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Gabriele Meissen for Mynden, a Norveigan Sighthound Magazine


MYNDEN/Norsk Myndenklubb – nr.3-2014



An interview with Dr. Gabriele Meissen

Dr.Med.Vet. Gabriele Meissen got her first Azawakh in 1986, and the first Tombouktou´s Azawakh litter was born in Germany in 1994. Kennel Tombouktou´s has since been important in the international Azawakh community, and 25 Azawakh litters have been born under this prefix. Gabriele Meissen has participated in A.B.I.S. expeditions to the countries of origin where the main aims have been to study the breed in its natural habitat and to import Azawakhs from Sahel to be included in European and American breeding programs.


Tombouktou´s U´Tidet with Gabrielle, 2010

What was it with the Azawakh that initially fascinated you?

As a young woman I was very fascinated by the smooth coated, long legged French or Italian hounds, for example the Seggugio Italiano or the Bleu de Gascogne. I did not like sighthounds, because I imagined them all with arched loin and the tail between their hind legs, which did not match my understanding of esthetic at this time. In the mid-eighties, the Azawakh was an extremely rare breed and you could hardly find any literature about them, so I had no idea that this breed existed. A weekend in the summer of 1986 I visited a sighthound show in a park, located in a little town close to Frankfurt/M. I went there with a friend, who wanted to look at Deerhounds, and all of a sudden I saw a pair of red, smooth coated sighthounds full of energetic elegance. They seemed to embody my vision of the ideal dog. I was totally captured from this moment on, and this fascination and passion lasts until today. I was too shy to get in touch with the owners of these dogs, but could not take my eyes of them. Later I found an advertisement in a sighthounds magazine and got in touch with Ingrid Aigeldinger, the breeder of the well-known Al Hara´s kennel in Switzerland, who was one of the very few, first generation breeders of Azawakh. She described to me very well the fascinating, special character of the breed, the aboriginal, independent and often distant behavior, which increased my fascination even more. In November 1986 I went to Switzerland and Ingrid entrusted me with my first own Azawakh, Al Hara´s Jaba, a pure Yugoslavian line female of outstanding type.

- To share your life with one or more of this highly intelligent and aboriginal hound is an incomparable adventure.


Tombouktou´s Azawakh and Gabrielle, 2012; Amazzal: female with a sire imported from the Sahel

Can you tell us a bit about your daily life with Azawakh?

I am living only with females. Right now, all of them, except the oldest, Takute´ al Ifriqiya, bred by David Moore in the USA, are born in my house. When I decide to keep a puppy, she lives with me until she dies. I never place any of my adults living with me. It does not matter, if they have grown up to my expectations physically, or if they are successful at shows or do not like shows at all.

My dogs are living indoors with me, no outside kennels, no crates inside. They reside on my sofas and some are sleeping in my bed also. Besides my profession as a vet, the Azawakh are the most important in my life. They are taken out for walks daily and they all get the chance to run free almost every day. I have a variety of several routes, so there is always something new and interesting for them. I always let about two or three of them run free together, so they can chase each other for a while and run out their energy in high speed. When they start to slow sown, I usually capture their interest with some simple search games, like throwing treats, which they have to find. They love this „sniffing“ game and it is holding them back to look around for something to chase. All of them have a quite good recall, something which, in my opinion, is developed over average compared to other Oriental sighthound breeds. They are very quickly and easily trained with positive reinforcement. Giving them a treat when coming back, let them understand in a few minutes what you expect from them to do. The same for „sit“ and „down“. Usually a puppy of 8 weeks or even earlier understands the command after exercising a few minutes. And they will never forget it again. We are going to coursing practice or training on the racetrack now and then, and the puppies are going to puppy school for a few months. I am feeding dry food (with lower protein content) with milk or milk products added in the morning and raw meat with cooked millet (this is their main food in Africa) and all kind of supplements, such as vegetables or spirulina etc. in the afternoon. I would always avoid to feed them with high protein, high fat content, especially growing puppies and adolescent Azawakh. Besides a few rare cases of Radius curvus, they would grow too fast, which can have negative effects on their bones and joints.

What do you think are the greatest differences between Azawakh and other sighthounds?

The Azawakh, as a member of the Oriental sighthound group, is an independent character, but besides their prey drive, this breed has stronger developed territorial behavior and guarding instinct, which is not comparable to „K9 breeds“, but more similar to livestock guardian dogs. I would say that of all the Oriental sighthound breeds (I know about), the Azawakh lives in their Sahelian homeland with the nomads under the most „primitive“ conditions. They are usually not kept in a fenced area, but are just living free around the nomad camps or small villages, similar to pariah dogs, patrolling in a very wide radius, barking at any kind of intruder. They accompany their people for hunts and they share their meals mainly made of millet and milk products. Of course, some of them are also sleeping in the tents of huts, but mostly they dig their own holes in the ground close to a shady place, like an Acacia tree for example. So they definitely belong to a group of primitive dogs with a lower domestication level in my opinion.

