by   David Hancock

It could be argued that of all the types of hunting dogs the sighthound has the furthest reach, ranging from the American prairies to the Asiatic steppes and from Northern Europe to Central Africa. You may not find them in the densely wooded areas of Scandinavia or South America, but where there are open spaces, deserts especially, and particularly where deer abound you will find the canine sprinters. As human settlements change their nature and urban living increases remorselessly, we may gradually lose them as the demise of such types as the Mahratta Hound of India and the Circassian Hound of the steppes indicate, but the Rampur Hound of India, the Chart Polski and Magyar Agar of Eastern Europe still have their devotees. Colonists  introduced speedy hunting dogs to North America and Australia, where they quickly adjusted to quite different quarry. But the Moors played a significant role too, not just in Africa but in Europe too.

   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. Sadly, the Galgo has in recent years become a welfare nightmare, being discarded by heartless hunters in Spain at the end of the hunting season.

     Of a totally different type are the tribal dogs of South Africa. This remarkable group of dogs has been researched and then publicised by Johan Gallant in South Africa, after centuries of European indifference. Any group of dogs which can survive without ever receiving any veterinary care, in a testing climate like the South African bush and operating in terrain which would challenge any functional animal, deserves attention. The Africanis is believed to be a direct descendant of the domestic dogs which came to southern Africa with the Iron Age migrations of the Bantu-speaking people. These dogs were then taken up by the resident Khoisan people; these dogs were never bred for type but type developed from function.

Natural selection has not only eliminated inheritable diseases and provided a natural resistance to internal and external parasites, it has created a virile, healthy, functionally excellent animal, repeating the formula applied automatically by primitive dog breeders all over the world. It is only in the highly civilised countries where, paradoxically, sickly short-lived dogs are bred from because they are handsome or conform to a rigid blueprint. There is nothing exaggerated or extravagant in the Africanis; their coats adapt to the seasons, they move with great economy of movement and their owners have no obsession with ear carriage - their dogs can have drop ears or erect ones. These dogs have survived in a harsh setting and are genetically important.

   All too often we only associate the Russian Borzoi with snowy forests and the wolf habitat but the finest hunting ground for the Russian sighthounds will forever be the steppes. The real all-round 'hunting by speed' field dogs from Russia are the mid-Asiatic Tasy or East Russian Coursing Hound and the Taigan or Kirghiz Borzoi. The Circassian Greyhound, also known as the Crimean, Caucasian or Tartary Greyhound, is more Saluki-like, understandably so, as the Circassians could be found as far afield as Syria and Iraq. The Tasy and the Taigon, both over two feet at the withers, are fast, robust, determined, all-purpose hunting dogs and like the similar breeds of Chortaj (pronounced Hortai) and the Steppe Borzoi, remain unrecognised by most international registries. This means that their breeding remains in the hands of the hunters not the exhibitors. The Tasy hails from the desert plains east of the Caspian Sea, featuring a ringed tail and heavy ear feathering, with a likely common origin with the better known Afghan Hound, sometimes called the Tazi in its native country. Used on hare, fox, marmot, hoofed quarry and even wolf, the Tasy is remarkably agile, with a good nose as well as great speed and legendary stamina, often being used with the hawk, providing fur pelts as well as meat. One famous Tasy was valued at 47 horses, such was its prowess in the hunt.

  The deserts of the Indian sub-continent have proved good hunting grounds for sighthounds. The Sindh Hound is found in the deserts of Sindh and Rajasthan and famous as a boar-lurcher, being Great Dane size: 28 to 30" and around 100lbs in weight. Lighter and more Sloughi-like is the Rampur Hound, the Greyhound of Northern India, the Maharajah of Baria once having a famous kennel. Around 28" at the shoulder and weighing around 75lbs, they have been used on stag and boar and for hunting jackal. A century ago, some were brought to Britain and exhibited at the Dublin show. The lurcher of Maharashtra is the Mudhol Hound, between the Greyhound and the Whippet in size. More Saluki-like is the lurcher of the Banjara, a nomadic tribe with gypsy connections. The Banjara, or Vanjari, is famed for its stamina and nose and its ability to pull down deer, always going for the hindquarters, not the throat, as many Deerhounds do instinctively. The Poligar and the Vaghari have a distinct smooth Saluki look to them.

