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Genetic History of the Ancient Sighthound Dog Breeds


Sighthounds, also called Gazehounds, are types of hound dog breeds that hunt primarily by sight and speed, rather than by scent and endurance as scent hounds do.

What do the Chihuahua and the Saluki have in common? Both belong to the small, select group of primitive dog breeds. Before scientists completed the canine genome, breeders and fanciers of ancient breeds could only repeat romantic-sounding legends about the source of their breed or simply speculate as to the origin of their primitive dogs.

However, within the last two decades, important information has emerged from several studies that analyzed the genome in a combined total of well over a hundred dogs from over a hundred breeds accepted by the American Kennel Club and/or the FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale).


Tracing the Genes

Without putting you to sleep with the complex details of the methodology used in these studies, all that is important for you to know is that the accumulated knowledge gained from these studies came from analyzing genetic material from both the female and the male lines. Scientists looked at the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that follows the maternal parentage through the female descendents. They also analyzed the Y-chromosome DNA that traces dogs’ paternal heritage through sires, and compared the results with what they saw in the mtDNA.

What the canine geneticists searched for and tracked were haplotypes and their haplogroups within the samples. A “haplotype” is a combination of closely linked DNA sequences on one chromosome that are often inherited together. A “haplogroup” forms when a very specific new mutation occurs.

All descendants of the original mutation-created haplotype will carry the mutation, and it is this mutation that now defines the new haplogroup. Certain haplogroups appear in the DNA of wolves and other wild canids. In the same way, wolf haplogroups, as well as different canine haplogroups, appear in dogs.


Basal Breeds

Researchers have, so far, identified fourteen basal breeds, and will probably discover additions to the list when the genomes of more breeds have been analyzed. The term “basal” signifies that these breeds are the closest, genetically speaking, to their ancient wolf ancestors.

Such basal breeds have more genetic diversity within their genomes than other (more modern) breeds of dogs, most of which were developed within the last 200 years and, especially, during the 19th century. Actually, we have to be cautious about using the word “breed” because this is definitely a 19th century term. Prior to that time, groups or types of dogs existed according to the work demanded of them; there were no specific breeds as we know them today.

Some of the results of these studies surprised everyone. For example, a deep genetic split exists between the Old World wolves and those in the New World, probably indicating an early date when groups of wolves were geographically separated through waves of wolf migrations over the land bridge from Siberia to the Americas.

Another big surprise was the discovery that based upon genetics alone, the Shih Tzu, which is a primitive breed, is more closely related to a wolf than is a German Shepherd! No, we obviously don’t have all the answers as yet. But thanks to these study results, some of the mysteries of these ancient breeds are being revealed.

Members of a wolf pack exhibit the same affectionate behavior that we see in our domestic dogs (


Source of Primitive Breeds

One of the mysteries that loomed largest was which group of wolves left the wild to become camp followers of humans and, eventually, evolve into domestic dogs. Among bio-geneticists, huge controversies have swirled through scientific papers, books, and symposiums on the topic.

Through many searches of the canine genome, the evidence appears to point to numerous independent centers of dog domestication in widely disparate regions of the world, beginning in the Late Pleistocene. (Seems a rather logical conclusion, doesn’t it?) But with reputations and grant monies on the line, some of the diehards will cling to their pet theories for awhile longer, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

Domestic dogs have evolved from three main areas and [localized] populations of wolves. In genetics, the term for a specific individual or population from which its descendents can be traced is called a clade. A cladogram is the chart that lays out the various descendents from the original clade.


Three Clades

Therefore, one clade would include the European gray wolf, from which the traditionally European breeds of dogs evolved.

A second clade would contain the population of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern wolves whose descendents traveled into North Africa and clear to Cape Point at the southern tip of Africa.

The third clade included wolves that lived south of the Yangtse River in China. Some of their domesticated dog descendents would accompany the series of human migrations out of Asia and into the Americas. Other Asian descendents were part of the human migrations into Polynesia, Australia, and India.