There are many myths about the Azawakh, are there any that should be debunked?

I have already lived and bred Azawakh for more than half of my life, and the prejudice against the character of the Azawakh, whose behavior is very often misinterpreted as dangerous or unpredictable, has not changed at all. The reason for this is the misinformation of most people, that there are some important differences in behavior to more domesticated European breeds and most sighthound breeds. The Azawakh, of course in a wide individual variety, which is caused by genetic (epigenetic) influence as well as the socialization at the breeder’s home and later by the owner, has an intense suspicion of the unknown. They are avoidant with new situations and strangers, and reactions can vary from just stepping back and being a bit distant, to hysteria and fear aggression, especially, if the Azawakh has no chance to get out of the way or is not able to keep a certain distance from for example people approaching him. These behavioral traits can be lifesaving in his homeland. Of course the Azawakh can adapt well to modern civilization life in the city as well as in the countryside, when socialized well. They need to live close to their people, in the house. Outside kennels will just produce stronger „Pariah behavior“. They will be even more avoidant, independent and feral.


Tombouktou´s „J“ litter with a large percentage of African blood

I am deeply convinced that besides a close bond to a stable and reliable owner, the Azawakh needs time to be free without commands coming down on him every five seconds. His soul needs some self-determined time to live out its nature and be balanced. All the rumors about the dangerous character of the breed are spread by spread by people who never understood the origin of this breed and the reasons of their behavior. The Azawakh is not really for everybody, but for persons with the right kind of personality, who give them a good socialization, a stable background and patient guidance, this breed is one of the most fascinating. To share your life with one or more  of this highly intelligent and aboriginal hound is an incomparable adventure.

What are the most important advices you give to newcomers in the breed?

Essential for me is early and intense socialization, of course already at the breeder’s house, which has to be continued with patience and consequence and positive reinforcement. It is very important not to try to comfort a puppy which is afraid of something new, because this is positive reinforcement for his fear and avoidant behavior. With patience and time, the puppy should be confronted repeatedly with the situation or object, which has caused his fear reaction and it will get used to it and loose fear (but these are just common educational advices, which are for all kind of dogs, not only for the Azawakh). It is important to give him positive experiences with all kind of people again and again. I take my puppies everywhere, to restaurants, the bank or to the post office. Some people with children take them to kindergarten or school to pick up the children. I spend time with them at the entrance of supermarkets or at a bus station. Just to meet people of all kind and introduce him to various situations. I also let people feed him treats. Most Azawakh would do a lot for food.

When visitors are coming to a home to see the new Azawakh puppy, I never would let people, who are excited about this new addition, approach the puppy, staring at him, bowing down to him, trying to pet him. Just ignore the puppy in the beginning and almost all of them will become curious and will come to meet the visitors after a while. Never let your Azawakh run free when you are nervous or under time pressure. They feel your nervous „aura“ or vibration, and many of them will be hard to get back on leash because of this.

There are voices that call for an Azawakh that is more available confronted with strangers, what are your thoughts about this?

I think these people would maybe feel happier with a poodle? I think to select for more „available“ Azawakh will not only change their behavior, but much of the fascination of the breed will be destroyed. I do not talk about panicking Azawakh, or individuals with increased aggression towards other dogs or people. Of course such individuals should not be integrated in future breeding programs. People always want to see an Azawakh with the attitude of an Arabian stallion, but the personality of a sheep. They don’t understand that both do not go together. I cannot deny, that there are some Azawakh, who are genetically more fearful or has a very low stimulus threshold (as well as in many other breeds), which causes over reactions in response to very small stimuli. Many times when we see behavior like this, it is caused or increased by wrong handling or a deficiency in socialization.


Tombouktou´s Azawakh October 2013, Gabi to the right

 What are your thoughts about genetic diversity, and inbreeding?

Our breed has a very small genetic base. In the beginning in the early 1970s there were two breeding lines. The Yugoslavian line, bred from only three foundation Azawakh imported from Mali and Burkina Faso and the French line, which was based on only seven desert-bred Azawakh, two females and five males. Later, in 1980s, the French kennel Kel Tarbanassen imported three more Azawakh, among them a brindle female and started breeding. So the foundation stock of the breed in Europe is very small. Several Azawakh have been imported since then and many has been used for breeding to enlarge the gene pool, but still the base is much too small for a breed to survive outside Africa in the long run. The inbreeding coefficient as well as the loss of ancestors will increase even with careful selection of breeding partners under this aspect, which unfortunately isn’t the case in the majority of the matings in Europe. Of course the breed also went through the classic „sins“ of intense line breeding and excessive use of popular sires, which has decreased the genetic heterogeneity of the breed even more.

