Pulling Apart the AKC Azawakh Breed Standard
I've wanted to pull apart the Azawakh breed standard for quite some time, and when I started writing this as I sat in my whelping box watching the first puppy I bred play with her mother, the time never seemed better. I will qualify this post with a statement that all of this is my interpretation of the standard. I have likely spent more time sitting with and analyzing this standard over the past few years than just about anyone.
I also want to write this to address the discrepancies and misunderstandings I see with many judges. I want to be very clear that within the United States, there are no breeder judges, and to my knowledge, no judges who have ever even owned the breed and so it is important to remember that while judges have studied and watched the breed and attended judge's education seminars, there are none within the States that have lived with Azawakh day in and out and very few that have seen the breed in action in both show and performance venues.
This post will get pretty deep into the weeds regarding structure, so I won't blame anyone for not being able to get through it. But I also am going to try to keep it accessible to those who aren't in the breed but are curious about the structure.
A breed standard is a written description of the characteristics (both physical and temperament) that make up an ideal individual of a breed. Standards tend to vary by kennel club (the AKC vs FCI in Europe for instance). For some breeds the standards are quite similar. For others they describe almost completely different breeds. In the case of the Azawakh the FCI standard was written, the AKC was based on the original FCI standard. However, the FCI standard has now changed markedly from the AKC standard, while the AKC standard has remained the same. I'll address some of the differences, including some discrepancies I see, at the end.
I also want to be upfront. I am not a purist. I believe a well-written breed standard is a powerful tool and there are a lot of aspects of the Azawakh breed standard I appreciate. However, I also find that all breed standards to have holes or vague language that can be difficult to interpret. I am going to rely on common sense when in doubt and also rely on how the breed has looked in the Sahel for thousands of years, when in doubt. But the standard gives me a lovely written guide on which to base my decisions.
Below, I will quote each part of the standard and then break it apart. This post is meant for myself, it's meant for people interested in hearing what I have to say. It is not official in any capacity and as such, I will be using my own dogs to illustrate what various virtues and faults look like.
Official Standard of the Azawakh General Appearance:
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.
Particularly leggy and elegant, the Azawakh gives a general impression of great fineness. His bone structure and musculature are transparent beneath fine and lean skin. This sighthound presents itself as a rangy dog whose body fits into a rectangle with its longer sides in a vertical position.
Faults - Heavy general appearance.
The beginning information is just background. Hundreds of years is likely a vast understatement and the breed has likely existed for at least a few thousands of years, but seeing as we don't have records, "hundreds of years" is a fair conservative statement.
The second half of the paragraph is where you get the essence of the breed- leggy, elegant, fineness, bone and musculature transparent beneath fine skin, taller than long, rangy (again calling to attention the legginess). All of those adjectives are true of the breed. When I bring my dogs places I am always getting comments about their legs- that they go on for miles, that they could run all day, that they're tall. That should be your first impression.
Then lets address the last sentence- "Faults - Heavy general appearance". This is a piece I think it's really easy to misunderstand about the breed. If I take Tabiri out on the street I can guarantee you, everyone is going to comment on how elegant her is. But put him in a ring and I guarantee he won't get put up. Nevermind he has incredible silhouette and sound movement. He's too heavy for the judge's preferences. I haven't show him yet, we're still preparing him to stand for exam, but I have talked to a number of judges about him and know they think he has too much substance, he's too heavy. But, let's take a look at the heights and weights listed in the standard.
Size, Weight, Proportion: Height at withers - Males 25 to 29 inches, females 23 to 27 inches.
Serious Fault - Size deviating more than an inch from the norms of the standard.
Weigh: - Males 44 to 55 pounds, females 33 to 44 pounds
Tabiri is 29" at the withers. He is 54.5lbs in performance weight, which is how I show all my dogs. That means he is at the top of the standard for both height and weight. Anubi in contrast, is 29" at the withers (same as Tabiri) and he is 44.5lbs in performance weight. So he is the top of the standard in height but the bottom of standard in weight. How can a dog that lands squarely within the height and weight standards be too bulky, particularly when he has so many other breed specific traits? I think the answer is that judges simply don't have a handle on judging the weight of the breed. I have had judges guess Anubi's weight at 50+lbs. They are always shocked to discovered that he's so light (and often when they learn his actual weight they start calling him fragile, which he is decidedly not).
