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The Azawakh: A Brief Overview

by Daoud Abdullah Abdullah © Copyright 2009

The Azawakh is an African dog of ancient origin. Molded over millennia by both a harsh desert environment and the hand of man, the Azawakh is a creature possessed of unique physical, mental and aesthetic qualities. Historically these qualities have allowed them to serve three distinct and often inextricably interrelated functions: guardian, hunter and status symbol.

Aboriginal to an area approximately the size of France situated in the southern Sahara and the sub-Saharan Sahel zone of the countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, Azawakh are bred and raised there today by the various ethnicities and tribes of the Kel Tamasheq (the clan of those who speak Tamasheq): the Tamasheq, Fulani, Djerma, Songhai, Peule, Hausa, Bella and others. The Tamasheq are relatively recent arrivals to the region, having migrated from what is now Tunisia less than a thousand years ago.. But their highly developed aesthetic is reflected in the sublimity of the high-caste Azawakh, the oska*, exotic hounds of thoroughbred type. The power of the ruling Tamasheq nobility diminished with France's conquest of lands and peoples first subjugated and then dominated for centuries by the Tamasheq. Priorities, including breeding ideals, changed. Today the esteem of the hounds and the wisdom as to their qualities, breeding, and keep is primarily concentrated in the older generation. But the oska can still be found as more or less perfect specimens in the Azawakh population of the Sahel.

Their morphology is austere and architectural, sere and harmonious, sharply contrasting the arabesque loveliness of the Middle Eastern sighthounds, or the rather somber dignity of their close relatives, the Sloughi of North Africa. Almond eyed, lean and graceful, they are at once both familiar and mysterious. They move with a collected, elastic and articulate plastique; their demeanor typically guarded, intense and untamed. There are of course varying degrees of refinement, from the most rustic to the most attenuated and abstract, but the basic structure--that of a short-backed long-legged dog--is consistent.

Their temperament is complex and opaque, a striking counterpoint to the geometric simplicity of their external form. Thousands of years of domestication have not erased their primitive underpinnings. Unlike many modern breeds of dog which reflect compilation, the high-caste Azawakh are a distillation. Original dog---removed of all excess, all dross.

In the West the Azawakh is categorized as a sighthound, but a rigid interpretation of or strict reliance upon this appellation can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Azawakh are highly territorial. Fiercely loyal, they form an exclusive attachment with their master; with strangers, or in unfamiliar situations, they can be extremely reserved and avoidant, if not unapproachable. As with any generalization there are exceptions, but no amount of "training" or socialization can completely over-ride the primordial distrust and suspicion of 'other' which forms the basis for their reactions to stimuli. With their master and with those they trust, they are independent, playful and gentle. Alert to the slightest change in their environment, visitors typically remain under suspicion...or at least a watchful eye.

Azawakh in the Sahel are rarely treated as pets or companions, though companion is their primary role for owners outside Africa. Resilient and adaptable, they conform readily to this role. But for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this overview they are not a dog for everyone.

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