Traditionally linked to the dogs of ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Hound is the native hunting and guarding breed of the islands of Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranean. Although the official national dog of the Republic of Malta, the Pharaoh Hound remains a rare breed elsewhere in the world, including the United States. The Pharaoh Hound is also known as the Kelb Tal-Fenek, literally translated as “Dog of the Rabbit,” due to the dog’s most common historical use as a rabbit hunter.
While there are many that claim to know the true origin of this ancient breed, the truth is that the Pharaoh Hound was created centuries before dog breeding records were kept and quite possibly even before the invention of writing. Therefore there is too little historical evidence or documentation available to definitively map out this breeds creation, and the majority of what is posited today about the history of the Pharaoh Hound is little more than speculation and supposition. What is known for sure is that this breed has been native to the islands of Malta and Gozo since time immemorial and that this breed is definitely several hundred years old, and probably several thousand. There is strong evidence that the Pharaoh Hound is closely related to a number of similar Mediterranean breeds such as the Ibizan Hound, Cirneco dell’Etna, Podenco Canario, and the three types of Podengo Portugueso; although to date no definitive connection has been established. It is also commonly believed that the Pharaoh Hound is the direct descendant of ancient Egyptian hunting dogs, however, this may simply be a case of wishful thinking or of breed fanciers trying to romanticize the breed as there is virtually no solid evidence to support this theory and many experts have recently called it into question.
The history of the Pharaoh Hound like that of all dogs begins with the domestication of the Wolf. There is great dispute as to how, when, and where the dog was first domesticated from the wolf. Some claim that the wolf domesticated itself by following and scavenging from hunter-gatherer tribes, others that man deliberately tamed it. Unfortunately, this mystery will probably never be solved. Similarly, some believe that this process happened repeatedly in different parts of the world and others that it only happened in one or two. Recent genetic studies have indicated that dogs were domesticated only once or possibly twice, in the Middle East, India, or China. The current area of greatest contention is the timing of the dog’s domestication. Although essentially all experts agree that the dog was the first domestic animal, there is an almost 100,000 year difference between various estimates. There is indisputable archaeological evidence that dogs were domesticated by 7,000 years ago, almost universally accepted evidence for 14,000, very strong evidence for 30,000, and some evidence to suggest that the process may have began as long as 100,000 years ago.
The first dogs were very similar to the wolf, especially the smaller and less aggressive wolves of India and the Middle East. These dogs were likely virtually identical to the Dingo in terms of appearance and temperament. At the time, all of humanity lived as migratory bands of hunter-gatherers and their semi-feral dogs served them as camp guardians, watch dogs, hunting aids, and companions. As humans spread across the world, and were found virtually everywhere so were their dogs. It is very likely that these early dogs (accompanying their human companions and providers) made it to Southern Italy and Sicily. Between 9,000 and 14,000 years ago, humans in the Middle East ceased their migratory ways as they began to practice agriculture and to live in permanent settlements. This new way of life allowed for much larger populations and for the development of different occupations and social classes. Great civilizations were created along the major rivers of Mesopotamia and Egypt, both of which had strictly separated nobility.
As humans became more specialized, so did their dogs. The earliest depictions of dogs all show very similar animals, but this began to change between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Egyptian and Mesopotamian artifacts from that time start to show different varieties of dog, known as the Iwiw to the Egyptians (also their word for bark). One of the earliest distinguishable types of dog is known as the Tessem. The Tessem was the hunting dog of the Egyptian nobility. Paintings of the Tessem show a dog that is virtually identical to the modern Pharaoh Hound. What evidence exists seems to indicate that the Tessem was a sight hound, used to chase down gazelles and hares. The Tessem was obviously quite dear to the Egyptian nobility, as it is regularly depicted on their burial chambers, and some may have been mummified along with their masters to provide companionship in the afterlife.
At some point, the Egyptians began to worship the dog. Although not as revered as the cat, the dog was closely connected to the jackal-headed god Anubis, an important part of Egyptian religion. Egyptians obviously cared deeply for their dogs, as they created dog cemeteries and recorded thoughts of their most prized canines. Egyptians mummified countless thousands of dogs, and many of these mummies have survived until the present day. Some records have actually given us the names of individual Ancient Egyptian dogs, and it appears that the Egyptians used some of the same criteria to name dogs as modern Americans. Some of the names that have survived translate to Brave One, North Wind, Antelope, Good Herdsman, Blacky, and most comically Useless. Dogs would serve a prominent place in Egyptian society and religion until the introduction of Christianity and Islam.
