History

Let’s begin at the beginning.  Recent investigations into the canine genome and mitochondrial DNA have revealed that the Greyhound breed probably isn’t of north African/Saharan orgin, as had long been romanticized.

They were likely not the legendary dogs of the Pharaohs.  Their DNA is different from those desert breeds and unique.  They are more likely to have emerged on the plains in Eurasia.  They were probably first brought to Western Europe by the Celts.  Stonehenge, a 19th century chronicler of the breed, had promoted that idea longer before modern hard science lent it credence. Dennis McKeon.

Everything You Know Is Wrong by Martin Roper, Feb. 2008

A long-held belief, published as fact in dozens of books and repeated on hundreds of web sites, is that the breed is of Egyptian or Middle-Eastern orgin.  The assertion is puzzling because there are no Greyhound breeds presently residing in the Middle East.  The Saluki, Sloughi, and Afghan Hound are clearly of a different type than modern Greyhounds, and it’s hard to imagine that they descend from a common ancestor.  On the other hand, Greyhounds and Greyhound-type dogs are common in central Europe, Spain and the British Isles.  As early as 1853, John Henry Walsh, writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”, made a clear case for a Celtic origin for the breed in his book “The Greyhound“, but not too many authors since him seem to have been able to make the same connection.

From the beginning of the first millenium B.C., the Greeks were seafarers and traders and regularly visited ports all along the southeastern Mediterranean in what is now Egypt and the Middle East.  Much of what we know of that area in those times was recorded by Greek historians and there is no mention of Greyhounds.  The breed was completely unknown to them prior to 200 B.C., the time of their first encounters with the Keltoi, as they called them, a tribal culture from the north.  In 300 B.C., Xenophon made no mention of Greyhounds in his discussion of dog breeds in his treatise “On Hunting“.  Two centuries later, the poet Grattius wrote of the Celts’ dogs that. “…swifter than thought or a winged bird it runs, pressing hard on beasts it has found.”  Arrian, another Greek, but who wrote in latin, clearly identified the Vertragus, the predecessor of the modern Greyhound.

The Celtic culture flourished from what is now Austria, west to northern Spain, and north to the farthest reaches of the British Isles and Ireland.  Everywhere they went they took their dogs with them and left offshoots of the Vertragus. In Spain it was the Galgo; in the British Isles, it was a bewildering array of sighthounds in a wide variety of sizes and coats, from giant dogs we now call Wolfhounds to “Tumblers”, by contemporary accounts a Whippet-sized dog.  The Celts made no distinction among their sighthound varieties.  To add to the confusion, English writers up until the 16th century called all the larger Celtic dogs “Greyhounds”, and the dog we call the Greyhound today, the “Coursing dog”.  Irish Wolfhounds in those days were prized in Europe for hunting Boar, and the demand for the Greyhounds “of the Irish type” was great and they fetched tremendous prices.

The present Greyhounds, the ones we love, are the result of the coursing craze after the death of the Forest Laws in the 17th century which prevented commoners from coursing or even owning Greyhounds. The coursing rules of the day dictated a very specific range of performance and traits, and those are the ones we see in our dogs today.  Almost all the varieties of Celtic sighthounds disappeared.  Even the Irish Wolfhound is a re-creation of a breed that had all but gone extinct.

Two recent landmark genetic studies have confirmed Walsh to be correct.  The first, “Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog” (1997), traced the mitochondrial DNA from ancient times to the present day Greyhound. Interestingly, three other breeds derive from the same strain, the St. Bernard, Miniature Schnauzer, and the Irish Setter, which suggests male-line introductions of other breeds to Greyhound-line females who were the foundations of those breeds. All three originate in areas where Celtic culture flourished.

The second, and more definitive study, “Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog” (2004), used Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), clumps of identical DNA strings that appear in groups of breeds, but often not in others.  The study clearly showed that Salukis and Afghan Hounds were part of an “Asian” group along with the Chow, Akita, and Shar-pei.  Predictably, the Greyhound appeared in what I’ll call the “Celtic” group along with the Irish Wolfhound, but also as a progenitor fo more recent breeds including the Whippet, Borzoi, Belgian Sheepdog, Belgian Tervuren, Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, and the St. Bernard.  A glance at a map clearly shows that all those breeds originate within the influence of Celtic culture in Europe.

It’s time the Celts got their due as the caretakers of the breed, not Egyptian Pharaohs or Mesopotamian kings who never saw a Greyhound.

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