Breed Traits: Not Every Trait is for Everyone
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
A breeder of Kishu Ken who I respect recently addressed aggression and the forms it takes within her breed. Overall, she provided a fabulous take on what many would view as problems in the breed.
I've been accused of trying to turn my Azawakh into Golden Retrievers in the past. And there are times that when I do education, I worry I am not providing a full picture of the breed I am devoted to, so I want to take a moment to address both others and my own concerns and misgivings.
Azawakh are a breed with strong guarding instincts. That's something I address in my breeding philosophy, here, here, and the difficulties of teenage Azawakh here. However, I feel like this is something so often glossed over in typical articles that Google pulls up about the breed. On the other hand, start diving into various Facebook Azawakh groups and you'll hear about dogs that can't be touched by strangers, can't be out in public comfortably and the other extreme seems to be all that is presented.
Contrary to what you might see from my online presence or believe to be my intentions for the breed, my Azawakh have their instincts intact. For all those who have met Amidi, who is actively friendly in public, you can likely also attest to the marked disinterest and often standoffishness when pushed of Anubi and Amalu. And for all those who have met my dogs in public, there are very few who have then met my Azawakh in my home. Let me tell you, those who doubt my dogs have their guarding instincts would not wish to enter my house without permission. I say this not as a brag, I never particularly wanted guard dogs, but as a simple fact. If you'd seen my dogs stand their ground against multiple roving neighborhood dogs, you wouldn't doubt their instincts.
Once, when Amidi was about 7 months, we were giving her some ring time at a flyball tournament. It was a big, busy fairground and unlike most ring time slots she'd had before, there were many people and dogs all around. She came in focused and worked, but we didn't shut the ring gate at the end of the arena and after doing a box turn, she noticed the gate was open and trotted right through it. My teammate, holding her own dog and waiting for her turn grabbed Ami by the hips, afraid that she might head for the open door (still open as teams arrived and unloaded). Ami turned around, unsure of who had grabbed her, and put teeth on my teammates' arm. She didn't break skin. She didn't leave a mark and as soon as she realized who'd grabbed her she relaxed and got back in the ring and worked, but there was a moment where she was absolutely prepared to defend herself against a stranger.
Similarly, there have been several times where Anubi, always so calm and stable, has gotten his hackles up. One time, as I unloaded him from my car at the training center, a bull terrier puppy I had been working the past several days got away from his owner and came barreling up to me, jumping up and down in place next to me. Anubi, who had never met this dog, took that as an attack and barked his deep guarding bark. I shut the car door and returned the puppy to his owner. A few months later, my husband brought Anubi to the theatre where he works. There was a meet in greet with the cast that day and Anubi was calmly taking in all the people until one actor decided it would be funny to sneak from music stand to music stand toward the dog. Anubi's hackles went up and he started to shift. The dog savvy stage manager noticed and reprimanded the actor for being weird, and Anubi relaxed. In those instances, Anubi was an insecure teenager. But there have been some instances as adults too. I was at a dog show in Tennessee last year with Anubi. He'd flown in the cabin with me as a Service Dog, had spent several days in working mode as my Service Dog. Unvested, he said hi to everyone calmly, and hung out, unleashed, on a grooming table while we waited for ring time. Waiting for my friend to go into the ring for the NOHS show we were chatting in front of some covered crates. The dogs' handler, not wanting to disturb her sleeping dogs but wanting to check on them, tip-toed up to the covered crates and carefully peered through the cracks in the covers. Anubi's hackles stayed down, he didn't vocalize, but his attention on this suspicious person was so strong, that he pulled me out of my conversation to watch what was happening. He stared at that handler for a solid couple of minutes until she retreated all the way out of sight.
It's the discerning nature of my dogs that I value above all else. In a busy, hectic environment, they're completely relaxed. But the recognize exactly what is out of place in a heart beat and are ready to respond accordingly.
If I didn't want a guarding breed, why Azawakh? How can I not want a breed with guarding instincts but also not seek to change those behaviors? I quite often get asked if I one of my goals is to "soften" the breed's temperament. My answer is always: no.
I believe that with predictable tempered parents and well thought out puppy raising protocols, you can have a perfectly stable dog and still retain those distinctive guarding traits.
I don't see any reason why I should want to breed away from those traits. That guarding pack instinct is what gives them such a deep bond with their humans. That instinct is what gives them the work ethic to do a job all day and to work off leash and hang around their pack without taking off. Without those traits then I lose what makes an Azawakh an Azawakh and I lose thousands and thousands of years of history and culture. If I want a dog with a typical sighthound temperament, I'd get a different sighthound breed. I have a Saluki and I'm on a list for a Sloughi. I love those breeds but they're not what I want in a versatile performance dog. I would say breeders, especially in the US, love the breed for those traits and while they're interested in stable, predictable, emotionally resilient dogs they still want that trademark sensibly suspicious nature.
Azawakh are used for hunting to this day in Africa. Yes, it is not their primary purpose due to scarcity of game, but they do have a robust and developed prey-drive. Does this mean that Azawakh can't live with other small animals such as cats and small dogs? We currently have four cats in the house. Up until summer of 2020, my sighthounds all lived with a 12 pounds Chihuahua mix. Not once have I ever had the vaguest concern that my Azawakh would mistake their friends for prey, not even when my oldest cat has had spinal strokes that caused him to spasm. Anubi even lived with a connure that regularly had time out of her cage for a time.
However, I've also taken my Azawakh out Open Field Coursing and the moment we flushed a jack rabbit the first time, all of my dogs immediately were ready to chase it. Just like so many things, prey drive is contextual and I've found with Azawakh, they are much more prone to look at me for permission before taking off into the distance (with training and consistent reinforcement of course).
This is a question that is the hardest to address, because human and dog aggression are taboo in modern culture. However, as CJ McCammon of Akiyama no Roushya writes:
𝗔𝗴𝗴𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗶𝘀 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗮 𝗱𝗶𝗿𝘁𝘆 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗱...Aggression is incredibly useful to humans and we have bred hundreds of breeds to assist us by exhibiting aggressive behaviors. From terriers to herding dogs to livestock guardians to hunting dogs, they are all bred for some degree of aggression or perpetuate aggressive behavior.
Guarding instincts are part of aggression. Aggression does not mean attacks unprovoked. It does not mean unstable. In fact, in breeds that are prone to some form of aggression, you must expect more stability of temperament, not less. Dogs must be both discerning and predictable or they become a liability. But dogs with prey drive, dogs with guarding instincts are always going to have a threshold and push them beyond that threshold and they are going to react.
Anubi and Amalu are more tolerant in general, particularly with dogs. They are generally naturally neutral with strange dogs who are acting neutral or appeasing. Though pushy dogs or confrontational ones will get their hackles up a bit. People on the other hand? They don't want people in their face. They are not going to snap as long as a person they know and trust is there to rescue them, but they might vocally object if a person really pushed them and I didn't take action to correct the situation.
Amidi can run flyball next to other dogs. She can be off leash in an agility arena or on a hike with other dogs. She can exist and ignore whatever boarding dog I bring into share her space. But Azawakh think independently. They act independently. And when a dog is rude enough to get in her face, she will correct them dramatically (very loudly) and snap at them but not make contact. She is predictable, stable and I know exactly what I can ask of her and what is too much. Does that mean we're not working on her tolerance? No, we work on it all the time and she is much more tolerant before she corrects a dog than she used to be. Often these days, she'll look at me tightly and beg me to do something about the dog before taking her own action. But people? With people Ami is easy going. If you are excited to see her, she's excited to see you and while she might get a bit withdrawn if a person forces contact with her, she won't snap or object in any way.
So is there dog aggression in the breed? Yes, there are varying degrees of it. Remember that the dog park dog is the more unusual dog. The dog park Azawakh is much more unusual. And, like any breed, there are going to be unstable, unpredictable individuals.
Is there human aggression in the breed? Again, Azawakh alert their people and pack to intruders. That is inherently a form of aggression, whether that is what we call it in the United States or not. If cornered, if pushed, yes, an Azawakh might lash out. Just as many other breeds might. Just as many humans might if another person cornered them.
However, if my Azawakh ever bites a human or a dog much of that means that I failed to set them up for situations they can be successful in.
I truly find Azawakh are incredibly easy to live with, for me personally. They are easy in the house, in tune with their people, and up for anything whether it be hiking or flyball or chilling on the couch. I honestly don't think an owner who isn't interested in chatting with strangers, loves a bonded dogs but doesn't want the restless energy of a herding breed, is as niche as it could be. The potential for aggression, the guarded nature with the unknown doesn't bother me because it is always paired with so many traits I love about the breed.
The big thing though is going in knowing, accepting, and loving the temperament of the breed.