The first record of human inhabitation in Malta and Gozo date from around 5,200 B.C. It is thought that these settlers first arrived from Sicily and were members of the Sicani tribe. As has been the case throughout history, humans quickly drove most of the indigenous large species to extinction, including dwarf elephants and dwarf hippos. The only huntable species remaining was the rabbit (which may have been imported later from Spain) and a few birds. Luckily for the first residents of Malta, they were already masters of agriculture, and possessed sheep and other livestock. It is very likely that they also brought their domestic dogs with them. A breed known as the Cirneco dell’Etna is still a native of Sicily. This dog is very similar to the Pharaoh Hound and is used in a similar manner. It is quite possible that the Pharaoh Hound is primarily descended from these dogs, and almost certain that it is partially descended from them.
Between 1550 B.C. and 300 B.C. a people known as the Phoenicians began to expand their trading network across the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were skilled seamen and experienced merchants, and along with the Greeks dominated the economy of the ancient world. The Phoenicians were native to the area surrounding modern Lebanon and were long in close contact with (and were sometimes ruled by) Egypt. It is a commonly held belief that the Phoenicians brought the Tessem and other Egyptian dogs along with them on their journeys, often as merchandise. As the Phoenicians and their descendants the Carthaginians are factually known to have had centuries of involvement in the areas Malta, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, and the Iberian Peninsula, it is a commonly held assumption that they must have been responsible for introducing the ancestors of the Pharaoh Hound and its relatives to these areas. However, there is essentially no evidence to connect the Pharaoh Hound with ancient Egypt other than the breed’s similarity of appearance and use in Egyptian drawings. It is also unclear if the Phoenicians actually dealt in dogs at all. Furthermore, genetic tests indicate that the Pharaoh Hound and Ibizan Hound are not especially ancient. On the other hand, there is nothing to conclusively prove that the Pharaoh Hound was not a descendant of the Tessem, and this still may be possible. Even if the Tessem was brought to Malta and Gozo, it is highly likely that only a few of these dogs made it to the islands and that they were heavily crossed with dogs already present there.
In historic times, dogs were rarely brought on sea voyages. This meant that the Pharaoh Hound was bred in virtual isolation for many centuries. Although dogs were heavily developed from primitive stock elsewhere in Europe, the Maltese (native people of Malta, not the modern breed) continued to breed a very ancient type. They almost surely would cross their dogs with the occasional canine sea visitor, but these mixes were likely few and far between. Although Malta was conquered repeatedly by a plethora of invaders, the island’s dogs would remain relatively unchanged. The Pharaoh Hound retained a number of primitive characteristics that were lost in most breeds. Because Malta was too small to support a number of different canine varieties, the Pharaoh Hound remained multi-talented. Though not extremely skilled in any one particular task, the dog was capable of performing a number of different jobs very well.
The Maltese used their dogs for a number of purposes. Meat was often scarce on Malta and Gozo, and the native rabbits made for a welcome source of protein. As such the Pharaoh Hound was carefully bred for rabbit hunting abilities. In much of the world, hunting dogs became specialized, hunting primarily by either sight or smell. The primitive Pharaoh Hound was unique in that it hunted almost equally well with both senses, much like its ancestor the wolf. Ideally, Pharaoh Hounds would detect a rabbit and run it down before it could find shelter. When this was not possible, the dog would either dig the rabbit out itself or prevent its escape while its owner caught the animal. It was traditional practice for Pharaoh Hounds to work in teams and too hunt at night. In cases where the rabbit was in a hold too deep or rocky for the dog to dig it out on its own after cornering it, a trained ferret would be sent down to kill the rabbit. The Pharaoh Hound became such a talented rabbit hunter that the Maltese have traditionally called the dog the Kelb Tal-Fenek, meaning “Dog of the Rabbit.”
Although Malta was devoid of large land predators, the island was no more immune to criminals than any other location. As the only available large breed, Pharaoh Hounds were also used as guard dogs in addition to their hunting duties. After a day in the field, these dogs would return home at night to defend their masters and property from evildoers. The Maltese herdsmen even used these dogs to defend their flocks, especially as they were being taken to market. Although not as large or intimidating as most continental guarding breeds, the Pharaoh Hound is more than capable of discouraging a casual bandit or rustler, or at least of warning its master of their presence. As technology evolved so did the Pharaoh Hound, especially as it concerns the development of guns, which made it much easier to shoot birds. Already skilled as a rabbit hunter, Pharaoh Hounds began to be used to scent out birds for armed gunmen, and occasionally to flush them into the air where they could be shot. Although not all breed members were skilled at the task, some Pharaoh Hounds were also used to retrieve the downed birds.
