x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Beauty contest for a breed apart

The size and shape of the head, the position of the ears, the sheen of the coat and the structure of the muscles - these are criteria judges used yesterday at Abu Dhabi's hunting and horses show for a pageant of Arabian salukis, the world's oldest dog breed.

Saluki owners show off their pets during the Arabian Saluki beauty contest yesterday. Andrew Henderson / The National
Saluki owners show off their pets during the Arabian Saluki beauty contest yesterday. Andrew Henderson / The National

The size and shape of the head, the position of the ears, the sheen of the coat and the structure of the muscles - these are criteria judges used yesterday at Abu Dhabi's hunting and horses show for a pageant of Arabian salukis, the world's oldest dog breed. Hala Khalaf reports Abu Dhabi // Short, dark and handsome, Barq competed in his first beauty pageant yesterday. He was nervous, of course - so many people were watching, his rivals were stronger and more experienced than he, and the exhibition hall was too cold for the liking of a rail-thin desert dog.

And while in the end this would not be his day in the winner's circle, his time may yet come. "It's OK, he is too young," said his owner, Roberto Ferrari. "Barq can try again next year, when his muscles are more developed." Mr Ferrari, a 35-year-old Italian artist and saluki breeder in Dubai, made the jingling collar of antique silver that Barq wore for yesterday's fifth annual international saluki pageant at the Abu Dhabi Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition. The collar contrasted nicely with Barq's glossy black coat - besides being the youngest dog in the beauty contest, he was also the darkest.

Mr Ferrari led Barq on a circuit of the competition arena, first with the other salukis, then individually, before being inspected by the judge. He impressed the British judge Karen Fisher with his "playfulness". But at the tender age of one, Barq does not have the musculature of a champion, and muscle structure is one of many characteristics judges look for in the saluki breed. The size and shape of the head, the position of the ears, the sheen of the coat, the length of the tail, the condition of the teeth and the length of the snout are also indicative of the standard of a saluki.

More than that, said Hamad al Ghanem, director, breeder and registrar general at the Arabian Saluki Centre, the way a saluki moves, its dominance and stance and spirit as a hunter, are taken into consideration. "Never say dog when you mean to say saluki, it is an insult to this elegant animal," said Mr al Ghanem, a fifth-generation breeder and owner of more than 300 salukis. "With salukis, we protect our heritage and culture and traditions. They are the oldest part of us."

Indeed, the Arabian saluki is considered to be the world's oldest breed, traced back almost 13,000 years, said Mr al Ghanem. Distinguishable from the English greyhound by its ears, the pure Saluki is known for its exceptional stamina, intelligence and loyalty, bred to assist the Bedouins in hunting. Barq is no exception: he was most alert around his master, wrapped around Mr Ferrari's legs. His rigorous exercise programme - daily runs of an hour or two - meant he appeared thin and perhaps underfed to the uninformed.

Mr Ferrari said it was the sign of a hunting dog. "He is not thin, he is just all muscle; you can see how well Barq's coat shines and how light he is on his legs," said Mr Ferrari. Sumaya Viethen, the competition commentator, was impressed by Barq, also calling him playful. "He is trembling and shivering; these salukis do not like the air-conditioned exhibition hall. They want to be out in the warmth of the desert," she said.

Mr Ferrari said his saluki was not used to being around this many people, petted and fussed over. "Barq will be OK. The first time I put a leash on him, he went crazy, and now look at how good he is and how well trained." Other salukis could not control their higly-strung nature so well as Barq. Haddad, a grey saluki, froze in his spot and stubbornly refused to walk in the competition, and Azir, the sandy-coloured winner of the male category of the beauty contest, escaped from his owner's grasp and had to be chased down and made to re-enter the ring.

Two of Mr Ferrari's other salukis, the male Mirage and the female Haifa, were also in the contest. Mirage, in fact, won second place in the male, smooth category. Still, Mr Ferrari has a soft spot for Barq. "Next year, Barq will be the winner, I am sure of it," he said. hkhalaf@thenational.ae How to judge a saluki, at www.thenational.ae/multimedia