by   David Hancock

Dog-traders have earned themselves a questionable reputation in modern times, but trading in dogs in past times  allowed the widespread movement of dogs and a wider appreciation of their usefulness. Dogs accompanied wandering tribes, campaigning armies and migrating peoples, provided they had some use. The game-catchers like the sighthound breeds, the gamefinders like the modern gundog breeds and the flock guarding breeds each had a distinct value to man. The need to control vermin led to the development of the terrier breeds. The need to control sheep gave us the herding breeds. Dogs which excelled in their specialist function have long been extensively traded. The value of a hunting dog, to fill the pot, to primitive man was incalculable.

The particular function of each 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, the long-distance 'strollers', substantial size. Sighthound breeds, wherever they were developed, project the same silhouette, display the same racy phenotype. The ancestors of say the Azawakh of Mali, the Harehound of Circassia, the Sloughi of Morocco and the Tasy or Taigon from Mid-Asia would never have changed hands if they didn't look like fast-running dogs. But if they didn't possess this anatomical design they couldn't function as speedsters.

Hunters and sportsmen the world over know that the ability to catch game using speed demanded a very distinctive build. The sighthounds bound; they must have the height/weight ratio, the leg length and the liver-size to sprint. Sighthounds race entirely on liver glycogen, sugar activated from the liver. Sprinting demands long legs and a sizeable liver. The bigger the liver the more sugar can be stored. A sighthound over 65lbs in weight would have a problem through heat storage; their streamlined build allows a greater surface area. We are good at getting rid of excess heat and not very good at storing it. Dogs are the reverse, removing excess heat from their surfaces rather as a radiator gives off heat.

When sighthounds were traded, these technicalities were not known but the radiator-like build, size without weight and long legs meant something to their traders. The most successful sprinters had the build to succeed and were traded and perpetuated. In breeding for appearance only we need to bear in mind those anatomical essentials which made sighthounds what they are: internationally renowned sprinters. An 85lb Borzoi will experience difficulties when running flat out; a Greyhound of any weight with a small liver will have an even bigger handicap. Traders in such hounds couldn't measure livers but they could measure performance. The old expression 'an eye for a horse' could easily have been 'an eye for a dog' so important is knowledgeable decision-making in owning, racing and, especially, in breeding canine sprinters.

Sighthounds do not have to be huge. I regularly see lurchers at shows that must weigh 90-100 lbs. I would have thought that even for pre-ban hare-hunting on Salisbury Plain or around Newmarket, 60-70 lbs was easily big enough. The famous coursing greyhound Master M'Grath, three times winner of the Waterloo Cup, believed by many to have no equal for pace, cleverness and killing power, weighed 52-54 lbs. Wild Mint weighed 45 lbs and Coomassie only 42; both were superbly effective coursing dogs. I hate to think of how much food a brace of these 100 lb monsters eats!

But whatever their size it is possible to judge these admirable dogs more effectively. If we are going to judge them, let's do it properly. A hound that hunts using its speed must have the anatomy to do so. Immense keenness for work will always come first but the physique to exploit that mental asset comes close second. A sighthound must have a long strong muzzle with powerful jaws and a level bite. How else can it catch and retrieve its quarry? The nose should be good-sized with well-opened nostrils, for, despite some old-fashioned theories, sighthounds hunt using scent as well as sight.

For any sighthound to succeed, its eyes should be fairly prominent and be set slightly oblique, to the side of the head. One eye should look away to the right and one to the left so that, like any good rangefinder, both eyes can be used for long distance marking. It is likely however that at close range only one eye is used at a time. The neck should be long but symmetrically so, muscular and firm. Length of neck does not improve 'pick up'; flexibility in the 'swoop' comes from the placement of the shoulder blades.

A sighthound must have well laid back sloping shoulders. The sighthound's back should hint at suppleness and power, be slightly arched in the lumbar region, yet have a mainly level topline. The loins should be noticeably strong, so that the power from the hindquarters can be harnessed fully. We all admire a handsome dog but a weak-loined dog would never last in the hunting field. Having an 'eye for a dog' takes knowledge, experience and shrewdness, not just good eyesight!