by   David Hancock

Gifted perceptive artists often capture the essence of their subject so revealingly that even well-taken photographs cannot match their interpretive skills. If you wish to 'see into' sighthounds, then the sketches of John Skeaping in the last half century are well worth scrutiny. He has captured, almost uniquely, the immense flexibility combined with muscular strength in the anatomy of the canine sprinters, the Greyhound in particular. He seems to appreciate the significance of muscular distribution in their anatomy, as well as their innate disposition. His portrayals provide me with a better understanding of how such dogs have to be constructed to fulfll their role. There should be no coarseness in any sighthound breed, just symmetry and remarkable flexibility. A curled-up Greyhound demonstrates the almost elastic capability of the dog's freedom to change from hunting machine to hearthrug hugger.

    In his book on the Greyhound, published half a century ago, the great sighthound expert Edwards Clarke wrote: “It soon became apparent to the early breeders of the Greyhound that their fastest dogs, generally speaking, were cast in a certain common mould. In the fullness if time they came to associate such physical features as tall straight forelegs, strong loins, powerful quarters, with the fullest endowment of speed and stamina. In their minds’ eyes they created a picture of the ideal Greyhound, of the conformation that in their experience had proved to be the most reliable and consistent vehicle of the breed’s great intrinsic qualities. This commonly accepted standard of physical perfection was drawn up long before dog shows had ever been thought of.” All sighthounds function as such from the design of their anatomy; if we seek to change that design to suit a contemporary whim, we threaten their claim to be real sighthounds.

In his How to Breed Dogs of 1947, American veterinarian and the most highly experienced dog breeder of his day, Leon F Whitney, wrote: “The early owners of racing dogs raced them and the fastest dogs were those of a definite type. The fastest were the sires and dams most sought as progenitors. There is an association of bodily features which is conducive of great speed, so the type of dog which we know as the greyhound began to become a breed. And finally by the recognition of the fact that there is a definite association of physical characteristics, leaders found that they could also improve greyhounds by inculcating beauty into the breed without sacrificing speed. Then they began to compare them in groups to see which most nearly approximated what they thought was the composite of beauty and usefulness. In this way cliques were built up around all breeds which were interested not in the usefulness of the breeds but in the appearance. They gradually made their idea of beauty the goal and forgot usefulness. In fact they did the most absurd things and are still doing them…”  In his series of sketches of the Borzoi, Skeaping illustrates, perhaps without intending to, the misleading silhouette of such a breed by different thicknesses of coat, with each judge likely to see a slightly different conformation.


The sighthound silhouette is unmistakeable: long legs, long back, long muzzle, it’s hardly surprising they are often all called long dogs! But the seeking of great pace creates the need for those features, with the requirement for endurance only just a secondary requirement. Foxhounds, huskies and wolves, especially, have great endurance but do not rely on sheer speed; the sighthound build and its musculature demonstrate the priority, it’s an anatomy for immense pace, sustained pace but not for mile after mile, as the packhounds, wolf-packs and the sled-dogs need. Of a Greyhound’s live weight, roughly 57% is accounted for by muscle. This compares with around 40% for most mammals. During exercise, a Greyhound can increase its packed (blood) cell volumes by between 60 and 70%, and increase its heart beat from below 100 to over 300 per minute; this allows a much more effective blood flow to its muscles than is the case in most other breeds. The Greyhound’s thigh muscles are far better developed than in most other breeds, facilitating pace.

The particular function of each sporting dog not surprisingly led to the development of the physique which allowed the dog to excel in that function. That is why sighthounds have a muscular light-boned build, the terriers a low-to-ground anatomy and the flock guardians substantial size. Sighthound breeds, wherever they were developed, project the same silhouette, display the same racy phenotype. The Azawakh of Mali, the Harehound of Circassia, the Sloughi of Morocco and the Tasy or Taigon from Mid-Asia would never change hands if they didn't look like fast-running dogs. If they didn't possess this anatomical design they couldn't function as speedsters. The hounds from the Mediterranean littoral have upstanding ‘bat’ ears to maximize their already acute hearing; this is an ear-shape not favoured further north, partly because of the harm inflicted to such ears by freezing winds and driving rain.

Whilst the sighthound breeds have a common silhouette, the differences in their hunting styles, hunting country and the local climate have produced small but key differences, such as ear-shape, between the various breeds in the group. All need the long loin to provide flexibility in the fast gallop, a deep chest to enable lung power and immense propulsion from the rear. Sighthounds need length in the forearm to facilitate the fast double-suspension gallop. The Ibizan Hound has a different front from most of the sighthounds, designed to allow greater jumping agility. It displays a noticeable ‘hover’ in its gait. The Whippet has more tuck-up and loin-arch than the Mediterranean breeds. The Greyhound, from the side view, shows the anatomy its users have learned provides speed in the gallop. The shoulder blade is not as well laid-back as in say the ‘endurance’ breeds, like the sled-dogs, and the upper arm is more open than in a non-sporting breed, with a proportionately longer fore arm. The Greyhound’s front pasterns are long and sloping due to the immense ‘bend’ needed there at great pace. Many Saluki owners prefer the smaller, more energy-efficient type, since the breed is expected to cover substantial distances in the heat at the trot. The ratio of weight to height matters when speed with stamina is sought.

The sighthound build is a superb combination of bone and muscle, a unique balance between size/weight and strength and quite remarkable coordination between fore and hind limbs. The Greyhound sprints in a series of leaps rather than running in a strict sense. It is what is termed a 'double-flight' runner, where the feet are all off the ground at the same moment. This is unlike a 'single-flight' animal like the horse which, when racing, nearly always has at least one foot on the ground. The Greyhound's leaping gait is rooted in quite exceptional extension, especially forward with the hind legs, but also rearwards with the front legs. Anatomically, the most vital elements in such a dog are the shoulders, and their placement, and the pelvic slope, which determines the forward extension of the all-important hindlimbs. That's where the power comes from. It always saddens me to see a sighthound in the show ring displaying upright shoulders and short upper arms, together with a lack of pelvic slope. It is even sadder when such an exhibit is placed by an ignorant judge – having been entered by an ignorant owner! I see these fundamental anatomical faults being condoned at far too many championship dog shows, but why can’t the owner/breeder see such basic flaws? They would be well advised to study, very carefully, John Skeaping's inspired sketches of their breed and absorb the anatomical details captured so valuably in them.