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Azawakh - A Versatile Working Sighthound

Recently there has been much debate within the Azawakh world. I want to take the time to address my own program and the background behind my perspective.

I won't bury the lead. I consider Azawakh to be a working (guarding) breed first and a coursing hound second. This has always been my opinion. Until recently, I've actually never even seen anyone familiar with the breed dispute this perspective. Only recently has this belief come under fire.

I've discussed it at length, as recently as this week on my Facebook page, but one of my absolute favorite activities to compete in with my Azawakh is amateur racing with LGRA (Large Gazehound Racing Association) for straight racing and NOTRA (National Oval Track Racing Association) for amateur oval racing. My dogs enjoy these events at least as much as I do, if not substantially more. I have paid my dues on the lure coursing field (AKC and ASFA) as well. And even driven many miles to experience Open Field Coursing (it is one of my great goals to get back out to OFC this coming fall). Each of these sports have taught me about how Azawakh run, course, hunt and given me insight into what I am preserving.

I would say lure coursing and open field coursing/hunting aren't remotely comparable having done both. I have Field Champions and to be honest it means very little to me personally. If I'm stud dog shopping, dogs that lure course would at least tell me that they have interest in running (a lot in the breed aren't). But mostly, I view it as a game and the smart dogs are going to cheat eventually most times. I'll continue to lure course, my dogs enjoy it, but I don't for a variety of reasons. To be candid - Tabiri colliding with Anubi will forever play through my mind every time we're on the field. However, I also am not partial to lure coursing because I feel the judging criteria are even more subjective than in conformation and because I don't particularly feel like the time invested is worth the information gained for me personally.

I actually think racing tells me more about a dog's running ability. Are they competitive against other dogs while still being clean or are they just along for the ride? Can they hold ground in a crowded field, can they do it with housemates and strange dogs. In oval do they take the rail (strategic) or do they have enough speed to run wide and still win (conflict avoidant/spatially sensitive but fast). I can see some of that lure coursing but it's- more expensive, longer days, and I feel like I get more extraneous information and a lot of background noise.

And I don't think any of it tells you what hunting and OFC does. Are they working when in the gallery or are they only along for the ride till something bolts? Can they maintain the sense of anticipation for sometimes hours on the line. When do they quit when running game? Can they force a turn? Can they work with others or do they play the game all themselves? I understand OFC/hunting isn't accessible in a lot of areas of the country/world but in my experience, it tells all, and I try to get all my breeding dog out at least a time or two before breeding because it tells you things you just can't be sure of through other sports.

This is all to say that clearly, I value Azawakh as a sighthound. I have worked hard to prove my dogs in the field. I have found where my dogs excel and where they struggle. I have also learned that some of Azawakh's structure hinder their function as sighthounds.

I've seen multiple people state that Azawakh are built like a sighthound. That is evidently true at a glance. They have low body fat, a pronounced tuck up. They have an aerodynamic head and tight fitting skin. Azawakh have the same differences in their bloodwork as compared to other sighthound breeds. They are more sensitive to anesthesia like other sighthounds. However, Azawakh have breed specific traits that do set them apart from other sighthounds.

Much of Azawakh's structure is owed to the climate in which they live. 130* angulation is not considered ideal for a Greyhound or a Whippet. However, it does get an Azawakh's vulnerable organs away from the heat of the ground. More ground clearance is an adaptation that is not inherently helpful in hunting, but it certainly helps in thermoregulation. That is not to say that ground clearance can't be important in a coursing hound, I have spoken to Staghound breeders who have talked about needing more ground clearance in their dogs because of the territory where they run them (lots of brush). However, if I'm solely looking at speed, more open angulation is not inherently more beneficial to that purpose.

Additionally, sighthounds are typically long coupled breeds, Azawakh are not typically, this contributes to their unique proportions. However, the reason that sighthounds are long coupled is that the longer coupling allows for greater flexibility and movement of their spine at a gallop. A short back and long loin is a physical indication of a fast dog, and while not specific to Azawakh, these findings were first quantifiably explored through Dr .Anne Midgarden's Borzoi Speed study.

If you compare the spinal flexibility (up and down) of my fastest Azawkah to a Whippet, you'll see a huge difference

This is a picture of Anubi running oval. He's on the final corner coming into the final stretch. You'll notice his head is reasonably down, his back and front legs are about as extended as you see in the breed, yet he still feels upright compared to most sighthounds at a full gallop. The standard explicitly says- "the gallop is leaping." This is an excellent example of what those words mean.

Credit Corey Polis

Compare directly to Whippet Revenant. He is on the same turn on the oval as Anubi here. Revanant is two years old in the picture, Anubi is 3.5 in that picture, so they're both of a similar age - in their prime. Notice how low Revenant is to the ground, how he lowers his head to drive foward. Notice the huge extension both front and back.

Credit Celeste Wilcox

Both Anubi and Revenant are decorated dogs for their breed in both straight and oval.

Anubi has been the #1 LGRA Azawakh in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. He was #1 NOTRA Azawakh in 2021 and 2023. He was #11 All Breed LGRA in 2020 and #13 All Breed LGRA in 2021.

Revenant was 2023 #1 WRA and #3 NOTRA and #1 Combined Whippet as well as #1 Combined Dog at the WRA/NOTRA Nationals.

However, despite their successes in their breed venues, when compared side to side, you can see stark differences between running styles. The fact that Anubi, a fast Azawakh, does not look like Revenant, a fast Whippet, at a run is because Azawakh are necessarily built differently than Whippets or Greyhounds or even Salukis.

In fact, many of the environmental adaptations of Azawakh hinder their function as a sighthound, not benefit them- short coupling, very open angulation. This can only be because their primary purpose is to exist safely as camp guardians for their people and that requirement impacts their function as a sighthound - these are the reasons that most Sloughis are faster than Azawakh and indeed most Salukis are markedly faster than Azawakh. Azawakh have a different primary purpose.

It is something I have become aware of as I take my Azawakh to the performance field. If all I breed for is speed, I will lose the morphological traits that make Azawakh what they are. I must weigh speed with breed type, otherwise I will start having Azawakh shaped like Greyhounds.

Now that we have addressed Azawakh as sighthounds (which they are, no one is arguing that fact to my knowledge), let us address Azawakh as working dogs. I have already discussed that Azawakh have physical adaptations that allow them to safely weather the heat of the Sahel day in and day out, where they might not get a break from the heat until temperatures plummet at night. Do those physical adaptations specifically lend to an Azawakh's guarding ability? No, in this case not in particular. Why then aren't Azawakh much heavier in build, more reminiscent of the Molosser type dogs? Think for a moment. Could a typical mastiff-type breed survive the heat of the Sahara every day? That is not to say that there aren't mastiff-type working dogs within regions of Africa. However, within Azawakh's region of origin, the physical adaptations of a typical guarding breed would not aid in the survival in the heat.

Accordingly, with Azawakh, you have a breed that is superbly built to physically weather heat, but temperamentally has taken on guardian traits, without seeing a phenotypic shift that you might anticipate.

Until the last year, I have never met a single Azawakh owner who did not describe the breed as a guardian breed. There seems to have been a push in the last year to fit Azawakh neatly into a sighthound box, yet their job description has always been broader.

This is what the AKC has to say about the Hound Group, which is where Azawakh are placed.

"Most hounds share the common ancestral trait of being used for hunting. Some use acute scenting powers to follow a trail. Others demonstrate a phenomenal gift of stamina as they relentlessly run down quarry. Beyond this, however, generalizations about hounds are hard to come by, since the Group encompasses quite a diverse lot. There are Pharaoh Hounds, Norwegian Elkhounds, Afghans and Beagles, among others."

Does this description fit Azawakh? Of course it does.

Does that mean Azawakh necessarily would not potentially fit in another group? Of course it doesn't. This is the AKC's description of the Working Group:

"Quick to learn, dogs of the Working Group are intelligent, strong, watchful, and alert. Bred to assist man, they excel at jobs such as guarding property, pulling sleds and performing water rescues. Doberman Pinschers, Siberian Huskies and Great Danes are part of this Group, to name just a few. They make wonderful companions but because they are large, and naturally protective, prospective owners need to know how to properly train and socialize a dog. Some breeds in the Working Group may not be for the first-time dog owner."