The Pharaoh Hound continued to be used by the people of Malta and Gozo for many centuries. The first known written record of the breed comes from 1647. In that year, the Maltese historian and Vice-Chancellor of the Order of Saint John Commendatore Fra. G. Fran. Abela described the islands hunting dogs. As all Maltese records of the time were kept in Italian, the dogs were referred to as Cernichi, an Italian word loosely translated to mean 'rabbit dog'. At that point, the breed was apparently known outside of the island, as Abela said that they were famed for their rabbit hunting abilities as far away as France. Little else was recorded about these dogs until the British took control of Malta in 1814. The British dominated the island in one way or another until 1964. Avid dog lovers, the British brought at least one pair of Pharaoh Hounds back to their homeland as early as the 1920’s. However, the breed did not become established in Britain until the early 1960’s. At that time, General Adam Block was in charge of the British troops stationed on the island. His wife Pauline became fascinated with the beauty and elegance of the islands dogs and began to import them to England. The dogs imported by Mrs. Pauline Block and others she introduced to the breed formed the foundation of the breed outside of Malta. The British had long controlled Egypt and were very familiar with Ancient Egyptian artifacts. They quickly noticed the similarity of the breed to the dogs owned by the mighty Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and assumed that they were its ancestors. The name Pharaoh Hound was given to these dogs to highlight the connection. After gaining notoriety in the United Kingdom, the Pharaoh Hound began to be exported around the world. In 1967, Mrs. Ruth Taft-Harper imported the first Pharaoh Hound to the United States.
The fame and population of Pharaoh Hounds outside of Malta continued to grow. In 1970, the Pharaoh Hound Club of America (PHCA) was founded to promote and protect the breed. In 1974, the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom officially recognized the breed. Shortly thereafter, the breed was named the Official National Dog of Malta, and the breed’s face was shown on the nation’s currency for a brief time in 1977. During the 1970’s, The Pharaoh Hound began to make regular appearances in rare breed shows across the United States and interest in the breed slowly increased in that country. In 1983, both major American canine organizations, the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition to the Pharaoh Hound as a member of the Hound Group and Sight hound/Pariah Dog Group respectively.
In modern times, the Maltese still use the Pharaoh Hound for its original purpose, to hunt rabbits and birds, and as a guard dog. Whereas breed members elsewhere in the world, especially the United States, have been resigned to serve as companion animals and show dogs. Residents of these countries typically use more specialized breeds for jobs the Pharaoh Hound performs in its homeland, such as Bloodhounds for scent trailing and Greyhounds for coursing. Because the Pharaoh Hound was until very recently strictly a working breed, most breed members have retained their strong hunting ability. Although the Pharaoh Hound has been established in America for more than 40 years, it has never gained a great deal of popularity in that country. In fact, the Pharaoh Hound is one of the least commonly registered dogs with the American Kennel Club, and remains one of the rarest breeds granted full recognition with that organization. In 2010, the Pharaoh Hound ranked 156th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC recognitions, and there is little sign that the dog’s numbers will increase.
The Pharaoh Hound has a very striking appearance, both beautiful and elegant. Overall, the breed is quite primitive looking; it looks very similar to the earliest distinctive types of dog. The Pharaoh Hound is a medium-sized breed with males typically standing between 22 and 25 inches tall and females typically standing between 21 and 24 inches tall. This breed is very lean and most weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. The Pharaoh Hound is a natural and capable athletic and should appear very fit and muscular. Although not nearly as slight as most sight hounds, the build of the Pharaoh Hound is reminiscent of them. This breed is slightly longer than it is tall, but the thin legs of many breed members make it appear that the opposite is the case. The Pharaoh Hound has as natural an appearance as one is likely to find in a dog, and none of its features should appear exaggerated in any way. The long tail of this dog is very thick at the base but tapers to a sharp point. The tail is carried low, with a major curve about two-thirds of its length from the base.
