Dual Purpose Salukis?

Although I have had dogs all my life I have been owned by Salukis for only a few years. I have however admired the breed from afar since I was a little girl, and for years I devoured what written material I had access to. Inevitably the words took shape and the mental picture of the Saluki - as described in these texts - took its admittedly scetchy form. What emerged was first and foremost a hunter, and a distinctly Eastern one at that.

As I wasn't familiar with the "politics" of Western breeders I took their words at face value. Each described a capable athlete, stressed the importance of the "preserve, not improve" adage, and bespoke moderation and ORIENTAL beauty in a functional hound. With these purely literary references to the breed as the foundation of my early perception of it, three things took root to forever define the Saluki for me. A hunter, an athlete, an Eastern hound.

Upon aquiring my first Saluki and replacing the image created by breeders' words with the products of their work, as displayed in the ring and breed publications, it became evident however that rarely did the two coincide. Opinions voiced in private conversation confirmed that much of what I had read in breeder interviews was simply not true. I doubt that many breeders would consciously breed away from the hunter of old, but more often than not that is the result.

No matter how many times the right catch phrases are repeated in print, many breeders in effect work to improve, or, rather, ALTER the breed. A case in point is the disdain of many Western breeders toward the traditional Salukis - those that still hunt their native lands - despite the fact that they have proven themselves to be good Salukis in the truest sense of the word. The measure of a hunter can only be proven in the field, and by its ability to function and perform its intended task.

A Saluki can not be true to type - assuming "type" is the breed definitive - no matter the number of breed specifically recognisable details - unless it can fulfill its ancient heritage in the field. We all agree that this cannot be determined in the ring. We can assess and critique those aforementioned details that are distinctly Saluki - encompassing ALL types, colors and coat varietes. Nothing more.

What in my opinion should be done in this arena is a weeding out of exaggeration and any tendency to move away from the hunter and toward that flashy, generic, supertrotting show dog that is middle of the road only in the negative sense : no breed in particular with no distinctive temperamental characteristics. Personality vacuums with minimal demands asked only to "function" in the ring and crate.

Having said that, how do we ensure that our breeding programmes have succeeded in maintaining the potential to perform the original function of the breed ? As the realities of modern society increasingly restrict the lives of both dogs and dog owners, we are forced to balance between the obligations of the past and the demands of the present. Most of us live in areas where hunting with sighthounds is prohibited by law -the world has become small and sectioned -hardly a conducive working ground for a long distance runner.

So the question remains : how do we live up to our breed's demands and potential and in so doing show that we understand the value of its heritage and the importance of its continuation? That we mean those words we so enjoy repeating year after year? Most of us proclaim to strive for that moderate, functional, historical, healthy SALUKI. How many of us do and how do we determine the success of the outcome ?

It is a pity that open field coursing is outlawed in Finland and many other countries - it is after all the most natural of hunting methods - as this makes us unable to truly test our Salukis. Unsolicited courses aside we are left with guess work and theories, many of them unfounded.

The question is whether we really do wish to preserve the Saluki true to its ancient heritage -or are we looking for a "pseudo"-Saluki, a less demanding or a peppier, Poodlelike temperament ; more angulation, stylized lines, profuse feathering, flashier movement, more sculpted heads, etc. ? Do we know what a hunting Saluki looks like and why? We are all fluent in ring side critisism and spotting what we have been taught to regard as "faults" - but do we know WHY they are considered faults, and do they really make a Saluki less functional in the field?

Much is talked about "dual purpose" Salukis - I admit I thought this to be the ideal until I realized how much undue importance this lays on show success. A longterm Saluki fancier once told me that I had to teach my Salukis a more strict "ring etiquette". (No, they are neither nervous nor aggressive, but they aren't "asking for it" either.). "They have to learn that this is their JOB !" It isn't. Hunting is "their job", showing is my whim. They humor me because they love me (hopefully !) as much as I do them, and they tolerate this bizarre behavior because we are a team.

DUAL purpose ? Salukis really only have one true purpose, one "job". That they, in a civilization much younger than theirs, rarely are allowed to fulfill that function is another matter. Showing should not be a purpose in itself - that is precisely what leads to those "pseudo"-Salukis we see in our rings. At best shows should be a fun way of presenting the results of our breeding programmes while familiarizing ourselves with that of others, and comparing those results with the original 1923 standard in an effort to weed out the exaggerations our present "beauty pagents" often reward. In other words, all breeds would benefit from show practices that would have more in common with breeding evaluations than beauty contests. The former serves the breed while the latter caters to human ambitions.

Our biggest problem right now however is the small genepool and the deadends created by tight pedigrees. It is time to step back and re-evaluate the pros and cons of linebreeding, and how they have changed with the passing of the years and the shrinking of the genepool. Anyone can, by, for example, counting the number of times their dogs' pedigrees go back to Sarona Kelb and, certainly in Scandinavia, Asphodel Arabis, easily see the enormity of the problem and the direction in which outdated breeding practices are leading.

This is a problem acutely felt in all breeds. It is time to focuse not on creating a uniform kennel or bloodline type but rather concentrate on broadening the genepool - while fresh blood still is available - and thus ensure that much discussed well-being and preservation of the Saluki. Here too show policy remains outdated, as for example the "Best Offspring" and "Best Breeder" categories in practice are governed by the breeder's ability to produce "cookie cutter" dogs, thereby encouraging tight linebreeding.

Sooner or later we WILL have to re-evaluate the methods and goals of our breeding programmes. Where our forerunners focused mainly on establishing type, we would be well adviced to concentrate our efforts on strengthening the foundation of the existence of our breed, and by actively working to broaden genepools ensure its health and vitality.

I am by no means advocating a separation of the breed into showing and coursing "types" as is the case with the modern Greyhound. I merely suggest that we examine our motives, mean what we say and act accordingly. That we truly aim for that functional Saluki first and exhibit the results, rather than vice versa. Our responsibility for the preservation of our breed is greater and more difficult to fulfill than ever before - the future of the Saluki is in our hands.

Written by Micaela Lehtonen.
Previously published in the Finnish Saluki
Magazine 1/99.