The Azawakh is a breed of sight hound native to the Sahel region of Africa, a band of relatively fertile land immediately south of the Sahara that stretches from Mauretania in the West to Sudan in the East. The Azawakh has been used for centuries as a protection animal and coursing dog by many different peoples of the region. Although similar in appearance to other sight hound breeds such as the Greyhound, genetic and historical evidence suggests that this dog is in fact much more closely related to the Basenji of Africa. Although not as fast as many other sight hounds, the Azawakh is able to easily withstand much higher temperatures and is also considerably more protective. The Azawakh is kept by peoples who speak a multitude of languages, and has earned a number of different names, including the Tuareg Sloughi, Sahelian Sloughi, Sahelian Greyhound, Levrier Azawakh, Idi, Hanshee, Oska, Rawondu, Bareeru, and Wulo.
The Azawakh was developed by nomadic tribes living in one of the most challenging places on Earth. By necessity, these people traveled lightly, and consequently left behind few archaeological records. Until very recently, the vast majority were illiterate, as reading is of little use to a nomad. As a result of these factors, almost nothing is known with certainty about the Azawakh’s ancestry until the second half of the 20th Century. However, much can be pieced together with what little evidence is available, including genetic studies and observations of Azawakhs in Africa.
Although it is unclear exactly how old the Azawakh is, it is almost certainly among the most ancient of all dogs, or at least directly descended from them. There is a great deal of dispute among geneticists, archaeologists, and other experts as to when the dog was first domesticated, with estimates ranging between 14,000 and 100,000 years ago. It is almost universally agreed that dogs were fully domesticated from the wolf by at least 14,000 years ago and that they were the first species to be domesticated by man. Genetic studies have confirmed that all dogs are descended from the Grey Wolf (or possibly the Indian or Tibetan Wolves which may be unique species) and that the dog was domesticated at one time, in the Middle East, India, or China.
The first dogs accompanied bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers across the Stone Age landscape, serving as camp guardians, hunting aides, and companion animals. Dogs proved so indispensable that they spread across the world, eventually coming to reside in nearly everywhere inhabited by man, the only exceptions being a few remote islands (and the continent of Australia if the Dingo is not considered a true dog). The first dogs to enter the continent of Africa were probably introduced either by land across the Sinai Peninsula or by boat over the Red Sea. The first evidence of dogs in the home range of the Azawakh comes from petroglyphs painted and carved onto rocks. Petroglyphs dating from between 6,000 and 8,000 B.C. show primitive-looking dogs hunting wild beasts in concert with their human masters. Although it is impossible to say for sure, it is likely that these may be depictions of the Azawakh’s first ancestors. During the time that these petroglyphs were created, the Earth’s climate was very different, and much of the Sahara was far wetter than today’s desert. Vast areas that are now dune-covered deserts were relatively fertile.
At the end of the Holocene Era, the Earth’s climate changed, leaving a massive stretch of Africa bone dry. The Sahara Desert stretched for hundreds of miles in all directions, becoming one of the single greatest barriers to the movement of life on Earth. The Sahara was bordered by oceans to the east and west, and two fertile and agriculturally productive regions to the north and south. The narrow strip of fertile ground between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea became known as the Maghreb, while the wider strip between the Sahara and the jungles of Equatorial Africa became known as the Sahel. The Sahara is almost impossible to cross without the aid of camels or motorized vehicles, and until the modern day almost completely isolated the dogs found on either side of its dunes. The dogs of the Sahel thus developed independently of their northern cousins.