Left picture- Tabiri left and Anubi right, Right picture- Anubi- left and Tabiri right
Now let's look at the bitch height and weight range. Again, I have bitches spanning a large chunk of the standard. Ami is 26.5", so near the top of the height range, but in condition she sits at about 39lbs (the middle of the weight range). In general, she appears refined, but compared to Anubi is very moderate. Amalu on the other hand is just under 26" and sits at 42lbs in condition. Whereas Gem is slightly taller than Amalu (around 26") but is only ~34lbs in condition. Three bitches, within an inch of each other in height but covering the majority of the weight standard. The difference? Substance both regarding the weight of their overall bones and the amount of muscle they carry.
In the left two images you can see Anubi at the front of the picture. Remember he is 29", all the bitches are about 3" or more inches shorter than he is. Then moving front to back you have Gem, Amidi, and Amalu. To me, though the pictures aren't perfect, Gem feels tiny even though she is in fact taller than Amalu. However, less substance (and thus less weight) makes her appear much more petite. In the far right image you have Amalu and Anubi standing side by side in an image that makes it very clear there's only 3 pounds difference in weight between the two of them, even though Amalu is 3" shorter than him. The difference is how heavy her bones are and how much muscle she carriers (her muscle is bulkier than my other Azawakh and she tends to have accordingly less stamina).
This is so fascinating to me, because my memory was that Gem was tiny. Very petite in height and in weight. However, once she arrived her and she actually stood next to my other girls it became apparent, like so many judges misjudged Anubi's weight, Gem's refined bone structure had tricked me into thinking she was smaller than she was. I think in general, because the height to weight proportions are so very different for this breed, people in general don't have a good handle on what a 55lb, 29" male Azawakh looks like or even what a 33lb, 23" bitch looks like (one of Gem's littermates is even smaller than she is).
Gem (bottom of the weight standard) and Tabiri (top of the weight standard) next to each other.
A final note is really take in what a wide range the height standard spans- 23-29" total. That means a petite bitch is going to look miniscule next to a large male. However, I would argue that if a large male is within the standard that is on us to better learn what that looks like rather than faulting it for a heavy general appearance.
[Body condition] In correct weight a minimum of three to five ribs and hip bones should be visible.
I deeply appreciate the standard specifically addressing visual appearance when an Azawakh is at correct weight. When trialing almost weekly sitting the peak of our performance season, even when just hiking and free running, my dogs naturally show 3-5. They don't get the rib coverage most other breeds get and that is a natural part of the breed being so so dry with tight skin and lean musculature. I am also pleased the standard specifies "a minimum of 3-5 ribs" should be visible because the fact is that depending on chest shape and age (teenagers can be hard keepers) more may be visible. I personally have found it seems to be increasingly common for Azawakh to barely have their last rib visible and they may not have any ribs visible at all.
As for hip bones being clearly visible, this is a very open angulated breed. With open rear angulation, the hips are briefly going to be prominent above the spine. If an Azawakh's hip bones aren't prominent then one of two things has happened. 1. They do not have the open rear angulation that they should or 2. They are substantially overweight.
These two pictures are Luna (left) and Tabiri (right). Luna h came to me as a foster. She was 12 pounds overweight when I got her (48 pounds) and by the time she left she was 36 pounds. Note that she has lost any form of dry, finely strung appearance with the extra weight and that her hip bones have disappeared and her croup appears rounded. Tabiri is 9 pounds above his performance weight in this picture (55 versus 64 pounds), which is a substantially proportionally smaller percentage overweight than Luna. And note he does appear to be a very heavy set boy in this picture, which is not his present appearance at all.
Here are some pictures of my dogs (and foster) in average condition. They are slightly lighter (less muscle) than their performance condition but they are a good health weight for the breed. Luna in particular is still slightly overweight since you can just barely see tracings of ribs. Amalu and Amidi are both in false pregnancy so while ribs are visible, muscle tone is lacking.
Here are some pictures of my dogs in peak performance condition. Note that though their musculature is flat (as should be expected in endurance runners), it is well apparent, which is very important considering muscles are mentioned often throughout the standard. Also note you can see a minimum of 3-5 ribs and hip bones easily. This is note them being starved, this is their natural condition when they run and compete every week, sometimes multiple times a week.
Finally regarding weight, the below picture is Anubi at 42 pounds (he usually sits around 45 pounds). He literally had bloodwork and urinalysis done the next day unrelated to his condition. It unsurisingly came back normal. He was also bred successfully that very same day, in addition to taking Best of Breed in LGRA, NOTRA, and ASFA over the course of three days with hard competition. He had been off his food and eating little since Ami was in heat. Yet there was zero drop in endurance or ability. While this is very dry and leaner than I prefer to see my dog, I personally would still put up this condition over overweight every single time (with dogs of equal merit). The standard mentioned muscle many times and that should be emphasized.