No, not all that description describes Azawakh. However, neither does water rescue describe Siberians. Certainty the breed can be described as intelligent, watchful, and alert. Azawakh are too fragile to be in the working group, you might argue. Anubi did wreck his knee lure coursing after all, you might argue. Perhaps, the more relevant point is that Anubi was at a complete stand-still when Tabiri (who outweighs him by ten pounds) collided with him going full speed. Yet Anubi's injury was an avulsion fracture of the LCL and a slab fracture near the MCL. All of that force and as our orthopedist noted, it's actually quite remarkable he wasn't injured more badly. All my experiences with Azawakh are that they indeed have a strength that belies their frame.

Am I arguing that Azawakh should be moved to the working group? No, of course not, though I do think it would help in judges understanding breed temperament. Ultimately, Azawakh are sighthounds who historically have coursed game. However, they have always been multipurpose and nothing in the standard or AKC description disagree with that assertion.

The AKC website notes their heritage both as sighthound and guardian.

"Tall and elegant, the Azawakh is a West African sighthound who originates from the countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger...Befitting its heritage, the Azawakh excels as a companion, guardian and a lure courser in the United States."

The AKC Standard is less explicit, however, it does specify that the breed has been the companion of nomads for at minimum, hundreds of years. Azawakh far outdate the concept of a companion only breed. It can thus clearly be extrapolated that they were the companions of nomads because they helped keep the nomads safe.

"The Azawakh is an African sighthound of Afro-Asiatic type, which appeared in Europe towards 1970 and, comes from the Nigerien middle basin, among others, from the Valley of the Azawakh. For hundreds of years, he has been the companion of the nomads of the southern Sahara."

In discussion of temperament, the Azawakh standard can be a bit vague, but again, nothing in it implies that Azawakh are not a guardian (working) breed. I previously have addressed that in a separate post. I will take the blame, if there's blame to go around, for promoting Azawakh as a working breed. I talk about it in the linked blog post. I discuss this regularly. However, I'm not sure I've ever detailed why in a unified fashion.

Outside of the fact that Azawakh are used in a working capacity in their region of origin (this is to be distinct from a hunting capacity, which has already be spoken on extensively in this piece), why do I consider Azawakh a breed in which their working capacity outweighs their hunting capacity?

I came to Azawakh from Salukis. I very specifically was looking for a breed that enjoyed working without compromising the athleticism or natural off switch of most sighthounds. Being a quite pronounced introvert (I know, no one who has read my writing or met me at dog events believes it) with pretty severe social anxiety, I wanted a breed that was skeptical of strangers. All of this fits Azawakh perfectly.

When I brought Anubi home, I was stunned by the amount of work he needed to quiet his brain. He didn't express it as I see it in many herding or sporting breeds. He wasn't destructive. He didn't pant. He did pace, but it was easily interrupted. However, what I did find was that he would overthink situations if he didn't have a job. He would hyper analyze people and other dogs and sometimes work himself up about them.

We jumped into obedience, rally, agility, scentwork, barn hunt. I was mostly looking for an outlet for him. It was clear, when his brain had been worked, he didn't obsess about potential threats. He didn't pace, he settled easily and without prompting. Had i not listened to my dog in that first year, it's likely my path in the breed would have been extremely different.

Originally, I had mostly planned to do lure coursing with Anubi. That was my goal. His breeder asked me to show him, and I learned that. But all of the other sports were largely impromptu. I had wanted to dabble in agility one day, but instead I got him enrolled in foundation classes as a puppy immediately, because he needed the work.

Not all Azawakh are like Anubi. I've met more than enough of the breed to understand that. However, I have yet to meet an Azawakh whose mental state wasn't helped by having a job. One thing that people may not know is that I fostered an Azawakh, Luna, before I brought Ami home. She was a spayed, middle-age, low drive girl, super easy to live with. She wasn't a fit for me, but I did end up keeping her four months until she could head to her new home.

While she was largely mild-mannered, she still went through an adjustment period where she was touchy about other dogs in her space and sometimes over corrected. Now, Luna was one of the lowest drive Azawakh I've ever met. We took her to a coursing ability test to watch and the judge laughed so hard that she was facing the wrong way and not interested in the lure at all. However, that didn't mean she didn't need work. I did rally foundations with her, which she enjoyed to an extent, but what she really enjoyed was scentwork hides (just with primary (food)). On days where I worked her and directly following, Luna was no longer snippy at the other dogs and with consistent work over time, that bad habit faded entirely.

I have been extremely fortunate as a dog trainer to have had the opportunity to have worked the vast majority of recognized AKC breeds in addition to having worked a high number of non-AKC recognized rare breeds. I will not pretend that my Azawakh have the working intensity of a Malinois. They have a natural retrieve (typically) like many Labs. They don't have to power and size and grit of a Boerboel. However, they do have a deep seated need to work with the people they have chosen as their own. They thrive on having a job and trusting their human will back them.

The job does not inherently need to be guarding. In fact, in the western world, I have found it easier for Azawakh to be under stimulated and over reactive "guarding the back yard" than dogs that have a wider role outside that. Azawakh are the dogs of nomads. While starkly different than a modern cityscape, the Sahel offers different stimuli compared to the western world, it is far from devoid of busy happenings. Azawakh are dogs that accompanied their people on their travels, who had to cope appropriately with their tribe's children and stock, and accompanied their humans so they could hunt game. How much wider is that world that the world of a modern dog who seldom ventures beyond their own back yard?

I have been in the somewhat unique position to have worked with quite a few (a dozen plus) Azawakh struggling with behavioral problems. Invariably, without a single exception, widening the dogs' world and giving them a job (often scentwork hides, but I've suggested lots of things to various clients) helped ease the behavioral issues without even addressing a specific behavior modification training plan.

What does a bored guardian do? They start to invent threats in their own mind.

Within my breeding program, I aim to be upfront. I am looking for future owners who will fulfill their Azawakh's minds. Even in solely pet homes, Azawakh need to have a purpose. Yes, all sighthounds benefit from running and may also need additional mental work beyond that. However, I have found over and over again that with Azawakh they need mental work and benefit from additional running. When I was sick last year we didn't get out to racing and lure coursing as much, but I still had to keep up with working the dogs at home.

I've seen it stated in multiple places that while Azawakh might be capable of work, they won't be excel. To which I could only walk away from the thread shaking my head.

Every single one of my dogs has served as a demo dog for my training business. I understand this might be hard to picture what that means, so let me elaborate.

I expect my demo dogs to:

  • At the most basic level - demonstrate proofed behaviors

  • Provide a neutral example of behavior for other dogs in lessons and classes

  • Be my neutral dog for CGC and CGCA testing

  • During CGC events that means that I expect my dogs to wait calmly after each test, to not respond to dogs that might be impolite, to ignore dogs that lunge in their face

  • To wait through class on their place politely aside from times when I am working them

  • Hold a Stay while I go and discuss things with clients. I have long lost track of the times I've left my own dog "ground tied" to go help a client work their own dog

I also have some dogs that help me with behavioral work which requires:

  • Them to ignore reactive dogs

  • To ignore lunging in their direction (lunging dogs are not within their bubble)

  • To diffuse a client dog's stiffness and discomfort

  • To provide a sound, neutral example to client dogs rather than getting sucked into their insecurity

  • And much more.

Any dog trainer will tell you that a good demo dog is priceless and so much more is asked of them than in almost any dog sport. I have worked hundreds of dog breeds. I choose Azawakh for this work. Your Azawakh does have to have a very clear understanding that within the contexts that they're working, that behaviors that look threatening do not require a response. However, beyond that challenge, I could not ask for better partners. They will eagerly work all day long and then come back and do it again the next day. They don't solicit attention or beg for food. They are perfect for me for the task I need. I grant you, most trainers don't prefer a primitive breed for a demo dog, but they are very capable of the work they do.

Yes, Azawakh are sighthounds. I have worked hard to prove that they're perfectly capable on the field. However, they are also a working breed following AKC's description of "working". A dog can be both.

My Azawakh have trained, competed, and worked in lure coursing, straight racing, oval racing, coursing ability tests, fast coursing ability tests, scentwork, barn hunt, rally, obedience, disc, joring sports, therapy dog, CGC/CGCA/CGCU, trick dog, tracking, agility, demo dogs for classes and lessons, neutral dogs for behavioral modification clients, medical alert dog, avid hiking, open field coursing, and more.

No one is arguing Azawakh are not a sighthound, but they are saying this isn't the only thing that should matter in a versatile Azawakh.

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