At first, all dogs were almost identical in appearance to the wolf, and likely were virtually identical in appearance to the modern Dingo. Eventually, people began to carefully breed dogs to exaggerate the qualities that they most desired. The end result of this interference was the development of unique breeds. The first definitive evidence of multiple unique breeds comes from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Numerous finds dating to between 5,000 and 9,000 year depict dogs that have been identified as potential ancestors to a number of modern breeds. Among the oldest of these varieties were dogs which closely resemble sight hounds, which are frequently depicted running down fleet-footed gazelles and hares. These ancient Middle Eastern sight hounds almost certainly developed into the Saluki and Afghan Hound, two of the world’s oldest breeds. For many years, it was widely accepted that the Saluki and Afghan Hound later spread across the world as a result of conquest and trade, eventually developing into the plethora of sight hounds found across the world. It was originally believed that the Saluki spread to the Maghreb where it developed into the very similar Sloughi. The Sloughi was then supposedly acquired by the few tribes who manage to survive in the Sahara such as the Tuareg and Beja. Many of these tribes are skilled at crossing the Great Desert, and according to the theory, brought their Sloughi dogs south to the Sahel. The Sahelian peoples then gradually bred the Sloughi to localized conditions until it developed into the Azawakh.
While the traditional Middle Eastern descent theory is still possible and has a number of supporters, recent evidence has provided an alternative, and more likely, theory. Genetic tests conducted on dogs across the world have shed light on the actual relationships between them. They have also shown that sight hounds were probably developed independently a number of times throughout history, and that similarities in appearance are the result of being bred for similar purposes, rather than actual relationships. These tests have shown that the Azawakh is more closely related to African Pariah Dogs (random-bred and only semi-domesticated dogs that are found scavenging in and around settlements) and the Basenji of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) than it is to other sight hound breeds. These tests have also indicated that the Azawakh possesses a unique variety of the glucose isomerase gene. The only other canids known to have this gene are foxes, jackals, Italian wolves, Sloughis, and a few Japanese breeds. This has led to speculation that the ancestors of the Azawakh may have been occasionally crossed with jackals. It was once widely believed impossible to cross dogs with jackals, but recent breeding efforts from Russia have proven otherwise. If true, the jackal may very well have introduced valuable survival traits to the Azawakh, allowing it to live on the edge of one of Earth’s harshest places.
The close connection between the Pariah Dogs of the Sahel and the Azawakh can be seen in the breeding practices of the Sahelian tribesmen. In much of the Islamic World, there is a clear distinction between the Al Hor (Salukis, Sloughis, and Afghan Hounds) and the Kelb (Pariah Dogs). The Al Hor are considered noble and clean while the Kelb are considered dirty mongrels. The people of the Sahel do not make such a distinction, allowing all of their dogs to interbreed freely. As is the case with wolves, these dogs have a complex social structure, with an alpha male and an alpha female. Due to pack rules, the alpha male will sire the majority of puppies, although a few enterprising non-alpha males may find a way to enter the gene pool as well.
Although far more fertile than the arid Sahara, the Sahel is still a very difficult place to live, as evidenced by the many famines that strike the region. There are not enough resources for a tribe to support an excessive amount of dogs, and therefore only the dogs considered of the highest quality are selected to live. The Sahelians cannot afford to let dogs grow to adulthood before they judge which are the fittest, so they must decide when the dog is still a very young puppy. In most years, one puppy is selected from each litter, and the others are all euthanized. When times are especially wet, two or even three puppies are sometimes spared, but this is somewhat rare. This practice may seem cruel to Western eyes, but is a necessity in the harsh environment of the Sahel in addition to the fact that it allows the mother dog to devote all of her resources to one puppy therefore increasing the likelihood of its survival. For many cultural reasons, male Azawakhs are greatly preferred and most of the puppies that are spared are male. Females are usually only kept when there is a need or desire to produce more dogs.
In addition to man-made selection, the Azawakh experienced extreme natural selection. Any dog incapable of dealing with the high temperatures, arid conditions, and tropical diseases of the Sahel would have quickly perished. Additionally, the wildlife of Africa is often very dangerous. Predators both actively hunted these dogs and fiercely defended themselves against them. Even prey species such as gazelles and ostriches can easily kill a dog with a kick or head butt. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, and other beasts have been responsible for killing many Azawakhs over the centuries.
