Azawakh

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Azawakh

Possibly the most naturally lean and elegant of all hounds, the Azawakh is an ancient breed derived from wild pariah dogs in Western Africa. Traditionally, it has been kept as a pack dog by the nomads of the region for the dual purposes of guarding their camps and livestock, and as a prolific hunter. Because of its background, it exhibits a high degree of territorialism, an unusual trait in a sighthound. It is also very protective of, and loyal to, its owners, with whom it forms a strong bond at an early age. However, the Azawakh also has the characteristics of aloofness and independence, and is not a clingy breed.

Its extremely thin coat and skin are not built to withstand the rigors of a Northern European winter, and it particularly dislikes rain. Those few readers lucky enough to have met an Azawakh have most likely seen it dressed in a warm jumper or coat, but it is an exceptionally healthy breed, due to intense natural and human selection pressures in its homeland. This remains a very rare dog in the United Kingdom, but anyone that does manage to secure an Azawakh can expect it to have a lifespan of approximately 10–12 years.

About & History

Depictions of the Azawakh can be seen in African wall paintings dating back thousands of years, and it is thought likely to have been an early branch from the Basenji branch of the canine family tree, being closely related to the Saluki, and the Sloughi in particular. It has been a constant companion of the nomadic people of the desert ever since, and is particularly associated with the Tuoreg people of the Sahel region, which encompasses much of modern Mali, Niger, and Burkino Faso. It is a guardian first and foremost, tasked with protecting its camp from thieves and alerting its master to approaching danger. Most camps would have several of these community-loving dogs, and so no intruder is likely to get anywhere near without a very noisy alarm being sounded. The Azawakh’s other role is as a hunter, though the scarcity of game in this part of the world means this is a skill it practices less often. Nonetheless, a pack of Azawakhs is more than capable of bringing down a hare, antelope, gazelle, or even wild boar, and they are remarkable for their ability to work as a team when so doing.

The nomadic processes for selecting dogs remains poorly understood, and it appears that domesticated Azawakhs can mingle with the wild pariah dogs, which are very much of a similar appearance. At birth, pups that are deemed suitable are kept and reared with the tribe, while many more are culled. This practice, coupled with the extreme environment, has exerted ruthless selection pressure on the breed for millennia, with the result that this is an extraordinarily well-adapted breed. Its extremely slender build, thin skin, and intolerance of cold are reflective of its adaptations to the harsh desert climate, while the very low incidence of genetic disease is likely due to nomadic folk knowledge at play in the selection of pups. Despite its long history, the Azawakh has only recently been exported from Africa, with the first dogs being registered in the United Kingdom in 1968, and in the United States almost 20 years later. Any dogs currently registered with the Kennel Club are imported, with fewer than five registrations in nine out of the past ten years meaning that this remains an exceptionally rare breed.

Appearance

Azawakh Large Photo

Even to the uninitiated, the Azawakh is distinguished from other sighthounds by its great slenderness. This, coupled with its thin skin and very short hair coat, makes many individuals look almost skeletal. It is proportioned in such a way as to look rectangular when viewed from the side, with the limbs being slightly longer than the back. In motion, it is graceful and elegant, with a gait often likened to that of a cat. It has a long, flat skull and an even longer, fine muzzle. The lack of excess soft tissue around the head gives it an angular and chiselled appearance, with flat cheeks and thin, tight lips. The large, forward-facing eyes are dark and almond-shaped, and the ears are thin, set high on the head, and lie flat against the side of the face.

The body is completely without excess fat and skin, with every muscle and bony prominence visible. The neck is long and slender, as is the back, which may rise slightly from the withers to the hip. The croup slopes markedly, and the chest is deep, covering approximately 40% of the very long forelimbs, but is also quite narrow. The abdominal tuck is severe, accentuating the point of the breast bone, and meeting with the pelvis high between the thighs. The tail is set low, and tapers from its thin base. It almost always hangs below the horizontal. The limbs are upright, lean, and perfectly straight when viewed from the front, and the lower limbs are very fine-boned.