After a time period of using more imported Azawakh in the breeding plans of several kennels in Europe and the USA from about the mid-nineties until the mid two thousands, now a turn back trend to use more dogs with „full“ pedigree for breeding is recognizable, unfortunately.

For more detailed information about the breeding history and genetic perspective of the breed I would recommend to read this article: Back from the Precipice

What are your thoughts about the general competence about the breed among judges?

I really wish we had more breed specialist judges. Old, experienced judges, who still know the „old fashioned“ more authentic type of Azawakh, are more and more retired. Many, not all of course, of the new generation of judges in my opinion, tend to place the more extreme individuals at the top, which supports breeding decisions and sets trends to produce more extreme types. I also wish that we had more judges that know about their special nature and accept that the Azawakh is a distant dog. They don’t need to be touched all over the body like a Golden Retriever. Almost every Azawakh can be trained to accept a teeth and testicle check by a judge. Extreme panic or aggression in the ring should not be tolerated, but I think, a judge should always take into consideration the distant nature of the Azawakh, and avoid approaching them too intense.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenges for the breed today and for the future?

As previously mentioned. the breed is highly endangered by its very small genetic base in Europe and the US. Most part of the Azawakh community will probably not be happy about the following paragraph, and I want to apologize in advance to all the people and new breeders, who really care and want to learn, for the following open words.

I do not deny, that also I love to see Azawakh bred by me winning awards and titles – who would not? Also, I am not against showing dogs, but what I am criticizing is the new fashion of extensive showing on a level which has nothing to do with selecting dogs for breeding, but where the Azawakh becomes an instrumentalized victim of a group of people, who only show to win, no matter what, and also of course adapt their breeding strategies to reach this goal!

The Azawakh, because of the extreme shape and its fascinating attitude is becoming more and more fashionable for this kind of people. This tendency is even increasing right now, because the breed received recognition of the AKC, so also Americans can start showing the „flashy“ Azawakh. The special, aboriginal behavioral traits of the Azawakh, which I have mentioned and tried to explain above, do not make him to an ideal breed for extensive showing (sometimes already with professional handlers around the world, so the dogs have to change environment and also the person, they had developed a bond with, which is completely against their nature).

Of course this growing part of the Azawakh community is only interested in producing new award winning generations of Azawakh and without any deeper knowledge and interest of the breed’s history and genetic problems. They develop breeding strategies to produce even more extreme types for show, they mate Champion to Champion, without even looking at the ancestry, caused by this combination. They are not interested, they ignore or do not even know the basics of modern canine genetic science, or breeding strategies aimed at slowing down the process of losing more and more genetic heterogeneity. I would like to quote a sentence, which I have read recently and describes the situation of the breed very well in one sentence: „The real Azawakh population (in the Sahelian country of origin) is really shrinking – while the show version in Europe seems to be inbreeding out of control. Or, I should say, out of ignorance for the most part.“

Just one recent example: A litter, which was bred out of two highly prize winning breeding partners: In ten generation pedigree of this litter one matador stud appears 17 times in the first seven generations in the pedigree. Another 27 times in nine generations and except five desert bred Azawakh far back in their ancestry, all strains  of this pedigree are in strong line breeding are going back to the very few (13) foundation Azawakhs of the breed in Europe. These puppies will be distributed worldwide, winning shows and being used for breeding, which will be an unfortunate contribution for the decrease of the gene pool again. To speak openly, in my opinion this is a „genetic crime“ towards the breed.


 Jattay, son of Amazzal and a half African sire (50% desert bred again),

already quite successful on shows.

I just had to take the chance to speak out my concerns about this development in open words. The new popularity of the Azawakh among people, who are fascinated by the eye catching appearance of the breed and who are only interested in winning shows and their breeding strategies adapted to this goal, will destroy the work of most of us breeders of the last twenty years.

We have traveled to Africa to bring back new genes, we wrote articles, collected empirical data, and tried to integrate the imported dogs in our breeding to enlarge the gene pool. But now, this new fashion will destroy our efforts to preserve the breed in only a few years. I have to say, I am not optimistic about the future of the breed in Europe and the US. I still hope, some of us will have the chance to import some more dogs out of their original homeland, when the political situation in this region should become more stable one day, to help us breeding forward with a better feeling for some more generations.