Throughout most of the world, the primary purpose of the sight hound is to chase down and catch fast moving prey. Depending on the region, this is done for food, sport, vermin eradication, furs, or some combination thereof. The Azawakh is similarly used, and is capable of reaching very fast speeds in extremely high temperatures. This breed can effortlessly go at top speeds in temperatures that would kill many breeds in a matter of minutes. However, the Azawakh is unique among coursing dogs in that its primary purpose is protection. Azawakhs are traditionally allowed to sleep on the low straw roofs of their village homes. When a strange animal approaches the village, the first Azawakh to notice it alerts the others and jumps down to drive it off. Incredibly pack-like in their behavior, other Azawakhs quickly join the first on the offensive and work together to drive off or kill the intruder. Although not as aggressive towards humans, Azawakhs also alert their masters to the approach of a stranger, and sometimes attack them.
The Azawakh was almost entirely isolated for centuries, although they were almost surely crossed with other African dogs and the occasional Sloughi or Saluki that made its way south from the Maghreb. Despite a growing interest in dog breeding, the European Imperialists that gained control of much of the Sahel in the 19th Century initially paid little to no attention to the Azawakh. That began to change in the 1970’s, when the French were in the process of granting independence to their remaining colonies. At the time, a Yugoslavian diplomat named Dr. Pecar was stationed in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. He became interested in the Azawakh, but local customs prohibited their sale. These dogs could be given as gifts, however, and Dr. Pecar was given his first female in gratitude for his killing of a bull elephant that had been terrorizing a village. Pecar was later able to acquire two littermates. He brought these three dogs back to Yugoslavia where they became the first Azawakhs to arrive in the West, later forming the foundation for the breed in Europe. Shortly thereafter, French bureaucratic officials working in Mali returned to Europe with 7 more individual Azawakhs. All of these dogs were quite similar in appearance and are widely believed to have come from the same region.
Initially there was great debate over the true nature of the Azawakh. It was first considered to be a variety of Sloughi, and was given the name of Tuareg Sloughi. Both the Sloughi and the Azawakh were sometimes considered to be nothing other than smooth-coated Salukis. By the end of the 1980’s most of this confusion had ended and the three dogs were widely considered unique breeds. In 1981, the Azawakh was first recognized as a unique breed by the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) under the name Sloughi-Azawakh. In 1986, the Sloughi was officially dropped from the name. Although rare, imports of Azawakhs continued to arrive periodically. Three such dogs formed the basis of the Coppe Line, which together with the French and Yugoslavian lines constitute the majority of the ancestry of Western Azawakhs. French breeders devised a standard based on the descendants of the original 7 dogs. This standard was quite restrictive, especially with regard to coloration, and many later breeders felt it did not do justice to the great variety found in African Azawakhs.
Although it is unclear exactly when the first Azawakhs were imported to the United States, it was certainly during the mid-1980’s. Initially, all imports came from Europe. The first confirmed litter whelped in the United States was born on October 31st, 1987, by Mrs. Gisela Cook-Schmidt. All of the earliest American Azawakhs were red with white markings, the most commonly found colors in European dogs. As interest in the breed slowly increased in the United States, a few dogs were imported directly from Africa. A group of Azawakh breeders met in 1988 to form the American Azawakh Association (AAA). As part of its mission to protect and promote the Azawakh breed, the AAA began to keep a studbook and developed a written standard.
In 1989, the first brindle Azawakhs were imported into the United States, and the first American brindle litter was whelped the following year by Deb Kidwell. In 1993, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition to the Azawakh as a member of the Sighthound & Pariah Group, becoming the first major American canine organization to do so. An increasing number of European fanciers wanted to import more Azawakhs directly from Africa in order to expand the gene pool, increase the breed’s health, and to introduce more coat colors. However, FCI rules were and are highly restrictive, which made it quite difficult to register these newly imported dogs. Difficulties were greatly increased by harsh EU dog importation restrictions. In the United States fanciers of the breed had it much easier, the AAA was considerably less resistant to imports than the FCI, and many members actively sought to import African dogs, especially those with different color schemes. The AAA’s goals were aided by the loose American importation requirements. The AAA wrote their standard to allow for any color found in African Azawakhs, as well as creating policies to register African-born dogs. In the mid-1990’s, a parti-color male was imported directly from Burkina Faso, and in 1997 a pregnant female was imported from Mali to Alaska where she gave birth to a parti-color and sand litter.
