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Cirneco dell’Etna: The Sicilian Secret

Jerri Gates with her Cirneco / cirnechi


The Cirneco dell’Etna is the “best kept secret in the Hound Group.” Well, it’s time to let the secret out. This is a cute little red dog with tall, prick ears, loving gold eyes, and the spirit of a hunter. Admitted into the Hound Group by AKC in 2015, they are slowly gaining popularity within the show fancy as well as with John Q Public. The proper pronunciation is “cheer-nay-ko” and “cheer-nay-kee” (Cirnechi) for plural.

Their origins are deep; a primitive little Hound that hails from the Island of Sicily where it has been used for hunting over the last few centuries. Similar in appearance to other Mediterranean Hounds, it is believed there is a common ancestor, though none has been proven to date. Each of the Mediterranean breeds was developed according to the hunting needs of each region. The Cirneco dell’Etna is a multi-purpose hunter that uses all of the senses to locate and obtain their prey.

Many ancient artifacts from the region of Sicily, ancient Rome, and Greece have depictions on coins and pottery that resemble the Cirneco dell’Etna of today—some that date back as far as 4,000 B.C. Many of the Sicilian towns, such as Palermo and Erice, beheld the dog with a religious or symbolic significance, often minting coins with their image. Legend claims that the temple built by Dionysus in 400 B.C., dedicated to the God Adranos near the volcano, had a thousand Cirnechi to guard its safety. It is said the dog had the ability to recognize and attack the thieves and disbelievers, while also accompanying and guiding the pilgrims seeking prayer and salvation.

The breed was rarely seen outside Sicily before the early 1930’s, until an article was published declaring the breed was in a danger of oblivion. A Sicilian aristocrat, the Baroness Agata Paterno Castello of the Dukes of Carcaci, took the matter at heart and headed up a group to help with saving the breed. “Donna Agata” spent the next 26 years studying this ancient dog, selecting the best dogs from the peasants for breeding, and developing the breed to what we know today. The Baroness commissioned to have the breed standard written, which was approved by the Italian Kennel Club (ENCI) in 1939, with the current FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale) standard being completed in 1989. In order to maintain the ancient hunting heritage, the Cirnechi in Italy must pass a hunt test to become a full champion.

To the untrained eye, they look very much like a Pharaoh Hound in miniature. But in actuality, there are several differences in their overall conformation. The most notable difference is size, with the Cirneco dell’Etna having a maximum height of 19 inches for males and 18 for females, as opposed to the Pharaoh Hound’s maximum of 25 inches for males, 23 inches for females. The Cirneco should be of square frame, the Pharaoh Hounds slightly longer than tall. Other differences include the eyes, ears, tail, and coloring.

The Cirneco dell’Etna is a very hardy breed, selected by nature for the ability to work for hours in the heat, and is relatively free from major genetic health issues. A very friendly, active and affable dog that is somewhat easier to train than most sighthounds, the Cirneco is well-suited to many performance events. They are able to run in lure coursing events, both in the US and in Europe, and agility seems like a natural fit among a multitude of activities they can participate in. Being very affectionate, they make an excellent companion. They prefer to be close to their owners, and love to sleep under the covers of the bed.

Over the past few years, the popularity of the Cirnechi dell’Etna has spread throughout the World, with the highest populations outside Italy found in much of Europe, the US, and Russia. They can currently be shown in all FCI member countries, the KC of the UK, and AKC.

Now that the secret is out of the bag, look for this great little red dog in the Hound Group. We’ll be toward the back somewhere between the Basenji and the Dachshunds.