The head of a Pharaoh Hound sits at the end of a long and narrow neck. The head looks refined with very prominent features. The shape of the head is flattened, wedge shaped, and narrow. The muzzle of this breed blends in very smoothly with the rest of the head, enhancing its wedge-shaped appearance. This breed has a very long muzzle, preferably noticeably longer than the head. Because the head of this breed is so narrow, the muzzle is often the same width. At the end of the muzzle is a nose which should be identical in color to the dog’s coat. The eyes of the Pharaoh Hound are oval-shaped and moderately set in the head. This breed is frequently born with blue eyes, which turn amber or dark yellow as the dog ages. Perhaps the most noticeable facial feature of this breed is its ears. These ears are quite large, especially in terms of width, and stand erect. These ears are very mobile and expressive. The overall expression of a Pharaoh Hound is keen and intelligent. Pharaoh Hounds are one of the few dog breeds that “blush.” When these dogs get excited their noses and ears often turn a bright shade of pink.
The coat of this breed is short and glossy. The texture of the coat of each individual Pharaoh Hound is different ranging from quite soft to slightly harsh. The Pharaoh Hound is found in two coat patterns: solid red and red with white markings. This breed is found in many shades of red, ranging from a light tan to a deep chestnut. Different kennel clubs put different restrictions and preferences on shade, but most are quite broad. Similarly, almost every kennel club allows and favors different white markings. Most strongly prefer dogs with white tail tips and solid white markings rather than flecking. Also, most prefer there to be no white on the back or sides of the dog. The most commonly found markings include a star on the chest, patches on the toes, and a slim white snip on the center of the face.
The Pharaoh Hound is not nearly as primitive in terms of temperament as it is in appearance, and is much closer to modern breeds in this regard that it is to most other Pariah-type dogs. This breed is often described as having the appearance of a sight hound with a more generalized temperament. Pharaoh Hounds tend to be very affectionate with their families, but not fawningly so. This breed is often described as being quietly affectionate. While far from aloof, this breed is certainly not clingy either. Independent-minded, these dogs do not need to be in the constant presence of their families (although most would like to be). Not a one person dog, Pharaoh Hounds usually form equally strong bonds with all family members, and many times with friends as well. This breed is generally aloof with strangers. Most Pharaoh Hounds will ignore new people, although some may be shy or timid around them. Even shy or timid Pharaoh Hounds are much more likely to flee social situations that react aggressively, and human aggression is rarely seen in these dogs.
As a breed, Pharaoh Hounds do not like their vision obscured, so it is best to greet these dogs with a chin rub rather than a head pat. This breed is both highly alert and quite vocal, making it an excellent watchdog. Though at one time used as a guard dog in its homeland, the modern breed is poorly suited to that purpose as breed members are very rarely aggressive enough. This is not to say that the modern version of the breed is useless in terms of home protection, as they do make an excellent early warning system and will readily sound the alarm to alert their owners of a strangers presence. The Pharaoh Hound is about average when it comes to children. When properly socialized with them, most Pharaoh Hounds do very well with children and often become best friends with them. Breed members that have not been exposed to children often find their high-high pitched noises and jerky movements unsettling. Owners should be aware that this is not a rough and tumble family dog, and most will quickly leave a play session that they find displeasing.
Pharaoh Hounds have worked in close tandem with other dogs for many centuries. As a result, breed members are generally quite accepting of other dogs. Dominance, territorial, possessiveness, and same-sex aggression issues are all fairly rare in this breed. Although the utmost caution should always be used when introducing strange dogs, Pharaoh Hounds are naturally more accepting than most breeds. A serious problem can develop with very small breeds such as Chihuahuas. Pharaoh Hounds may mistake such toy breeds as potential prey and give chase.
Pharaoh Hounds do not get along well with non-canine animals. These dogs were bred to hunt small mammals and birds, and they are incredibly skilled at the task. This breed has an incredibly high prey drive and will give chase to essentially anything that it sees. Owners who leave their Pharaoh Hounds unsupervised in a yard for any length of time are likely to receive presents of dead animals. As is the case with any breed, Pharaoh Hounds who have been raised with cats or other small animals will probably give those individual animals few problems. Owners must always remember that a Pharaoh Hound that is good with the family cat may still (and is probably likely to) chase and attack a cat with which it is not familiar.
