This past Monday and Tuesday was the Westminster dog show, airing shortly after Sunday’s formal introduction of a new dog breed: the Azawakh. You may recognize the Azawakh from their first big appearance at the 2019 Thanksgiving National Dog Show. The Azawakh officially made its debut in the United States in the mid-1980s, and were granted full American Kennel Club (AKC) recognition to participate in all AKC events in January of 2019. Six dogs competed for the title of Best of Breed, awarded to a two-year-old dog named Azamour Anbar, bred by Francesca Zampini and owned by Pippi Guilfoyle. Azamour Anbar did not place in the group judging, which is to be expected of new breeds.
Despite their delicate appearance, the Azawakh is an ancient tough and durable hunting breed from the Sahara. Bred to hunt gazelle, hares, and boars, Azawakhs are built for speed and endurance. They also happen to look skinny. Like, really skinny. To the point that the comments section of every appearance of this breed is filled with pretty much nothing but people saying the dog is emaciated, or that the owners should be arrested for animal abuse. Indeed, many healthy sighthound owners have tales of animal control being called on them.
But here’s the thing – they’re supposed to be that thin. Azawakhs are considered sighthounds, the same category that includes but is not limited to Greyhounds, Salukis, and Whippets, breeds that are also often accused of being underfed. Sighthounds are built for speed, and as such their bodies are skinny and have features such as high hips and a pronounced ‘tuckup,’ or waist, that allow them to be more aerodynamic and efficient. They have low stores of body fat and a uniquely high metabolism that is so efficient that many sighthounds are intolerant to certain types or doses of anesthesia. Form follows function, and these breeds look the way that they do and are built in these specific ways to allow them to reach the high speeds and athleticism that defines them.
The official AKC breed standard for the Azawakh states that “in correct weight a minimum of three to five ribs and hip bones should be visible.” This is not an aesthetic choice, but rather a standard that is upheld for health reasons. If the bones are not visible in this breed, that indicates that they are overweight and putting dangerous levels of stress on their joints.
You may have heard the common rule of thumb, “if you can see the ribs on a dog they are underweight.” While this is useful for many breeds such as Retrievers or Shepherds, this advice can be dangerous for sighthounds. Consider the difference in build of an Olympic runner compared to that of a wrestler – they have different body types because of what their different jobs demand; the same is true for dog breeds.
Additionally, pet owners become so concerned with their dogs being underweight that they neglect to realize that a significantly more common problem is obesity, one of the most common medical conditions in canines. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs are overweight, and over half of those are considered obese (defined as being more than 30% over their ideal weight). Meanwhile, a combined 1.1% of dogs fall into the categories or too thin or thin-healthy.
More than half of the dogs that you see are overweight, many of them dangerously so, but you will very rarely see one that is too thin. This has resulted in people developing a warped vision of what a healthy dog actually looks like, meaning that an overweight dog is more likely to be perceived as the ideal fitness of a dog. The irony is not lost on me that the majority of people commenting, misinformed on the weight of a healthy breed built for speed, likely have an overweight dog themselves.
To me, the comments by the public about how “dangerously thin” the Azawakh is and how their owners ought to be arrested is indicative of a larger problem. The issue is not that these sighthounds are too skinny; the issue is that people don’t know the basics of canine health.
Too often, people’s dogs are in danger because their owners are misinformed or ignorant. Of course we all want what’s best for our pets. But people lack the education to properly do so, and this is reflected in the comments I see regarding breeds like the new Azawakh.