The coat is extremely fine, and almost disappears on the belly, groin, and down the inside of the hindlimbs. Colour is not an important consideration for this breed, but the most common, which may be seen in any combination, are

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Brown
  • Cream
  • Fawn
  • Grey
  • Red
  • Sandy
  • White

A black mask is seen on the muzzle in some dogs. In terms of size, males are usually 64 to 74 cm (25 to 29 in) tall, and weigh 20–25 kg (44–56 lb), while females measure 60–70 cm (24 to 28 in), and weigh 15 to 20 kg (33–44 lb).

Character & Temperament

The breed is often described as being aloof, as it has no interest in befriending strangers. However, it can be affectionate with its family, if seldom playful. It forms a very strong bond with its people at an early age, and must be rehomed from the breeder before four months of age at the latest to prevent behavioural difficulties and distress. It is extremely protective of its home and family, and will bark menacingly and persistently when it feels threatened; however, it is rarely aggressive.

Because of its low drive to play, it is not a suitable pet for young children, as it may become frustrated and annoyed by constant prodding. When not exercising, it is happiest when lying around the home, in contact with its family but not directly interacting with them for much of the day. It is sociable with other dogs, and does best when kept with other Azawakhs, but it is instinctively a hunter, and should not be kept with small dogs or other pets.

Trainability

Training an Azawakh to do things for which it has not been bred is difficult. Though intelligent, it is independent-minded enough to make it uninterested in routine obedience training. However, lead walking, which can take some time to master in other breeds, does usually come naturally to the breed, and it is a very clean dog, rarely soiling the house, so some aspects of rearing an Azawakh pup are relatively straightforward. Socialisation with people other than the family is important to temper its natural suspicion of strangers, and should begin at a very young age.

Health

There are few health recognised health problems in the breed, mainly for the reasons discussed above. However, the following do occasionally arise:

  • Cervical spondylopathy – Though relatively uncommon, this condition can be seen in young adult Azawakhs as neck pain and unsteadiness of the hindlimbs as a result of spinal compression.
  • Epilepsy – Affected dogs generally show signs before one year of age, and may have episodes of loss of consciousness and convulsive muscular activity. All epileptics are different, and episodes vary enormously in their severity and frequency.
  • Hypothyroidism – Like other sighthounds, the Azawakh has naturally very low levels of thyroid hormone, but this can become problematic for some who may suffer lethargy, hair loss, and severe cold intolerance as a result.
  • Gastric dilatation/volvulus – Commonly called bloat, this arises when the stomach twists on itself within the abdomen, causing the organ to rapidly fill with gas and liquid. Abdominal swelling is usually the most obvious sign. Emergency surgery is necessary and usually life-saving.
  • von Willebrand’s disease – A tendency to bleed profusely after injury as a result of impaired blood platelet function.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Azawakh needs a considerable amount of exercise to maintain its lean, muscular physique. It is an ideal dog for keen runners, as it will easily keep pace with a human for hours, and it should be allowed a minimum of one to two hours every day. However, it should never be allowed off its lead in a public place, for it will instinctively “take down” any smaller animals running across its line of sight.

Grooming

The very light, thin coat takes very little maintenance. A quick brush followed by a wipe with a damp cloth on a weekly basis should be all that is required. The breed may be prone to tartar build-up, particularly if fed a soft diet, and so daily tooth brushing is essential. This should be started in puppyhood, even while the milk teeth are still present, to establish this as a routine.

Famous Azawakhs

The breed’s lack of access to celebrities and social media in the African desert has somewhat limited its ambitions for fame, and it seems more in keeping with its reserved nature that it should remain outside the limelight.

Cross-Breeds

While Azawakhs may be allowed to interbreed with wild dogs in their native Africa, cross-breeding of this rare dog is not practiced in the rest of the world.

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