The ultimate goal of many American Azawakh breeders is to have their dogs granted full recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC). They applied for membership in the Foundation Stock Service (AKC-FSS), the first step towards full breed recognition. This status does grant some AKC privileges, but does not allow for Azawakhs to compete in most AKC events. The growing popularity of the breed in Europe led to the foundation of the Association Burkinbe Idi du Sahel (ABIS). ABIS has sent several expeditions to the Sahel to observe and study Azawakhs in their homeland. Much of what is known about the traditional use and breeding of Azawakhs is the result of work conducted by the ABIS. The ABIS has also collected a large number of genetic samples from Azawakhs and other local dogs, increasing global understanding about their history. In addition to studying the Azawakh in its region of origin, ABIS obtained a number of dogs and exported them to the West. Many of these dogs end up in the United States, where it is easier for them to be imported, registered, and shown than in Europe.
In its native land, the Azawakh is almost exclusively a working dog, and virtually every Azawakh in the Sahel serves as a hunting dog and protection animal. In the West, the breed is almost never used for those purposes, although is occasionally seen in lure coursing competitions. Instead, Western Azawakhs are almost always companion animals and show dogs, tasks at which this breed is well-suited given the proper ownership. Breed fanciers are working to slowly but responsibly increase Azawakh numbers in America both by breeding and importation. Although still quite rare in the United States, the Azawakh is developing a loyal and devoted following that hopes to one day earn full recognition with the AKC.
The Azawakh is very similar in appearance to a number of other smooth-coated sight hounds, especially the Sloughi. The Azawakh is a relatively tall dog with males usually standing between 25 and 29 inches tall at the shoulder and females usually standing between 23½ and 27½ inches. However, this dog is also incredibly lean, with males averaging between 44 and 55 pounds and females averaging between 33 and 44. The Azawakh is so skinny than many observers initially believe the dog is emaciated, but that is the breed’s natural state. The dog is incredibly thin in between the chest and the hind legs. Much of the breed’s height is due to its incredibly long legs, which are among the longest of any dog relative to height. These legs make the Azawakh one of the few breeds which is significantly taller from floor to shoulder than it is long from chest to rump, the usual ratio being 9 inches long for every 10 inches tall. Although lean and skinny, the Azawakh does not look fragile, instead appearing athletic and sturdy. The Azawakh’s tail is long, lean, and tapering. Usually carried low, the tail is often raised over the back (but never in a curl) when the dog is at attention.
The head and face of the Azawakh are generally similar to those of other sight hounds, but tend to be slightly shorter and more similar in appearance to those of a typical scent hound than other coursing dogs. The Azawakh’s head is somewhat small and short for a dog of this size and is also very narrow, roughly half as wide as it is long. Ending in a black or brown muzzle, the muzzle and face are relatively indistinct from each other, blending in very smoothly. The muzzle is moderately long and often points slightly downward, giving it a mildly different angle from the rest of the head. The muzzle does taper towards the end but is not snipey or pointed. The almond-colored eyes are rather large but often appear squinty from a distance. The ears of most Azawakhs are medium sized and hang close to the head. Broad at their high-set base, the triangular ears taper to a rounded point.
The coat of the Azawakh is short and fine over most of the body, but sparse and almost non-existent on the belly. There is substantial dispute as to which colors are acceptable in the Azawakh. Breed members in Africa are found in almost every color and pattern found in domestic dogs, including fawn, sand, red, white, black, blue, parti-color, all shades of brown, and chocolate. The FCI only accepts sand, red, and black-brindled Azawakhs and excludes all other colors. Both the UKC and the AKC allow for Azawakhs to be exhibited in any color found in Africa, but as a result of European and available African imports, sand, red, parti-color, and brindle dogs are easily the most commonly found in America. Many Azawakhs, but far from all, have black masks and white markings, usually found on the chest and legs.
