Ancient Gazelle-Hunting Dog Breed Hangs on in Arabia

By Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2003
For thousands of years nomadic tribes of the Middle East have bred a hunting hound called the saluki. The slender, silky coated canine is known for its hardiness, stamina, intelligence, and speed. A fearless hunter of hare and gazelle, the dog is thought by historians to be the oldest breed in the world with archaeological evidence dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.

Modern times have taken a toll on the saluki. A new National Geographic EXPLORER documentary (see picture caption for details) raises questions about the breed's long-term survival in the Arab world and how it may, at some point, be left in the hands of Western fanciers. That's because tribal members are moving out of the desert and into villages and towns. The dogs are no longer needed as providers of food for their masters.

But for now, many salukis are still kept for hunting as a sport in Arabia.

Salukis in North America

In the United States, salukis are successful competitors in the show ring, and agility and field trials. Still, they are not a common breed, ranking No. 109 among 150 recognized American Kennel Club breeds, with only 401 dogs registered in 2002.

Cathy Chapman of Simi Valley, California, breeds salukis and owns six ranging from one to 12 years of age. Before adopting one, she advises that people learn about this quiet and calm breed.

"Salukis are definitely not for everybody," said Chapman, who is a member of the California-based San Angeles Saluki Club. "Their temperament is more like a cat than a dog. They want to be friends, but on their terms."

Salukis show great affection toward their owners, she said, but can be standoffish with strangers. The dogs thrive in families where they are the focus of attention and live indoors.

"They are [an easily controlled] and exotic companion for the knowledgeable dog owner," said Ingrid Romanowski, public education chairwoman for the Saluki Club of America. "They are not a breed you can treat badly…mishandle [or] subject to boring kennel life."

Live-Game Hunting

The saluki is an active breed that likes the outdoors. To keep the dogs' hunting skills sharp, open field coursing events were established in 1964 and are organized throughout the western United States. It is the only venue for competitive live-game hunting in the country, said Romanowski, and it is popular among breeders and fanciers. Last year 105 salukis were entered in hunts sponsored by the National Open Field Coursing Association.

In this competition, dogs are let loose to chase a jack rabbit over desert terrain. A hunt can last from a few seconds to several minutes and cover up to two miles (three kilometers).

"Since dogs are running at full speed—sometimes approaching 40 miles (65 kilometers) an hour—this sport is an impressive one to watch," Romanowski said. Once the chase reaches 1,000 yards (914 meters), she said, no other breed—not even the greyhound—is faster."

Judges follow the action through binoculars and award points to the dogs for a variety of elements such as speed, agility, and ability to take game. Only sight hounds are allowed to compete. As the name suggests, these canines hunt by sight rather than scent. In addition to salukis, eligible breeds are whippets, greyhounds, Afghan hounds, borzois, Ibizan hounds, pharaoh hounds, Irish wolfhounds, and Scottish deerhounds.

Just as popular as open field coursing is lure coursing. The two sports are essentially the same, except in lure coursing an artificial "rabbit" (usually a white plastic bag) is used and the dogs run a shorter course, 600 to 900 yards (550 to 820 meters). Because less space is needed, events can be held throughout the country. Last year more than half of the registered salukis in the United States were entered in lure coursing events sponsored by the American Sighthound Field Association.

Training for both sports involves an hour each day of off-leash running at high speeds over varied terrain, said Romanowski, who owns the ranking lure-coursing saluki in Canada, named Etoile Noire.

"Salukis have been bred to live complex, physically challenging lives and are not mentally suited for terminal boredom and inactivity," she said. "But for those people who can appreciate the enjoyment of sharing their life with a premier hunting hound, there's nothing better." Resources on Dogs

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