The Mediterranean sighthounds are a group of primitive dogs found throughout the Mediterranean region. They do not have the appearance of the traditional sighthound, such as a Saluki or Greyhound. Their large, upright ears share a similarity with primitive dogs such as the Basenji and Xoloitzcuintli. Even the term ‘sighthound’ can be misleading as they use sight, scent, and hearing while hunting.
Like the Mediterranean breeds we explored last week, the bichons, the history of how these dogs first arrived in the region is debated. They span across islands and the mainland, from the Canary Islands to Sicily, where they have been present for centuries. Unlike the bichons, there is no timeline to follow as these breeds are all said to have existed since antiquity.
The most accepted theory is that they have descended from the dogs of ancient Egypt, similar to the extinct Tesem. Under this belief they would have spread out from Egypt via the Phoenicians, perhaps aided by the Greeks and Egyptians. However, recent DNA testing has attempted to discredit this long-held theory. A often cited study of 80 breeds highlighted 14 that were closest in relation to the wolf, none from this region. I could not find a list of what breeds were used and whether any of the Mediterraneans were among them. Under this new evidence some suggest that dogs of a similar type have evolved in multiple areas at different periods throughout history due to having the same purpose.
Taking the DNA into account some believe these breeds are a modern attempt to recreate Egypt’s ancient dogs. Meanwhile other authors have dismissed them. They point out dogs have interbred with wolves since domestication, skewing the results. Additionally, they do not take explain how all share the same distinct type, not seen anywhere else. It is possible they may have influenced each other's development, particularly on the mainland - but this seems just as unlikely on the islands. None of this explains the ancient pottery and texts that describe them. Therefore further testing would need to be completed before these results are accepted as fact.
Since we lack a timeline, this article will explore the breeds geographically, starting with the Canary Islands and the Podenco Canario. Although found throughout the Islands, the Podenco Canario is most often found on Gran Canary and Tenerife. Whether or not these dogs were brought by the Phoenicians it is known they were established before their homeland was discovered by Spain in the 15th century. Originally they were kept by the native Guanche and while these natives were eventually absorbed by the Spanish settlers their dogs lived on. The Podenco Canario remains rare and is little seen elsewhere, even on the Spanish mainland.
Once again the American Kennel Club (AKC) has released the most popular dog breeds in the United States according to their registrations. No dog lover was surprised to find the Labrador Retriever once again led the pack while the Golden Retriever and German Shepherd Dog rounded out the top three out of 178 recognized breeds.
Aside from the recent rise in the French Bulldog it was a fairly predictable list - but what about the dogs at the bottom of the list? Are these dogs simply new breeds or falling out of favor? Certainly many of their fanciers would tell you they like their dogs being 'unpopular' as over and ill breeding plagues many top breeds. However, these numbers have a downside, as they dip too low it also affects the breeding pool.
In our article we will take a closer look at the bottom ten breeds individually, both by the numbers and as a chance to get to know some 'uncommon' breeds.
#169 - Sussex Spaniel
2013 - #162
2009 - #159
The Sussex Spaniel was developed in the late 18th and early 19th century by A.E. Fuller in Sussex, England. After his death the breed became scarce and barely escaped extinction after WWII thanks to Joy Freer. Despite being saved their numbers have never been strong. In its homeland the Sussex is even more uncommon and is listed with The Kennel Club's (KC) as a Vulnerable Native Breed.
#170 - Canaan Dog
2013 - #164
2009 - #156
In the 1930s Rudolphina Menzel became fascinated with primitive dogs that had survived outside of human intervention in the Negev Desert. Through careful breeding and domestication she adapted these pariah dogs for military work. The Canaan Dog was first recognized by the Israel Kennel Club in 1973, but was not accepted by the AKC until 1989. It is estimated they number between 1200-1400 worldwide.
#171 - Skye Terrier
2013 - #161
2009 - #155
Legend states that the Skye Terrier owes its existence to a Spanish shipwreck that brought a Maltese off the coast of the Isle of Skye which bred with local terriers in the 1600s. Some have suggested that Welsh Corgis or the Swedish Vallhund may have been used in their development. Like the Sussex Spaniel, the Skye Terrier is also listed by the KC as a Vulnerable Native Breed.
#172 - Pyrenean Shepherd
2013 - #169
2009 - #107
The Pyrenean Shepherd has worked with sheep in the Pyrenees Mountains of France for centuries alongside the Great Pyrenees. It is possible that another French herder, the Briard, was used in their development. In their homeland this is a common breed, both as a companion and as a working dog.
#173 - Otterhound
2013 - #172
2009 - #161
Possibly one of the rarest dog breeds today, the Otterhound has existed since the 13th century. Huge packs used to exist throughout England, tasked with hunting the 'vermin' otter from fishing waters. When the killing of otters was outlawed in 1978 this breed no longer had a place in the modern world. Another Vulnerable Native Breed only 22 pups were born in the United Kingdom in 2014.
#174 - American Foxhound
2013 - #176
2009 - #162
The American Foxhound was bred from several European hounds in the 1600s, its main ancestor being the English Foxhound. While AKC registrations are low it is important to note that many American hunting dogs are registered with the United Kennel Club (UKC) rather than the AKC and some packs are not registered with either club.
#175 - Harrier
2013 - #173
2009 - #163
The Harrier may be the oldest surviving scenthound with a documented pack tracing back to 1260. Although never recognized by the KC this breed does still exist in the United Kingdom. Its stronghold is Northern Ireland, where fox hunting is still legal and this breed is the locals' favorite hound for the sport. It is estimated at least 100 packs still exist there.
#176 - Cesky Terrier
2013 - #174
2009 - Unrecognized
A fairly 'new' breed, the Cesky Terrier was not created until after WWII and was not recognized by the AKC until 2011. Still gaining a foothold in the United States it is the National Dog of the Czech Republic and not considered rare in its homeland.
#177 - English Foxhound
2013 - #177
2009 - #164
The English Foxhound has existed since the late 16th century and although fox hunting is outlawed in its homeland it is not considered in danger there. Like the American Foxhound a large number of these dogs in the United States are actually registered through the UKC.
#178 - Norwegian Lundehund
2013 - #175
2009 - Unrecognized
Norwegian Lundehund's were originally developed to hunt puffins off the coasts of Norway and were used extensively for this purpose from the 1600-1800s. One puffin hunting became illegal the breed became rare and was almost extinct after WWII and two distemper outbreaks. Today there are somewhere between 1500-2000 dogs worldwide, most remaining in Norway.
In the end popularity really comes down to where you are located (although the Labrador Retriever still reigns supreme in many countries). Most of these 'rare' breeds still have high numbers in their homelands, or even with other kennel clubs in the United States. Of these ten only three breeds (all from the United Kingdom) have dangerously low counts worldwide - the Sussex Spaniel, Skye Terrier and Otterhound.
To many this may seem the word endangered or vulnerable is too harsh to use to describe a dog breed, as they are all one species. After all, what place does a dog bred to hunt otters have in the modern world? Still, they are a living piece of history and to their fanciers they are the only breed that matters.