We must understand that there naturally would have been some overlapping of the boundaries and resulting types of dogs, but all of our domestic dogs came from one (or an admixture) of these three clades.



Basal Breeds in Sighthounds

Of the fourteen basal breeds identified so far, three are sighthounds; the Afghan Hound, the Saluki, and the Basenji. These breeds would have descended from the clade of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern wolves. Geographic and cultural isolation of these breeds from European dog breeding influences in the 19th century have contributed to their ancient genetic status, but it is currently impossible to discern which is the oldest. Suffice it to say that the Saluki and the Afghan contributed to the gene pools of a number of Southwest Asian breeds such as the various Tazi sighthounds and even the Mudhol Hounds found in northern India.

Photo Courtesy of Christina Frietag

Although the Basenji shares this ancient heritage, its extreme isolation for centuries in the jungles of Africa prohibited its influence in the creation of other breeds. The ancestors of the Basenji probably migrated into Central Africa from the north. An Egyptian tablet from 2,000 B.C. depicts this type of dog that has a more marked stop and a fox-like, sharply pointed muzzle. Its ears were pointed and erect with a tail that curled tightly over one side of the back. That description certainly matches the Basenji and points to its primitive genetic status.

Three of the ancient basal breeds are from the Sighthound Group. (Wikimedia)


And the Not So Ancient Sighthounds

The Greyhound is a sighthound that has always been presumed to be a primitive breed originating in the Middle East is. However, once scientists could properly analyze its genome, the centuries-hidden truth emerged. The Greyhound has an ancient heritage alright, just not quite as ancient as we had assumed. Along with several other sighthounds, the Greyhound has its genetic roots in Celtic herding dogs.

The Celts introduced the Greyhound into Western Europe as they migrated out of their homeland on the steppes of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Greyhounds and Greyhound-type dogs are common in central Europe, Spain, and the British Isles—everywhere the Celts settled. Actually, as early as 1853, John Henry Walsh, writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge,” made a clear case for a Celtic origin for the breed in his book, “The Greyhound.” Their Celtic origin would place the Greyhound within the European wolf clade.


Greyhounds Throughout History

As further proof of the Greyhound’s Celtic roots, the ancient Greeks were great seafaring traders all along the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Egypt and the Middle East. However, the Greyhound was completely unknown to them prior to 200 B.C., the time of their first encounters with the Keltoi—as they called the Celts—a tribal culture from the north.

In 300 B.C., Xenophon made no mention of Greyhounds in his discussion of dog breeds in his treatise, “On Hunting,” because Greeks only had scenthounds at that time. But two centuries later, the poet Grattius wrote of the Celts’ dogs: “…swifter than thought or a winged bird it runs, pressing hard on beasts it has found.

The Greeks had seen the Celtic Greyhound hunt and they wanted it for their very own. Arrian, another Greek, who wrote in Latin, clearly identified the Vertragus, the predecessor of the modern Greyhound.

The Greyhound has thoroughly Celtic origins. (

The Celtic culture flourished from what is now central Europe, northern Spain, the Middle East, and north to the farthest reaches of the British Isles and Ireland. Everywhere they went they took their dogs with them and left offshoots of the Vertragus. In Spain, it was the Galgo; in the British Isles, it was a bewildering array of sighthounds in a wide variety of sizes and coats, from giant dogs we now call Wolfhounds to “Tumblers” (by contemporary accounts a Whippet-sized dog).

The Celts made no distinction among their sighthound varieties. To add to the confusion, English writers up until the 16th century called all the larger Celtic dogs “Greyhounds,” and the dog we call the Greyhound today, the “Coursing Dog.” Almost all of the Celtic sighthounds have disappeared over the years, but the Scottish Deerhound still remains in its ancient Celtic form.


The Irish Wolfhound

The Irish Wolfhound did his job of destroying wolves so well that this giant Celtic sighthound had all but gone extinct by the end of the 18th century. Without a job to do, breeders ceased to produce them. Through the efforts of dedicated breeders, he was recreated in the 19th century in his present form—a noble, but modern, re-creation of an ancient hound.


The Whippet

The Whippet, then, being an admixture of Greyhound and the now extinct White English Terrier, is totally a Celtic creation, albeit a modern one. It was the miners in the Midlands of England who created the Whippet breed in the 19th century. I’m so glad they did, since Whippets now grace our home and I think the ancient Celts would heartily approve of this eager little sighthound.


Mediterranean Sighthound Breeds

Probably the biggest surprise that has come out of the genetic studies on the origins of the various dog breeds deals with dogs that we had always assumed had an ancient past. The Ibizan Hound and the Pharaoh Hound were supposed to have come down to us from ancient Egypt. (They certainly have a primitive look about them.) At least for these two breeds from the Mediterranean area, their DNA does not indicate a truly ancient history, but rather, more recent re-creations.

This discovery is bound to create a stir among the breeders of the many associated Mediterranean sighthound breeds such as the Cirneco dell’Etna, the Portuguese Podengo, and the Podenco Canario, among others. More DNA studies need to be done of all the breeds from this region in order to gain a more complete picture of the genetic history of the dogs in that area.

An Azawakh demonstrating its light, fluid trot. (


South African Sighthound Breeds

Moving south into what is now South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, indigenous populations had in their villages native dogs with ridges of backward-growing hair extending from behind the withers almost to their hip bones.

Known as Koi Dogs after the Koi people with whom the dogs shared hunting forays, these dogs were definitely a basal breed at the bottom of the trunk of the domestic dog genetic tree. Their signature DNA still resides within the genome of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, even though the Ridgeback is a breed created in the late 19th century. Genomes, however, are permanent. A portion of the Ridgeback’s genetic signature will always include the basal Koi Dog, connecting today’s breed with its ancient past.


Mixing It Up In North Africa

Looking at the sighthound breeds found in North Africa, one might assume that they all came from the same root stock, because they are morphologically (shaped) so similarly. One of the lessons that genetic analyses of dogs has taught us is that we cannot always group dogs by their phenotypes (physical appearance).

The Azawakh and the Sloughi provide cases in point. These two breeds are not closely related at all to the Saluki or the Afghan Hound, or even to the Greyhound. Rather, they belong to a canine grouping called “pariah dogs,” specifically, pariah dogs from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Basenji also belongs to this group. Pariah dogs share a similar appearance and share a primitive origin or semi-feral condition. They exist throughout Africa and southeast and southwest Asia, including the Middle East.

A Sloughi illustrates the classic shape of a Sighthound. (

What sets the Azawakh and the Sloughi apart is their mixture of haplogroups that indicate they are only distantly related to the other sighthounds. They both have male Y haplogroups from European wolves, but their (maternal) mtDNA contains a rare digestive enzyme that only occurs in foxes, jackals, Italian wolves, and a few unrelated, rare dogs found only in Japan. What is going on here?!

It would seem that the Azawakh and Sloughi separated very early from the dog family tree; they are very ancient breeds that may have descended from Asian wolves and may have interbred with African jackals. With further genetic studies of all the sighthound breeds, the Azawakh and Sloughi may well be added to the Basenji, Saluki, and the Afghan Hound as the earliest and most primitive breeds.


Future Discoveries

Sighthounds are among the most ancient of all of the approximately four hundred breeds of dogs recognized worldwide. But because researchers have only had access to the canine genome for a short period of time, they have just begun to examine sighthounds in depth. Studies so far have focused on the origin of domestic dogs or on the genetic diseases in dogs that also afflict humans—in hopes of finding cures. Genetic research is incredibly expensive.

Analyzing the genome of all of the sighthounds may take many years and require funds from the parent clubs and from geneticists interested in the breeds’ genetic origins. No doubt, as more genetic secrets are revealed within the DNA of sighthounds, we’ll have a fuller understanding of their history and their makeup. But no genome can explain our fascination with these intriguing creatures.

A version of this article first appeared in the October/November 2013 edition of Sight & Scent.