve to hand. Not a bad write-up for the lurcher role. They have been utilized here by mounted hunters, retrieving well to saddle. The Spanish hunting strain seems as strong, vigorous, robust and uncomplicated today as it must have been centuries ago and the Balearic devotees have taken their job seriously, culling unwanted specimens and only breeding from the best-performing stock. Lithe and elegant, remarkably deer-like and even-tempered companion dogs, they may fade from view here in time, and that will be a loss to British sportsmen; for me, they offer more than the current fondness for bull blood.

The physique of this hound is a challenge to sighthound breeders; with upright shoulders, relatively short upper arms and lacking the deep brisket, it seems to defy accepted wisdom for hounds that rely on speed. The Greyhound is expected to have a deep and capacious chest, allegedly to allow ‘heart-room’, even though the heart doesn’t actually require space around it; the Ibizan Hound apparently needs a long flat ribcage, with space between the elbow and the brisket. Its function demands far greater agility than that usually performed by the Greyhound.
Half a century ago, when driving to Gibraltar, I stopped at Sitges near Barcelona, where a parade of ‘podencos’ was being held; the hunting demonstration involved a small pack of hounds from Mallorca working a small ravine for rabbit. The hounds worked as a natural team, the smaller ones flushing, the bigger ones chasing, with remarkable success. The terrain was testing and shoulder flexibility essential. It was easy to see why the forequarters were needed the way they were; hounds the world over have to succeed in their hunting country - not fit a universal template. The sighthounds of the Iberian peninsula and its islands are essentially working dogs, hunting by sight, yes, but by ear and scent too, with an apt physique for their terrain; we must never breed them to look like Greyhounds, they are very different and merit being regarded as quite distinctive breeds, ones not conforming to uniform show ring styles. 

Two of the main Victorian writers on dogs, Youatt and ‘Stonehenge’ mention the Albanian Greyhound or Wolfhound, as do several sporting visitors there. Pliny wrote that Alexander the Great was presented by the King of Albania with a dog of unusual size, the common reference to a dog used to deter wolves from livestock. In his 1854 book The Dog, Youatt writes: “The Albanian Dog can be traced to a remote period of history…He is almost as large as a mastiff, with long and silky hair, the legs being shorter and stronger than those of the greyhound…” In his book also entitled The Dog of 30 years later, ‘Stonehenge’ writes: “A very large and magnificent animal of the greyhound or deerhound type is met with in Albania, coarser in shape and in the hair of his tail than the Grecian greyhound, but with a finer coat on the body. He is especially used as a guard against wolves, but also for hunting them. The varieties are too great to allow of any very definite description of this dog.” As my illustration, from the 1930s shows, this is a sighthound type but one that may have been lost to us.

Throughout the 20th century as the relentless expansion of towns and the demands of human needs manifested themselves, sporting dogs suffered, with the sighthound group perhaps the greatest loser. The coursing hounds of Italy and mainland Greece went a long time ago. Sadly too, in the show rings of the western world and in North America, the sighthound breeds of Southern Europe have lost favour. In the UK in 2016, these breeds were showing falling numbers: only 1 Ibizan Hound was newly registered; the Cirneco dell'Etna had 14 registered, the  Pharaoh Hound 15, the Portuguese Podengo 18 - but all of the small terrier-like variety. The Spanish Galgo, the Cretan Hound and the podencos of the Canary Isles are not even recognised in Britain. At this rate, this group of dogs could actually disappear from the sporting world in the not-so-distant future, and that would be a sad loss.