Body Proportion : Length of body/height at withers - 9:10. Length of body is 90 percent height of hound. This ratio may be slightly higher in bitches.
Read that carefully. And then read it again. This ratio is going to look wrong, especially when you're new to the breed. One of the most common faults I see in this breed is long bodied dogs.
Azawakh should have a vertical format. We are barely into the breakdown of the standard and it has stated this twice already. This is a key breed trait. How are these proportions created? That's a really good question and one that the standard touches on but doesn't ever state directly. So I want to look at some ways for the 9:10 length to height ratio to be created.
One way would be to increase leg length - to make the dog proportionally taller. There would be two ways to do this - open up the angulation of the dog or to make the actual long bones longer. I would generally argue that the reason the Azawakh has more proportional height is because of more open angles, rather than increased leg length.
In addition to giving height a higher proportion, you can create the above ratio by decreasing length. Now, short coupling is usually considered a cardinal sin in sighthounds. After all, isn't a long loin how a sighthound gets a lot of their power? The answer that is, yes. However, it's also a generally accepted fact that Azawakh are, in fact, slower than most other similarly structured breeds (Salukis and Sloughis). However, my short coupled girls have some serious speed, more so than my longer coupled girl. I suspect that again gets back to relying on the lighter substance to compensate for the decreased power.
Considering Azawakh's primary purpose is that of a camp guardian then a hunter, slower speed for more desert adaptability makes sense to me. How does the 9:10 length/height ratio related to desert adaptability? I won't pretend to have true, immutable concrete answers. However, if you look at the other animals of the region such as the cattle and goats, all of them have a similar format. Indeed, the camel, the quintessential desert animal, has a very vertical format. As such, the theory I have heard and it seems quite sound to me is that when living in a hot region, animals' angulation opens up to help keep the bulk of the animals' mass away from the heat of the ground.
One final note - I have heard from people who had a hand in writing the AKC standard that the reason a higher ratio is allowed for bitches is to allow for puppies during pregnancy. I will also state that I have heard no breeder who bred a short bodied bitch asserting that they handled their pregnancy any worse than a longer bodied bitch. To me, while it is allowable, I think it also may lead to us losing the breed proportions if we aren't careful.
Both Anubi (left) and Amalu (right) are slightly too long bodied.
Whereas Amidi (left), Gem (center), and Tabiri (right) have more correct proportions.
Head: Eyes - Almond shaped, quite large. Their color is in keeping with the coat color. Eye rims are pigmented.
This is both succinct and descriptive. It gives you correct eye shape. I have found round and oval eyes to be increasingly common. A correct eye allows the Azawakh to view their prey (or interlopers) for a large distance in a desert environment. A round eye does not allow for the correct scope of vision and
Their color is in keeping with the coat color, which does allow for lighter eyes in dilute dogs.
Eye rims are pigmented also allows for dilute pigmentation as long as there is pigment. Lack of pigmentation around the eye may contribute to eye damage in the harsh sun.
Set quite high. They are fine, always drooping and flat, quite wide at the base, close to the skull, never a rose ear. Their shape is that of a triangle with a slightly rounded tip. Their base rises when the hound is attentive.
Faults - Rose ear.
In general, I would say ears are a fault of some of my dogs. The standard is also vague regarding what is considered high set. I would assert that the standard is making a case that Azawakh should not have low set scenthound ears and it is in contrast to that which the "set quite high" compares.
Gem's (left) ears are much lower set than Tabiri's (right), whose ear set is more correct.
They should be pendant ears, which is not the standard's language, but it suits. When alert, the ears will set forward presenting almost the full ear to the front (rising from the base).
A word on prizing "fine" ear leather. This can again be a case where exaggeration serves no one. Anubi's ears are lovely. He has also suffered with cracked ear leather again and again, which is a problem with his lines. Amalu and Tabiri's ear leather is thicker, but still fine and has none of the health concerns of Anubi's overly thin ear leather.
Finally regarding the fault of rose ears. While Sloughis and Azawakh have different ear size, shape, and carriage I do think the Americal Sloughi Association's judges education on when a ear is truly rose versus when a dog is excited or anxious and rosing their ear is very relevant to this discussion: https://sloughi-international.com/judging-the-sloughi-ears-of-the-sloughi/
Amidi rosing her ears to beg for food, then correct alert ears.
