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.
Onto the mainland we’ll make a stop in Portugal before Spain, where the Portuguese Podengo resides. In most countries the Portuguese Podengo has three varieties, the Grande, Medio, and Pequeno. However, the American Kennel Club has recognized the smallest, the Pequeno, as its own breed. Meanwhile the Medio and Grande are lumped together in their Foundation Stock Service. Unlike the most of the Mediterranean sighthounds the Portuguese Podengos were not isolated and over the centuries have were influenced by other breeds. There is dispute as to whether the smaller varieties were bred down from the larger Grande. It seems highly unlikely that they were kept pure as the Grande themselves were crossed by both the Galgo Español and Greyhound. The Grande and Medio were also interbred and in many ways the Pequeno has become more terrier than sighthound.
In Spain there are two breeds the Podenco Andaluz and Podenco Valencíano. Both are not recognized by any major international kennel club. However, they have local Royal Spanish Dog Society recognition. The Podenco Andaluz was denied Fédération Cynologique Internationale status due to its similarities to the Portuguese Podengos. One thing that sets it apart, the Podenco Andaluz has a unique basset-like variety known as the Maneto.
Some have claimed the Podenco Valencíano is the oldest of the podengos. It is even written into its standard at the Royal Spanish Dog Society. However, it is unclear why this is believed. Not enough studies have been done to determine which of the Mediterranean sighthounds arrived before the other - nor is there a way to settle this dispute. Like the Portuguese Podengos the Podenco Valencíano and Podenco Andaluz were bred on land. Which means they were likely crossed with multiple European dogs. Interestingly the Podenco Valencíano can have a wavy coat, similar to the Russian Borzoi.
Off the eastern coast of Spain lies the Balearic Islands, which is the home of the Ibizan Hound. While the islands are their stronghold, the Ibizan was also traditionally found on the island of Crete, the Spanish mainland and France. Indeed, it was once a favorite of French poachers, making it outlawed in that country. Its ties to Crete are especially interesting, as it is home to the Kritikos Ichnilatis, or Cretan Hound.
The Kritikos Ichnilatis is a rare breed, often omitted by most authors. However, these dogs have been present on Crete for millennia. The Kritikos Ichnilatis is not a sighthound, but it is a primitive dog, similar to the Canaan Dog of Israel. It is possible that long ago these breeds shared an ancestry. Some works list is at a possible ancestor of the Cirneco dell’Etna.
The Cirneco dell’Etna has existed throughout Sicily for centuries. Long before it became a hunting companion it was kept as a guardian for sacred temples. These dogs have been found on the faces of several coins, dating back as far as the 6th century BC. Their name may be derived from the Greek word ‘Kyrenaikos’, which was an ancient city in Libya under Greek control. These immigrants were from Thyra and Crete, which once again points to a tie with the Kritikos Ichnilatis. If one were to guess which of these sighthounds is the oldest, it could very likely be the Cirneco dell’Etna.
Lastly we have the National Dog of Malta, the Pharaoh Hound. In their homeland they are known as the Kelb-tal Fenek. Their modern name was given as the breed became recognized by kennel clubs. All Mediterranean sighthounds were once classified as Pharaoh Hounds, a nod to their similarities to the dogs of ancient Egypt. It is unknown exactly when humans first inhabited Malta, and where they came from. Many believe these settlers were from Sicily, which would make a possible direct ancestor the Cirneco dell’Etna.
As DNA advances we will learn more about when and where the Mediterranean sighthounds came from. It is likely more samples will be taken from Pharaoh Hound due to its popularity. Perhaps even the little Portuguese Podengo Pequeno will be included, as it continues to gain ground in the United States. Until then we will have to let their ancestry remain an Egyptian mystery.
See something you don’t agree with? Or have additional information? I would love any insight regarding the Podenco Andaluz and Podenco Valencíano in particular. Please leave me a comment below.