The Pharaoh Hound is considered highly intelligent, and is an excellent problem solver. These dogs are capable of learning a great deal, although probably not as much as a breed such as a Border Collie or Doberman Pinscher. The Pharaoh Hound is generally willing to please and most are quite biddable. Trainers accustomed to working with other hound breeds are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the ease of training a Pharaoh Hound, and this breed has performed admirably in obedience and especially agility trials. However, this breed is far from the most trainable. Many have a stubborn streak, and will refuse to perform certain tasks. It is also quite common for these dogs to have selective listening, refusing to obey a command when they would rather do something else (especially if that something else involves chasing a small animal). Owners who want a dog which will learn basic obedience and manners (and possibly a few simple tricks) quickly and well will likely have few problems with a Pharaoh Hound. Owners who are looking for an obedience champion are likely to be disappointed.
Pharaoh Hounds are a very energetic and active breed. To provide this breed with the exercise it requires takes a determined commitment. Pharaoh Hounds have considerably greater stamina than most similar breeds, and can run at high speeds for long periods. This breed makes an exceptional biking or jogging companion. Pharaoh Hounds can get by with a long daily walk and an occasional sprint, but what this breed truly craves is an opportunity to run around off leash. Pharaoh Hounds love to run freely, but they need an enclosure with very tall fences. This breed is perhaps the most accomplished leaper and jumper of all dogs, and it is absolutely amazing the heights that they can reach with little effort. Without the proper exercise, Pharaoh Hounds frequently develop behavioral issues, especially destructiveness and excessive barking. With the proper outlet for their energy, most Pharaoh Hounds will be quite relaxed indoors, and most breed members will usually be found snuggling under a blanket. This breed loves warmth and comfort, and often buries itself deep into a pile of pillows.
Pharaoh Hounds can be difficult to contain. This breed is an excellent escape artist, and is often highly motivated to become one. These dogs are naturally curious and have an urge to roam, as well as an urge to chase whatever comes across their vision or scent. Many Pharaoh Hounds can scale a 6 foot fence with minimal effort, and are more than intelligent enough to figure out a fence that is too tall for them to leap over. When in hot pursuit of its quarry, the Pharaoh Hound often becomes so single-minded that it completely tunes out everything else around it. Breed members often completely ignore calls to return (if they even hear them) and more unfortunately approaching vehicles. For this reason Pharaoh Hounds should be leashed at all times when not properly enclosed.
The short coat of the Pharaoh Hound is very low maintenance. This breed should never require professional grooming; only an occasional brushing is necessary. This breed also needs only infrequent bathing. Other than that, the Pharaoh Hound only needs those maintenance procedures that all breeds require such as nail clipping and teeth brushing. The Pharaoh Hound does shed, but very little. Only the most extremely fastidious will have issues with this dog, and many allergy sufferers have said that the breed does not bother them.
The Pharaoh Hound is widely regarded to be one of the healthiest of all dog breeds. Bred strictly as a working dog, genetic defects would not have been tolerated. Because the body structure of this dog is primitive and its features are unexaggerated, it does not suffer from many problems found in other purebred dogs. Additionally, Pharaoh Hound breeders have placed health as one of their highest priorities and have worked very hard to maintain it. This does not mean that the Pharaoh Hound is immune from genetically inherited conditions, but it does mean that it suffers from fewer conditions and at much reduced rates than other breeds. As a result of its health, the Pharaoh Hound is quite long lived. Barring an accidental death (this breed suffers a disproportionate number of car accidents), the life expectancy for a Pharaoh Hound is between 11 and 14 years, quite long for a dog of this size. With proper care and a little luck, it is not uncommon for breed members to live past the age of 16.
Pharaoh Hound owners do need to be aware of two special care requirements. This breed is quite sensitive to the cold. Native to balmy Malta, Pharaoh Hounds have very short coats and very little insulating fat. These dogs freeze to death at higher temperatures and more quickly than most other dogs, as well as developing other cold-related conditions such as frost bite just as easily. Owners should keep their Pharaoh Hounds indoors to the greatest extent possible when the temperature drops, and put jackets and footwear on them when they are outside. The short fur and lack of fat that leaves the Pharaoh Hound insensitive to the cold also means that the breed has very little cushioning. It is very uncomfortable for breed members to lay on a hard surface and owners should make sure that they have constant access to a soft dog bed or preferably the sofa.
Although skeletal and visual problems are quite rare in this breed it is still 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 them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring. Doing so will help maintain the good health of the Pharaoh Hound.
A list of major Pharaoh Hound health issues and care requirements would have to include: