The Cirneco dell’Etna is a breed of hunting hound native to the island of Sicily, where it is thought to have been present for more than 2,500 years. Pronounced “cheer-nay-ko,” the plural form of Cirneco is Cirnechi (cheer-nay-kee) and when translated is commonly misnomered as the "Sicilian greyhound". As its name would suggest, the Cirneco dell’Etna was primarily tasked with hunting rabbits and hares, although it has been used to tackle a variety of small game throughout the centuries. Although quite rare outside of Italy, the breed is growing a dedicated following elsewhere in the world, particularly the United States. The Cirneco dell’Etna is also known as the Cirneco, Sicilian Hound, Sicilian Greyhound, Sicilian Rabbit Hound, Sicilian Rabbit Dog, and the CDE.
The Cirneco dell’Etna is a very ancient breed, first appearing hundreds, and most likely thousands, of years ago. It was developed in an era long before written records were kept of dog breeding and so very little is known about its ancestry. It is clear that this is a very old breed and that it has been present in Sicily for hundreds, and likely thousands of years. The Cirneco dell’Etna is very similar to a number of other breeds found throughout the Mediterranean and it is generally agreed that these dogs share a common ancestry. Among the dogs placed in this group are the Pharaoh Hound of Malta, Ibizan Hound and Podenco Canario of Spain, and the three Portuguese Podengos. These breeds all have a very similar, primitive appearance, all are native to the Mediterranean islands or the Iberian Peninsula, and all are generalized hunting dogs specializing in rabbits.
The origin of the Cirneco dell’Etna , like all dogs begins thousands of years ago with the wolf; a time when nearly all domesticated or semi domesticated dogs remained very similar in appearance to their direct ancestor the wolf. Although there were regional differences, the majority of early dogs regardless of their location shared this physical similarity to the wolf. This began to change between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Artifacts such as pottery and royal tombs from that time show clearly distinct varieties of dog. Although it is not clear, many of these varieties may have been relatively purebred by this time. One of the most commonly depicted of these early dogs is the Tessem, the hunting dog of the Egyptian nobility. The Tessem was apparently much prized by its royal owners as it is frequently depicted in their tombs and may have been mummified alongside them. For many years it was believed that the Tessem or a closely related Egyptian or Mesopotamian breed was the ancestor of all Sight Hounds. According to this theory, these early sight hounds would later develop into the Saluki and Afghan Hound, and that trade and conquest would then spread these dogs from Spain and Morocco to India and China.
This theory is often specifically applied to the Mediterranean hunting hounds. These dogs are perhaps more similar than any other group to the dogs depicted on the ancient tombs, and in fact are virtually identical to them. It is widely believed that the Phoenicians spread these dogs across the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were organized into a number of city states located in modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. At various points, they were dominated by Egypt or the long succession of Mesopotamian empires, but somehow managed to maintain their seafaring dominance. Phoenician colonists also founded the city of Carthage in modern day Tunisia, which became the seat of a great empire. The Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, had a major presence in Sicily, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and the Iberian Peninsula. It is very possible that they were responsible for the spread of these dogs, either from the Middle East or somewhere else. A similar theory holds that the Greeks spread these dogs. This theory is equally probable as the Greeks were just as accomplished maritime traders as the Phoenicians, and had almost as great a presence in the Middle East and all of the locations that these breeds came to be found. It must be noted that prior to the Roman Conquest of Sicily, the island was divided in two: the eastern portion was controlled by Greeks and the western portion was controlled by Carthage.
There is substantial evidence for a Middle Eastern ancestry for the Cirneco dell’Etna. Most linguists believe that the word Cirneco is derived from the Greek word “Kyrenaikos,” the ancient name of the Libyan city of Shahhat. Kyrenaikos was the oldest and most important of five Greek colonies in Eastern Libya, and was so important that the entire region is still known as Cyrenaica, after Cyrene, the city’s Roman name. It is generally believed that the Cirneco dell’Etna was originally called the Cane Cirenaico, or “Dog from Cyrenaica.” This would seem to strongly indicate that these dogs arrived in Sicily from North Africa, being brought by Greek traders operating between Cyrene and Syracuse. It may also imply a relationship with the Sloughi, an ancient sight hound native to North Africa. It is also interesting that Cyrenaica borders Egypt, home of the Tessem. The first written use of the word Cirneco comes from 1533, when a Sicilian law limited their use by imposing sanctions against anyone using "cirnechi" for hunting, as they were considered damaging to prey.
There is one major problem with this theory. Cyrene was founded in the 3rd Century B.C., but the Cirneco dell’Etna is likely even older. Dogs almost identical to the modern breed have been found on coins dating back to the 5th Century B.C., almost two hundred years before Cyrene existed. It is quite possible that the dogs arrived from North Africa or the Middle East earlier and were mistakenly associated with Cyrenaica, but it is also possible that the dog was developed on Sicily itself. Recent genetic analysis has concluded that the Pharaoh Hound and Ibizan Hound are not as ancient as once believed. More importantly, genetics have seemingly proven that sight hounds are not all descended from the same stock, but were developed independently a number of times in different locations. This genetic evidence may be an indication that the Cirneco dell’Etna was actually developed independently on Sicily by careful breeding of indigenous dogs.
However the Cirneco dell’Etna arrived in Sicily, it became highly valued by the island’s inhabitants. As has already been mentioned, the dog was regularly depicted on coins minted by a number of local powers from the 5th to the 3rd Centuries B.C. The dog is most commonly found on coins minted in Segesta, but also appears on those from Erice, Piakos, Motia, Palermo, and Messina. These coins frequently depicted the Sicilian God Adranos, the personification of the volcano Etna, on one side and a Cirneco dell’Etna on the other. This means that as early as 2,500 years ago the breed was already associated with the Volcano that gives the dog its modern name. These coins and their locations suggest that the Cirneco dell’Etna held a religious significance to the ancient Sicilians, a significance which can be found in the mythology of the region. Legend holds that Dionysus, the Greco-Roman God of wine and revelry, founded a temple on the side of Mount Etna around 400 B.C, just outside of the city of Adrano. The temple was supposedly responsible for breeding many of these dogs, who served the temple in many ways. The Cirnechi acted as temple guardians, and it is said that at one point 1,000 of these dogs were found there. The dogs also supposedly had a divine ability to identify thieves and non-believers, who would be attacked immediately. For those believers who were on a pilgrimage to the temple, the Cirnechi would find them and guide them there. According to legend, the Cirnechi were especially kind and tolerant to intoxicated pilgrims, as most of the God of Wine’s festivals involved copious amounts of drinking.
The breed was maintained by local hunters in an almost identical form for millennia, even long after the breed’s religious significance had been eliminated due to the spread of Christianity. These dogs can be found on a number of Roman Era artifacts, most notably the mosaics of the Roman Villa Imperiale at Piazza Amerina. The Cirneco dell’Etna came to be found throughout Sicily, but was always most prevalent in the area immediately surrounding Mount Etna. The Cirneco dell’Etna was always primarily a hunting dog, and for centuries its primary quarry has been rabbits. Sicily was once home to a wide variety of large mammals, including Dwarf Elephants and Hippopotami. However, most of these species were hunted to extinction in prehistoric times. A few such as deer continued to live on in the island’s forests, and such creatures were almost certainly hunted by the ancestors of the Cirneco dell’Etna which were probably much larger, about the size of the Pharaoh Hound.
The Romans initiated a policy of deliberate deforestation to make room for agricultural crops, a policy continued by the island’s subsequent inhabitants. Deer and other large mammals were probably extremely scarce by the fall of the Roman Empire and were all extinct on the island by the beginning of the modern era. This meant that the only common prey species were rabbits and the occasional fox or wild cat. Perhaps because only small prey was still available or possibly because resources on an island are usually reduced, the Cirneco dell’Etna gradually shrunk in size. Rabbit hunting was highly beneficial to Sicilian farmers. Rabbits are agricultural pests who consume crops, making getting rid of them a high priority. Perhaps more importantly, rabbits provided a source of protein for the stew pot, and hunting them provided great sport.
In most of Europe, hunting dogs were primarily kept by the nobility, but the Cirneco dell’Etna was usually owned by poor farmers. The breed remained a highly valued part of Sicilian life for millennia, but fell on hard times in the beginning of the 20th Century. Modern technology and social change meant that fewer people were keeping these dogs, and the quality of their breeding began to suffer. Although common throughout the island, Cirnechi were virtually unknown anywhere else, even mainland Italy. In 1932, Dr. Maurizio Migneco, a veterinarian from Andrano, took up the breed’s cause. He wrote an article in the journal Il Cacciatore Italiano (“The Italian Hunter”) describing the reduced state that the ancient breed had fallen into. A group of highly influential Sicilians decided to work together to save the much treasured dog. These efforts were led by the Baroness Agata Paterno Castello of the Dukes of Carcaci, better known to her friends as Donna Agata. Donna Agata dedicated the next 26 years of her life to the Cirneco dell’Etna, known at the time as the Cirneco. She studied the breed and its history to the greatest extent possible, and began to comb the island for the most ideal specimens. She brought these dogs to her kennel, Aetnensis, where she initiated a careful breeding program. When she felt she had sufficiently recovered type and conformation, she consulted with the renowned zoologist Professor Giuseppe Solaro. Professor Solaro studied the dog’s anatomy, behavior, and working methods, and published the first Cirneco standard in 1938. The Italian Kennel Club quickly recognized the breed, almost certainly the oldest of Italy’s many ancient native dogs. In 1951, the first breed club was founded in Catania. Professor Migneco served as its first president. In 1952, the first Italian Show Champion was crowned, a female named Aetnensis Pupa that had been bred by the Baroness herself.
As the 20th Century wore on, Cirnechi continued to be bred in Sicily, but they also spread across mainland Italy as well. However, the dog was essentially unknown outside of Italy until the 1980’s. In 1989, the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) granted full recognition to the breed. Interest began to increase outside of Italy, especially in France, Finland, and the United States. The first Cirnechi arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s. On June 15, 1997, Lucia Prieto and Kay Durr met for a full day in Houston, Texas to determine what would be necessary to form a national parent club for the Cirneco dell’Etna in the United States. That same day a club was formed and a constitution and bylaws were created, heavily influenced by those of the Pharaoh Hound Club of America. The new club was to be called the Cirneco dell’Etna Club of America (CdECA). At the time, there were only two other known Cirneco dell’Etna owners in the United States, Joan Ayers-Cohen and Janis Butler, both were invited to serve on the CdECA’s first board.
In 1998, the first breed specialty was held in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and 12 of the 20 Cirnechi present in the United States at the time took part. The show also served as the first general meeting of the CdECA, and a studbook was started. FCI registration was required for entry in the studbook. Since the first breed specialty, only one has not been presided over by Italian FCI judges very familiar with the Cirneco dell’Etna. Many have also been attended by AKC conformation judges so that they can familiarize themselves with the breed. For a number of years, there was only one active Cirneco dell’Etna breeder in the United States, and only one litter was born in that country annually. In recent years, more breeders have become involved with this dog and its population in the United States continued to grow.
In 2006, the United Kennel Club (UKC) became the first of the two major U.S. kennel clubs to grant full recognition to the Cirneco dell’Etna as a member of the Sighthound & Pariah Group. That same year, the American Kennel Club (AKC) placed in the breed in its Foundation Stock Service Program (AKC-FSS). Membership in the FSS is the first step towards full recognition with the AKC which is the ultimate goal of the CdECA. On January 12, 2012, the Cirneco dell’Etna was officially added to the AKC’s Miscellaneous Class, the final step before full recognition. The breed is now eligible to compete in almost all official AKC events that a member of the hound group is allowed to participate in except conformation events. The studbook has grown substantially, and there are currently more than 200 breed members registered in the United States. CdECA members are continuing to work towards full AKC recognition and it is hoped that within a few years the breed will join the Hound Group, although if the AKC reorganizes its groups as is widely expected the dog will most likely enter a group dedicated to sighthounds. In Sicily, the Cirneco dell’Etna is still occasionally used to hunt rabbits and other small game. Outside of its homeland, the vast majority of breed members are now primarily companion animals and show dogs, although a very high percentage of American Cirnechi also compete in lure coursing events. American fanciers are continuing to work to increase breed numbers in that country while maintaining the dog’s health and quality.
The Cirneco dell’Etna is very similar in appearance to a number of other Mediterranean hound breeds such as the Pharaoh Hound and Ibizan Hound, but is considerably smaller than most. This breed is very refined looking. The Cirneco dell-Etna is a small to medium-sized breed. Most males stand between 17¼ and 20½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 22 and 26 pounds. Most females stand between 15¾ and 19¾ inches tall at the shoulder and weight between 17½ and 22 pounds. The Cirneco dell’Etna is a very well-proportioned dog that should be equally as long from chest to rump as it is tall from floor to shoulder. Like most sighthounds, the Cirneco dell’Etna is very thin, but this breed does not have the near emaciated appearance of some others. This breed looks lithe and athletic rather than frail and delicate. Possessing a very natural appearance, this breed should not have any overly exaggerated features, although its legs do appear rather long. The tail of a Cirneco dell’Etna is quite long and rather thick for its entire length. This tail is normally carried in a saber-like fashion.
The head and face of the Cirneco dell’Etna are proportional to the size of the dog and rather primitive in appearance. The head is quite narrow, roughly half as wide as it is long. The muzzle is quite long, at least 80% the length of the skull, and blends very smoothly into the rest of the head. At the end of the muzzle is a large, square nose, the color of which is determined by the color of the coat. The eyes are very small and are ochre or grey in color, never brown or dark hazel. The ears of the Cirneco dell’Etna are very large, especially in terms of length. These triangular ears stand erect and rigid, ending in narrow tips. The overall expression of most Cirnechi is soft, intelligent, and wise.
The coat of a Cirneco dell’Etna is very short and smooth on the head, ears, and legs. The body and tail have slightly longer hair that is roughly an inch in length. The body and tail hair is sleek, close lying, straight, and stiff, and is often compared to horse hair. Cirnechi are almost always one color, fawn. This fawn may be any shade from dark to Isabella and often looks deep tan or red. Cirnechi may either be solidly fawn or have white markings, on the head, chest, tail tip, feet, and belly. Sometimes a white collar is present as well, but this is somewhat disfavored. Occasionally, a solidly white Cirneco dell’Etna is born, or one that is white with orange markings. These dogs are acceptable in the show ring but are not preferred.
Most frequently described as friendly, the Cirneco dell’Etna is known for being highly affectionate with human beings, but also somewhat independent-minded. This breed wants to be with its family at all times, and is often demonstrably affectionate with them. This can be a problem as some of these dogs suffer from severe separation anxiety. Although there is not much information available on the Cirneco dell’Etna’s suitability with children, it seems that this breed gets along very well with children if introduced to them at a young age. When properly socialized, the Cirneco dell’Etna is usually quite accepting of strangers and polite with them. Some of these dogs are very friendly and eager to greet new people while many others are more reserved. This breed has a tendency to become so affectionate that it becomes an inappropriate greeter, jumping on guests and licking them, but this can be corrected with training. Some breed members are highly alert and make capable watch dogs, while others do not. This breed is very ill-suited to guard dog work as they are neither intimidating nor aggressive enough.
This breed generally gets along very well with other dogs, and most Cirnechi greatly prefer to share their lives with at least one other canine companion, ideally another Cirneco dell’Etna. As is the case with all dogs, Cirnechi that have not been properly socialized with other dogs may develop fearfulness or aggression issues with them, but these problems tend to be relatively minor. Cirnechi do have major issues with non-canine animals. This dog was bred to hunt small mammals for thousands of years and has an extremely high prey drive. These dogs have a tendency to pursue and potentially attack any creature that they sense, and a breed member left alone in a yard for any length of time is likely to bring its owner “presents” of dead animals. If properly socialized with them from a young age, most breed members will accept the family cats and give them no trouble, but some of these dogs are never entirely trustworthy around them.
The Cirneco dell’Etna is widely considered to be among the most trainable, if not the most trainable, of all sighthounds, and those few breed members who have competed in agility and obedience events have performed very well. This breed is highly intelligent and learns very quickly. Cirnechi do tend to be somewhat sensitive to correction, meaning that rewards based training techniques tend to work best with this breed, especially those that involve treats. As is the case with all sighthounds, Cirnechi have are difficult to call back once they begin a pursuit. This breed is more responsive than others though, and most can be taught to come back on command.
This breed is relatively energetic and needs a fair amount of daily exercise. At the very minimum, a breed member should get a long daily walk, and ideally an opportunity to run freely in an enclosed area. Any enclosure that holds a Cirneco dell’Etna must be very secure, as this breed is a very talented escape artist, smart enough to figure out week points, athletic enough to jump very high, and also a highly skilled digger. It is very important that these dogs are provided with a sufficient outlet for their energy, otherwise they are likely to develop behavioral issues such as destructiveness, hyper activity, excessive barking, and nervousness. That being said, this breed does not have extreme exercise requirements and the average committed family will be able to meet them without being put out too much. Once a Cirneco dell’Etna has had its needs met, they are quite relaxed in the home. Many of these dogs are couch potatoes that will spend hours relaxing on the sofa, often curled up underneath blankets.
The Cirneco dell’Etna has minimal grooming requirements. This breed should never require professional grooming; only a regular brushing and an occasional bathe are required. Otherwise this breed only needs the routine maintenance procedures that all breeds require such as teeth brushing and nail clipping. Cirnechi do shed, but the amount varies between dogs. Most are very minimal shedders, although some do shed more heavily.
There are so few Cirnechi in the United States that there is almost no available information on their health in this country. However, this breed seems to be very healthy and does not appear to suffer from high rates of genetic problems. A responsible breeder should be able and willing to provide information on any health issues that dogs from their line have suffered. Based on the size of the breed, and the lifespan of comparably sized breeds, it is likely that a healthy Cirneco dell’Etna could be expected to live between 12 and 15 years.
The Cirneco dell’Etna is likely to suffer from a few conditions common to similar breeds. Sighthounds in general are very lithe and have very low body fat. This makes them very vulnerable to anesthesia. Amount of anesthetics that would be perfectly safe for most breeds of their weight may cause severe reactions and potentially even death to some sighthounds. Because the Cirneco dell’Etna is so rare, very few veterinarians have experience with this breed and therefore owners must alert their vets to this possibility. Not only does the Cirneco dell’Etna not have much fat, it also has very little hair. This means that the breed is relatively intolerant of the cold. When the temperatures drop, a Cirneco dell’Etna should wear a sweater and booties, especially in the snow. Similarly, the breed does not have much cushioning and should be provided with very soft bedding and places to rest at all times. As is the case with all coursing dogs, Cirnechi may suffer from muscle tears and toe injuries as a result of hunting or lure coursing. Owners should carefully examine their dogs after they participate in activities to make sure that they have not been injured.
Although it does not appear that skeletal or visual defects are common in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have it tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Some problems which may affect the Cirneco dell’Etna include: