Salukis: a very special breed

Salukis helped generations of Bedouins to survive, and are still held in special esteem by owners in the UAE.

United Arab Emmirates - Abu Dhabi - Aug 28 - 2008 :  Nine weeks old  saluki dog puppyes at the Arabian Saluki Center in Abu Dhabi. ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP102 - SALUKI DOG.jpg
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Spend a few minutes in the spacious, air-conditioned kennels of Abu Dhabi's Arabian Saluki Center, where hounds exercise in a swimming pool and eat dishes cooked with olive oil, and you appreciate how important salukis are in the UAE. Back when Bedouins were relying on the desert for subsistence, salukis were so valued for their intelligence, obedience and hunting skills that they shared their masters' food. Nowadays, when people can get dinner simply by driving to the nearest supermarket, the hounds are no longer a necessity. But for a number of people not willing to let go of the skills that enabled their forefathers to survive the harsh desert life, salukis are a passion.

And no one is better qualified to explain this relationship between man and hound than Hamad AlGhanem, the centre's director and a man whose family has been breeding salukis for five generations. "Because of the city life, people forgot about [the] saluki," said Mr AlGhanem. "[But] they are still important in a way that we now focus more on quality rather than quantity." Mr AlGhanem has registered almost 3,000 salukis in the Gulf, more than 700 of them belonging to UAE owners. For a hound to be registered, the owner must provide details of its parents and grandparents.

"We cannot register any saluki," said Mr AlGhanem. Only those with pure lineage are recognised. A strong, well-trained hound can be worth thousands of dirhams. Mr AlGhanem recalls the owner of one particularly adept hunting animal refusing an offer of Dh100,000 Sensitive, intelligent and dignified, salukis are good guard dogs, too. Mr AlGhanem relates a story from his family's farm, where they raise camels and salukis: "If, at the end of the day, we don't see one saluki, it means a camel is missing," he said. This makes it easy for a herder with a number of animals to keep track of them. It would be difficult to spot a camel missing from a large herd, but a saluki's disappearance is noticed immediately, and it usually means it is guarding the lost camel.

"They will stay and watch them quietly," explains Mr AlGhanem. What are the attributes of a good saluki? It is a combination of the animal's physical qualities and its character, said Mr AlGhanem. A good hound will have thin but long and strong legs, a lean body and a large chest with strong lungs - all features that enable it to run fast. Salukis can hit speeds of up to 75kph, which they can maintain for three to four kilometres. They generally live to the age of 18 to 21.

There are two types of saluki - smooth and feathered; the latter, as the name suggests, have feathering on the back of the legs and the underside of the tail. Salukis come in four colours - sandy, red, white and black. Each colour has many nuances. While dog competitions in the West focus mainly on an animal's physical appearance, UAE judges also examine a hound's character. A good saluki will be so obedient and have such self-control it can catch prey and carry it alive to its master.

It should not only be able to outrun the fastest of desert wildlife, but also to choose which ones to catch and which to leave alone - females and very young animals are strictly off bounds, said Mr AlGhanem. "This is not a civilian city dog, it is a hound for hunting," he said. "We do not use guns. If something flies, we use the falcon, if it runs - the saluki." This insistence on the hounds' practical value has deep roots. In a frame outside his office at the centre, Mr AlGhanem keeps a print of the Surat al Maeda - a part of the Quran which mentions that the catch of birds of prey and hounds can be eaten by man. This is why salukis shared the lives of Bedouin tribes for countless generations.

"Salukis are the original breed of Arabia," said Mr AlGhanem, explaining that the history of the breed goes back between 9,000 and 11,000 years. The hounds, said Mr AlGhanem, were named after a tribe in Yemen. The tribe, living north of Aden, are called Bani Saluk - after a shield they used to carry in battle. "They are well-known hunters and warriors," he said. "They always had dogs with them for hunting."

Slowly the tribe's name became assocated with their hounds. As the dogs spread throughout Arabia, the name stayed on. Salukis appear on paintings and carvings from ancient Egypt. Mr AlGhanem has also found a carving in a famous castle near Petra, Jordan. The hounds were taken to the West in 1840, and in 1921, owners in Europe started registering their salukis. As of 2003, there were 25,000 salukis in 12 European countries, said Mr AlGhanem, whose frequent travels to promote the breed have earned him the nickname 'the saluki ambassador'.

Salukis in the West are bigger than their Arab cousins, who have to keep lean and fit to be in shape for hunting. Hunting is now forbidden in the UAE, but wealthy owners and their hounds and birds go on trips in Pakistan, Morocco, Sudan and Mauritania. As in the old days, salukis still enjoy a special place and will share their masters' food, Mr AlGhanem said. This is why the dishes prepared daily for the dogs at the Arabian Saluki Center are like home cooking - but healthier than in many homes. Salukis, said Mr AlGhanem as he walked around the centre's spotless kitchen, have a diet of eggs, mashed vegetables, mashed beans, minced beef, chicken and rice. The hounds have have two meals a day - breakfast between 7am and 9am and supper between 3pm and 5pm. Occasionally they get some dry food and a piece of saluki muffin - a mixture of flour, dates or honey and spices. They are also spoiled with pollen water - water with drops of date palm tree nectar.

While the salukis' diet could appeal to some humans, their strenuous exercise routine would put off the most hardened of fitness fanatics. When it is too hot to train at the centre's spacious exercise area, fitted out with various devices to boost the animals' balance, stamina and self-control, salukis are taken out for a swim. But the real work starts once they are transferred from the kennel to a larger training ground in Remah, 30 kilometres away from Abu Dhabi, where they can run freely across acres of desert. From the more than 40 hounds at the kennel, most - with the exception of a couple of 15-year olds who are too old to do extensive running - are to be transferred to Remah soon. "We keep them here [at the kennel] for a maximum eight months as they love open spaces and have to exercise," said Mr AlGhanem.

As he walks through the centre, where each kennel has a separate outdoor area, he points out several canine couples with puppies. "They live as a family," he said, explaining that the parents are left with the youngsters so they can pass on skills. A litter consists of anywhere from six to 11 puppies. This means that the number of hounds at the centre could be much higher,but Mr AlGhanem said his focus is not to get the animals to produce as many puppies as possible.

"This is the approach of commercial dog breeding; we try to do things in a traditional way. Our females do not breed every year. They lead a full life, hunting and running around... a female will breed only three to four times in her lifetime." A male has to be mature, aged between two and three, and a good hunter, before becoming a father. All this, said Mr AlGhanem, is done with the objective of breeding top-class hounds.

"We have to put the name up by breeding good quality."