The Azawakh — A Sighthound Dog Breed From Africa

The Azawakh is a sighthound dog breed from Africa.

Morphology is very similar to that of the Middle Eastern and South India sight hounds, all swift, high-bred coursing hounds, although there are several obvious differences. For example, a short, flat backbone combined with long legs place the hips higher than the withers. The Azawakh is almond eyed and thin. It moves with a distinctly feline gait and can be found in a assortment of colors as well as varying degrees of refinement, though format is basically unvarying.

Azawakhs are an incredibly healthy coursing hound. Serious coursing injuries are rare. The dogs heal very promptly from injury.

Azawakh have no known incidence of hip dysplasia. There is a low occurrence of adult-onset idiopathic epilepsy in the breed. Wobbler disease or cervical vertebral instability does seldom occur. Some breeders consider this is largely a developmental problem where puppies grow too quickly due to a high-protein western diet.

Like the Basenji and Tibetan Mastiff, the Azawakh often has a single annual estrus. Unassisted birth of 100% healthy puppies is the norm. Litter sizes are usually from 4 to 6 puppies but litters as small as 1 and as large as 8 occur.

Azawakh are pack oriented and form complex social hierarchies. They have tremendous memories and are able to recognize each other after long periods of separation. They can often be found sleeping on top of each other for warmth and companionship.

Bred by the Tuareg, Fula and various other nomads of the Niger, Burkina Fa Sahara and sub-Saharan Sahel in the countries of Mali,so, and southern Algeria, the breed is used there as a sentry dog and to hunt down gazelle and hare at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. The austerity of the Sahel environment has ensured that only the most fit dogs make it and has accentuated the breed’s ruggedness and independence. Unlike some other sighthounds, the Azawakh is more of a pack hunter and they bump down the quarry with hindquarters when it has been tired out. In role of a guard dog, if an Azawakh senses danger it will bark to alert the other members of the pack, and they will gather together as a pack under the lead of the alpha dog, then chase off or assault the predator. The Sloughi, by comparison, is more of an independent lone hunter and has a high hunting instinct.

They are relatively uncommon in Europe and North America but there is a growing band of devotees. Azawakhs have a range of temperaments from lap dog to quite ferocious. Lifelong socialization and firm but gentle handling are critical. Well socialised and trained, they can be good with other dogs, cats, children, and strangers. Azawakh may be registered with the FCI in the USA via the Federaci³n Can³fila de Puerto Rico (FCPR). European FCI clubs and the AKC recognize the FCPR as an acceptable registry. The AKC currently recognizes Azawakh as a Foundation Stock Service breed and they are eligible to participate in AKC-sanctioned Companion & Performance events. The breed will enter the AKC Miscellaneous Class on June 30, 2011. The American Azawakh Association (AAA). is the AKC Parent Club for the Azawakh. Azawakh may be registered with the UKC and ARBA. The breed is not yet registered by CKC. Azawakh are eligible for ASFA and AKC lure coursing and NOFCA open field coursing events.

Recent genetic, blood protein and archaeological studies as well as direct observation in the field offer a glimpse into the origin of the present-day Azawakh breed. He comes out of the population of pariah dogs of sub-Saharan Africa also called bush dogs or basenji–and is also intimately related to the Sloughi of the Maghreb. Despite structural similarities, mitochondrial DNA evidence shows that he is only very distantly related to other sight hounds. Azawakh have a rare glucose isomerase allele (GPIB) that occurs only in foxes, jackals, Italian wolves, Sloughi dogs and a handful of other quite unrelated rare dogs found mostly in Japan. The presence of the GPIB suggests an ancient differentiation of the Azawakh from other dog populations near the base of the dog family tree divergence from wolves or perhaps a uniquely African cross-breeding with local African canids such as jackals. Petroglyph rock art dating from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago during the Green Sahara (also known as the Holocene and Neolithic Subpluvial) shows cursorial dogs in conjunction with hunters. Archaeologists have found dog bones buried in Holocene settlements in the Sahara. At the close of the Holocene Wet Phase in the 4th millennium BCE, the Sahara returned to desert and created a formidable physical barrier to travel. In concert, this evidence suggests that the Azawakh population has a unique genetic heritage that has been largely isolated from other dog populations for millennia.

In the common era the Sahel dogs are almost totally isolated from northern dogs by the Sahara, but the ties to the pariah dogs to the south are extremely close. Azawakh are virtually identical to the Sahel pariah dog population from which they are drawn. In addition to a basic physical structure, the Azawakh share a number of unique traits with the pariah dogs:

  • intense distrust of the unknown
  • strong guarding instinct
  • pack hunting behavior
  • complex social hierarchies
  • unique vocalizations
  • extra pre-molar teeth
  • strong instinct to dig dens

Throughout the Sahel, very elegant puppies can be found among rustic siblings. The Sahel nomads do not have the same breed concepts as in the West and, unlike the Bedouin of the North, do not recognize a strict separation of al hor (noble) from kelb (mongrel) dogs. The nomads behave as an extra level of selection on top of the intense natural selection pressure of the Sahel environment. The approach to selection is diametrically opposed to Western breeding. Instead of selecting which dogs to breed upon maturity, they decide which puppies should live. This approach has the advantage of maintaining a large reservoir of genetic variability and resilience.

The peoples of the Sahel control dam lines and cull puppies heavily at birth according to locally held aesthetic criteria that we do not fully understand. In the Sahel, color is not a selection criterion. The alpha male dog from the local population is usually the sire. Unless it is a wet year, only one puppy from a litter might be selected to live. Females are usually culled unless the family projects a need for more dogs in the time to come.


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