In short, there are a great many dogs that rose their ears when excited or anxious (as can often be the case with new dogs in the ring). To fault a dog for that carriage is unfair to me.
Interestingly, ear size is not addressed in the standard.
The skull is almost flat, rather elongated. The width of the skull must definitely be inferior to half the length of the head. The width of the skull is 40 percent the length of the head. The superciliary arches and the frontal furrow are slightly marked. The occipital protuberance is clearly pronounced.
Faults - Wide back skull,.
I think the wording for this section of the standard is lovely. When looking at Azawakh head shape I am looking for a flat back skull (not domed), a prominent occiput, and a narrow back skull.
Wide back skulls are somewhat common in the breed, in my experience. I have a breeder friend that calls them "coffee cup heads" because they're wide enough you could rest a cup of coffee on them. I find they are particularly common in males with recent Sahelian import blood behind them. That's not remotely true of all imports but I find it more likely, Whereas with bitches with recent African blood, you get a wider back skull in my experience but still within standard.
Anubi (left) has a within standard back skull width whereas Tabiri has a back skull that is too wide.
Compare the boys to my girls and the difference is less noticeable. Gem was a very narrow back skull (less than 40%) whereas Amalu has right around 40% as called for in standard. To me, the difference is much less noticeable both in pictures but also to me in person.
"The superciliary arches and frontal furrow are slightly marked". This is a sentence that doesn't get much attention in my experience but I do think it helps contribute to expression and expression is something the standard never expressly addresses, unlike the Sloughi (melancholy) and Saluki (far seeing) standards. I do think it is possible for these features to be overly marked and the result can be a somewhat pinched rather than a regal look.
To me Gem's (left) superciliary arches are very noticeable creating an almost worried expression, where as Amidi's (right) are notable but less marked, giving her a calmer expression. This is typical, in my experience, of both girls and is not just an artifact of the pictures.
The prominence of the occiput in an Azawakh is something that makes their head very distinct from that of a Sloughi (a breed that Azawakh are often mistaken as). It is something not a lot of judges are looking for, but once you notice it's missing it hard to not see it when looking at other dogs in the future.
Anubi (left) has a notable occiput, while Amalu (right) does not.
Stop – Very slight.
Faults - Prominent stop
A slight stop is typical of sighthounds. It's usually associated with at least the appearance of increased aerodynamics. A prominent stop is a trait that will pop up in heavier headed dogs at times, which is likely why the fault is explicitly called out in our standard.
Muzzle - Long, straight, fine, lean and chiseled, rather narrow, without excess. Length of muzzle/length of head equals 1:2. Length of back skull is 50 percent length of head.
This phrasing again calls to mind the dryness, tightness of an Azwakh's skin, which should remain true, even on the skin of the muzzle. You again have that emphasis of dry skin, which has already been mentioned more than once in the standard, so you can note the importance.
Anubi (left) has very tight skin on his muzzle, this is true of his skin everywhere on his body. This is correct for the breed. Whereas Amalu has much looser skin on her muzzle (though not elsewhere on her body), which gives the appearances that she is lacking under jaw (snipey), when she is not.
I do see dogs with both a long back skull and a long muzzle, so it is a trait that exists in the breed. I think in this regard my dogs are good examples of head proportions across the board.
Planes – Parallel, however sometimes the line of the skull and the bridge of the muzzle are slightly divergent.
This is a line that is so common in standards that requires you to read between the lines. When phrased this section becomes: Head planes are parallel. This is the ideal. Slightly divergent planes between muzzle and back skull are allowable but not ideal.
*Note* Divergent planes are fairly common in the breed in my experience, but it is not something I can demonstrate with my own dogs. While none of them have perfect parallel planes, this is something I consider a strength of my dogs across the board.
This is Sule, Ami's brother, who I am using as an example with permission. He is a lovely boy overall! However, his head planes are slightly diverging.
Lips and Jaw - Lips are fine and tight. Jaw is long and strong. Cheeks are flat.
Lips are fine and tight once again evokes dry skin and structure. Typically if you see a dog that has excess skin on their muzzle, they will have heavier lips too.
I think the expectation that the underjaw should be strong with flat cheeks is something that gets lost in the common quest for a more refined head. Snipey heads are increasingly common, in my experience. However, remember not only is this a hunting breed, it is also a guardian breed. There is no place for pretty but dysfunctional in this breed in regard to jaw strength. Above, the picture of Sule gives an example of flat and powerful looking jaw muscles.