The Chippiparai, the lurcher of the south, is described as being Dobermann-like in outline, but usually white in colour and used mainly for hare-hunting. They are regarded as the most intelligent and biddable Indian breed, being used as police dogs in some areas. The Poligar Hound is the Greyhound of Southern India; they have been called the lurcher of India, used on fox, deer, jackal, and, in packs, on boar. For generations this breed was used for pig-hunting on foot with spears, rather as the ancient Greeks hunted them. Around 26" at the shoulder and weighing between 40 and 45lbs, they are thin-coated but the coat has a stiff wiry texture, harsh to the hand when back-brushed. They are famous long-distance runners but sadly for a delicate constitution, needing careful rearing.  The hunting dogs of the nomadic Indian peoples today fall into two types: the lighter-boned smooth-coated Mudhol or Karvani dogs and the stronger-boned silky-feathered Pashmi or Pisouris, which can range from 20 to 28". They are used on a wide variety of quarry, from chinkara and blackbuck, fox and rabbit to civet and mongoose, even black-faced monkeys, a local pest.

   It’s extremely rare for a new sighthound breed to appear. Coursing with dogs is banned in most European countries and, further south and east, the sport is being seriously affected by urbanisation. It’s also unusual for a long-dog, that is, a cross between two sighthound breeds, to feature the longer coat. But if you admire the Russian Wolfhound, the Borzoi, and don’t fancy a dog that big, the new breed of Silken Windhound might have appeal. In times too when both inherited defects and inbreeding depression are topics of concern in the purebred dog scene, a new hybrid, created by a skilled breeder-geneticist, has appeal, not just for sportsmen seeking performance and robustness, but pet-owners too, desiring long-living and inexpensive-to-manage companion dogs.

The desire of the dog owning public to have a small sighthound-type dog has been met in some way by the Italian Greyhound and in the sporting field by the Bedlington-Whippet lurcher and, more recently, by the Cirneco dell’Etna. But a small longer-haired sighthound has been missing. In the early 1980s however a Texan geneticist Francie Stull (who had bred over 200 champion Borzois from her Kristull kennel) started crossing lure-coursing and show champion Borzois and Whippet-based lurchers to produce what she termed a Silken Windhound.  After years of selective breeding, this new breed seems to be devoid of health issues, have an easily-managed coat, live to die of old age rather than acquired disease and look like a diminutive Borzoi. They are fast gaining ground in North America and in some European countries, with kennel club recognition likely. These small long-dogs are 18-24 inches tall, with a wide range of coat colours and Dr Stull has founded The International Silken Windhound Society (ISWS) to further the new breed’s world-wide ambitions. I do hope, wherever they are favoured, their sporting needs are being met; whatever their size, they are still sighthounds and they carry the hunting genes.

Clubs for Silkens are now in a wide range of countries, from North America to South Africa and right across Europe to Japan. All are registered with the ISWS, which runs the only studbook in the world to have a basis of DNA profiles and therefore be 100% accurate. Over 1,200 Silkens have now been registered with the ISWS world-wide.   The distinguished Borzoi breeder, Lorraine Marchant, together with Gill Grist, imported the first Silkens into England and shared a subsequent litter. They have produced some highly-attractive, most impressive hounds already.

Britain may be famous for developing the supreme sighthound, the Greyhound, but the British show ring recognises just one type of standardised Greyhound, although  sportsmen everywhere, throughout the ages, have known that function, quarry and terrain all combine to give you the hound. The functional physique may be similar but local conditions can decide eventual form. In his informative The Pursuit of Wild Animals for Sport of 1856, JH Walsh, also known as 'Stonehenge', described variously: the Newmarket Greyhound, the Lancashire Greyhound, the Wiltshire Greyhound, the smooth Scottish Greyhound and the Yorkshire Greyhound. He wrote that 'during the last 12 years in which the Newmarket blood has been so much tried at the Waterloo-cup meeting, greyhounds of the true Lancashire breed have been victorious four times, whilst the true Newmarket have succeeded twice.' Ireland has long been famous for her Greyhounds. Cornwall was once a source of good stock and sighthounds have long been respected as valuable pot-fillers rather than statuesque exhibition animals. For centuries, the word Greyhound was used as the generic term for sighthounds, a word invented to categorize the canine sprinters. It could be argued that the Galgo of Spain, the Magyar Agar of Hungary and the Chart Polski of Poland are really just varieties of Greyhound. But in Britain, we might well have ended up with several breeds of Greyhound too. Such is the randomness and the fickleness of the breed recognition/registration system. Genetically, this may prove to be a regrettable loss.