If you've been in the purebred dog fancy at all, you've likely heard the words form and function enough you're actually sick of them. If you haven't been in the dog conformation or sport world much, those terms and a couple others with their specific meanings might be completely knew to you.
Form is simple it refers to a dog's physical structure, their phenotype.
Function, is also simple. This refers to the original purpose of the breed in question. For Border Collies this would be herding sheep. For German Shepherds this would be tending - acting as a living fence to contain their stock without a physical barrier. For the Jack Russel Terrier this would be going to ground after prey. For Coonhounds it's trailing a scent and treeing a raccoon. For sighthounds it's coursing (hunting) prey by sight.
Balance is also an important phrase that essentially means that a dog has the same shoulder angle measurements as they do hip angle measurements. This means at a trot, which is a two-beat gait where two legs hit the ground at the same time in alternating pairs, the leading leg is equidistance to the center of the dog as the dogs trailing hind leg. A balanced dog moves efficiently with no wasted movement and will not tire quickly.
Now a famous phrase: form follows function. What this means, in essence is that a breed's structure is going to be adapted to fit their purpose. Border Collies have more angulation in their shoulders to easily crouch. German Shepherds have a lot of angulation in their rear because they must always be trotting back and forth acting as a fence. Most terriers have straighter angulation in the front to assist with digging. Coonhounds have long floppy ears to help funnel a scent to their nose, large upright tails that can easily be seen from a distance, and distinctive voices that allow their owners to find them. Sighthounds have a lean, streamlined structure that lends itself to speed. Breeds have largely developed their structure not solely due to a person's aesthetic preference, but because that structure leant itself to the dog's original purpose.
Azawakh, which are well and truly a landrace breed, developed with very limited human intervention and have been in this format for thousands of years, so clearly something must be well adapted to their environment or it wouldn't be perpetuated, even though their overall structure is a marked departure from most other breeds and even from other sighthound breeds.
Every Azawakh breed standard specifically calls for 130 degree angulation front and rear. The heat of their environment likely is what causes the taller than long appearance, check any animal from the region (camels, Sahelian cattle and goats, etc) - you're going to find that same stretched out vertical appearance. Accordingly, angulation begins to open up to compensate. The key is that they're balanced. Azawakh also have particularly flexible spines side to side (even for a sighthound who are known for their flexible spines which adds speed when running) and their elbows are below the height of the chest to give them more lateral room to maneuver their legs when running. Azawakh are very much a case of a dog that is perfectly adapted to their environment.
This year, I had the chance to pursue both conformation and performance titles with my dogs. I pursue both because firstly I want to know if a judge finds my dog balanced and sound. While conformation judges are expected to evaluate a dog to their breed standard, the nuance of that assessment is necessarily going to the education the judges have received on the breed and the number of individuals in the breed the judges have been able to see in person and get their hands on to examine. As such, rare and newly recognized breeds are often not going to have breed expert judges in the ring very often. A rare breed exhibitor thus should take their opinion with a grain of salt. That being said, most judges are experts in soundness and balance and their opinion and outside assessments give me insight into my dog's structure in that regard.
This year Anubi finished up his UKC Champion title, becoming the first dog I have ever finished as a Champion. The weekend he finished he took a Group 1 (first place), Group 2 (second place), and Group 3 (third place) at the group level and showed absolutely beautifully. The process of showing my dogs has given me such useful insight to how my dog's form fits the standard to which they are judged.
This weekend, Anubi became the second Azawakh to ever earn his Gazehound Racing Champion title on the Large Gazehound Racing Association (LGRA which is amateur straight racing). The huge thing I love about LGRA racing is that it's as close to an objective measurement of a dog's physical performance as you will find in the dog sport world. It is simply a test of a dog's speed. Is there a mental component? Most definitely, but at the end of the day it's the closest to an accurate assessment of a dog's
speed. And though Azawakh are not a breed where speed is as much the essence of the breed as a Greyhound or even a Whippet, slow dogs are likely to catch less prey than fast ones. And LGRA success is just another tool in my tool box in helping me determine my dog's capabilities. Physical speed gives me insight into the dog I will be breeding - his drive, his tenacity, his stamina. And Anubi is impressively fast for an Azawkah and remains undefeated so far at every meet he's run in.
While I love lure coursing, it is also the one dog sport I play that I can walk away from after a day of coursing and have simply no idea why the results fell out the way they fell out. The judging criteria is simply more subjective and while the dogs love it, they also know it's just a game. Take them out to Open Field Coursing and that immediately becomes apparent. which is why I also run my dogs in Open Field Coursing (live jack rabbits). Still though, I run my dogs in lure coursing (both AKC and ASFA (American Sighthound Field Association)) and it ,gives me insight to my dog's strategy, stamina, agility, drive, and more. Amidi was the #1 ASFA and #2 AKC LC Azawakh this year. Anubi was #3 both ASFA and AKC LC. Again, while lure coursing has it's limitations, it gives me data and tells me how sound my dogs remain after a test of physical prowess. There's largely no other way to test long term endurance and soundness than by running them back to back weekends and monitoring their physical condition and health. Even without titles, these sports give me important information and the fact they have points towards their Field Championships (FC and FCh) in both AKC and ASFA is a bonus.
I want to maintain dogs that could physically and mentally do the work they developed to do in the Sahel. Structure and drive is a huge part of that and so sighthound sports are one tool in my toolbox of assessment. And more than that they make my dogs happy and healthy