Azawakhs are known to be somewhat variable in temperament, with some dogs being more protective and stronger-willed than others. In general, older Western lines tend to be more docile than recent African imports, but this is far from a rule. The Azawakh is a very ancient breed who is considerably more similar in personality to primitive breeds such as the Basenji and Chow Chow than it is to most other sight hounds.
It has been said that the Azawakh combines unfailing loyalty and complete independence. This breed forms extremely close attachments to its family. Azawakhs have a very strong tendency to become one-person dogs who shun the affections of all others, although they will usually form bonds with all members of a family. Azawakhs rarely express their affections openly, and most are very reserved. Azawakhs like to spend the majority of their time doing their own thing, and this is certainly not a breed that will constantly be in its owner’s face. In Africa, Azawakhs generally do not like to be touched at all, but this is probably a result of cultural factors which make handling dogs rare. Most Western Azawakhs willingly accept contact, although they rarely seek it out.
Bred as a protection animals, Azawakhs are usually highly suspicious of strangers. With proper training and socialization, most Azawakhs politely accept the presence of strangers. Although some Azawakh lines are friendly and outgoing, most are extremely reserved and aloof. The sizable majority of Azawakhs are very slow to make friends, even after repeated contact. This breed can be extremely difficult to rehome, and some of these dogs never accept a new person such as a spouse or roommate, even after many years. Without a great deal of socialization, Azawakhs are usually either extremely timid and shy with new people, or quite challenging and defensive. It is not especially uncommon for Azawakhs to develop human aggression issues. Alert, protective, and territorial, Azawakhs make excellent watch dogs. This breed also makes an excellent guard dog who will vocally and firmly challenge any intruder. Although it prefers to deter an intrusion with a show of force, the Azawakh will attack if it deems it necessary to protect its territory or family.
This breed has a mixed reputation with children. When raised with them from a young age, Azawakhs are usually dependable around children. However, a running and screaming child may initiate a breed member’s prey drive, leading to a chase and knock down. Additionally, Azawakhs that have not been socialized with children are often highly suspicious of them and the loud noises and jerky movements that they make. This is also not a dog that likes to have its personal space violated, and virtually no Azawakh will tolerate horse play or rough handling.
In Africa, the Azawakhs in a village form a loose, wolf-like pack with a complex social hierarchy. These dogs are capable of living alongside other dogs, and most in fact greatly prefer to. However, as is the case with wolves, a proper pack order must be established before peaceful coexistence can occur. Almost all Azawakhs are highly dominant towards other dogs and almost always try to hold a higher position on the pecking order. This can lead to a number of problems, including violent confrontations. Issues usually calm down once the hierarchy is set, but conflict can erupt at any moment, especially between unneutered males. Once this breed forms bonds with other dogs, they tend to become very close and devoted to them. In large groups, these dogs often form unmanageable packs. Azawakhs generally do not like strange dogs, and often develop issues with them. This breed also frequently mistakes tiny dogs such as Chihuahuas as prey to be pursued, which must be controlled.
Most Azawakhs can be socialized to accept creatures such as cats, and to leave them in peace. However, this breed has an extremely high prey drive, which is sometimes nearly uncontrollable. Azawakhs have a strong tendency to pursue any creature that they see and attack it once caught. An Azawakh left alone in a yard for any length of time will very likely bring its owners home “presents” of dead animals, such as cockroaches, squirrels, and rabbits. Azawakh owners must also be aware that a breed member that is “best friends” with the family cat may pursue and even kill a neighbor’s cat that wanders into its yard.
Azawakhs pose a number of training difficulties, and teaching this breed can be quite a challenge. This breed is quite intelligent, and these dogs are often innovative problem-solvers. The difficulties lie with the Azawakh’s independent nature and dominance. Most Azawakhs are willing to please if it doesn’t conflict what they want to do, but rarely do so when an owner’s command goes against one of their desires. These dogs are usually entirely uninterested in training, and are very difficult to get to respond. Of greater issue to many owners is the fact that Azawakhs will not follow anyone whom they do not consider a true leader. Those who fail to maintain a constant position of dominance over their dogs will find that their Azawakhs completely ignore them. None of this means that training an Azawakh is impossible, but it does mean that a substantial amount more time, effort, and patience is necessary to do so than is the case with most breeds. Even the best trained and obedient Azawakhs are almost impossible to call back when they get on the chase, and this breed should always be leashed in public to prevent injuries and death to other animals and the dog itself.
Bred to run and run fast, the Azawakh needs a fair amount of exercise. This breed needs a vigorous daily walk at the very least, but really craves regular opportunities to run freely in a safely enclosed area. It is absolutely imperative that Azawakh owners provide their dogs with appropriate outlets for their energy; otherwise they will find their own. Azawakhs that are unexercised develop a variety of emotional and behavioral problems including boredom, nervousness, manias, timidity, hyper activity, over excitability, destructiveness, excessive barking, and aggression. The Azawakh is does not have extreme exercise needs, however, and given freedom to run on occasion, the average committed dog owning family will not be run ragged meeting them. Once exercised, Azawakhs tend to be very calm and relaxed indoors, although to a slightly lesser extent than other sight hounds.
Potential Azawakh owners need to be made aware of a few other breed characteristics. Possibly as a result of their cold intolerance, most Azawakhs either strongly dislike or outright hate being wet. This dog does not like to be outside even in the lightest drizzle, and most breed members would never willingly walk through a deep puddle much less go for a swim. In their native Africa, one of the few ways to keep cool in the scorching heat is to dig. As a result, the breed developed a strong instinct to do so, and many Azawakhs are determined diggers. If left to their own devices many of these dogs would completely destroy a yard, although it can be controlled with training or designating a certain part of the yard as a “dig-friendly” zone.
The Azawakh has some of the lowest grooming requirements of any breed. This breed needs only an occasional brushing, which can often be achieved with a towel. Azawakhs do shed, but to a lesser extent than most breeds. Their very short hair is also considerably less noticeable than that of many breeds. It is highly advisable that Azawakh owners introduce their dogs to routine maintenance procedures such as nail clipping and teeth brushing from as young an age as possible as adult dogs are often highly resistant to them. Bathing these dogs is often a special challenge as so many of them hate water.
The Azawakh was bred almost entirely as a working dog in some of the planet’s most dangerous environments for untold centuries. Any defect would have resulted in the death of the dog, at the hands of selective and hard-strapped masters or the unforgiving and uncompromising mother nature. Azawakhs from Africa are generally extremely healthy and disease resistant dogs. Unfortunately, the majority of Western Azawakhs are descended from a very limited number of dogs and have been heavily interbred. This has allowed a number of genetic defects to spread through the breed, largely as a result of the founder’s effect. The founder’s effect basically describes the impact that a single animal can have on later populations. If all dogs of a breed are descended from an individual dog, almost all will carry the genes for any condition that dog suffered from. These problems are proving very difficult to eradicate from the Azawakh, as the breed’s population is so small that it is very difficult if not impossible to find dogs with alternative genes. Breeder’s hope that through the use of genetic tests and the continuous introduction of African dogs the prevalence of these issues will be reduced. Azawakhs do tend to live very long lives for a dog of this size, and their average life span is around 12 years. Additionally, some problems common in other breeds are virtually nonexistent in the Azawakh, most prominently hip dysplasia.
Azawakhs are one of the most, if not the most, heat tolerant of all dog breeds. A healthy Azawakh is capable of not only withstanding temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but working in them. On the other hand, this breed is incredibly intolerant of the cold. Azawakhs have essentially no natural protection from the cold, and must be protected when the temperature drops. Sweaters and booties are an absolute must in frigid conditions, in order to make up for the lack of body fat or hair. Azawakhs also get cold easily and frequently develop the shivers when its owners are perfectly fine. This intolerance can be life threatening as an Azawakh can and will develop frostbite or freeze to death in both faster than other dogs and in temperatures that most breeds would be able to handle.
Azawakh breeders and fanciers have identified a number of problems that appear in the breed with varying frequencies. These problems include: