Saluki: The Desert Hound and the English Travelers Who Brought It to the West, by Brian Patrick Duggan. Reviewed by Bryan Cummins.
It is unfortunately true that many dog books, especially so-called “breed books,” are more of the same: reiteration of everything that has been said before (oftentimes incorrect) with updated statistics from the show ring. These books follow the same, tired template: a couple of paragraphs or, in some cases, a short chapter, about the breed’s origins and development; one or more chapters devoted to conformation ring history and notable breeders and kennels of the past; contemporary and recent show dogs and their breeders; a chapter about grooming (especially about grooming for the show ring if the breed needs it); perhaps a (far too thin, in most cases) chapter about training and management of the breed; a slim chapter about the working or field potential if the breed is a sporting or working dog; and possibly another chapter about breed-specific health concerns. Such books always trumpet the breed’s numerous wonderful qualities (great with children, gets along well with other dogs, and so on) while neglecting or minimizing its shortcomings, e.g., sheds profusely, tends to be excessively territorial, will dig if given the opportunity, needs more exercise than the average urbanite can provide, is a nocturnal barker, fights like a demon and will not quit when goaded into battle.
There is a good reason why breed books tend to be so similar in format. The dog world is presided over by breeders whose primary interest is the show ring and selling puppies; hence, the focus on conformation, grooming, and emphasizing the breed’s good points. Sadly, too often very little research goes into books such as these and whatever historical content there is, is reiterated so what one reads in the most current of breed books has been repeated time after time — however false it may be — and, through reiteration, becomes TRUTH. Breed book writers seldom go back to early sources or cross -check what passes for fact and, consequently, there is a great deal of nonsense and rubbish printed about dogs. I recall reading once that only about one-quarter of one percent of dog owners are involved in the showing of dogs. What this means, then, is that these types of books of books are, for all intents and purposes, preaching to the proverbial choir; i.e., only those interested in the conformation dog world. As a result, we get page after page of “Ch. So and So won 16 Bests in Show and sired 46 champions”. For the conformation breeder and shower this validates her kennel but is likely not that important or interesting for the average dog owner.
Happily for the rest of us, there are other genres (or sub-genres) in the literary dog world. These are books for people who like and appreciate dogs as dogs as opposed to people who like showing and breeding dogs. These other books seek to understand and explain canis familiaris as fascinating animals (the only large predator to voluntarily take up residence with us: how utterly incredible!) with their own unique histories and stories to tell. There are, among others, those books that may be deemed “scientific”; for example, Coppinger and Coppinger’s highly readable Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution (2002). There are historical works; e.g., Varner and Varner’s Dogs of the Conquest (1983), and those that I call “ethnocynology”; i.e., studies of dogs in their particular social and cultural contexts. Among these are Messerschmidt’s Big Dogs of Tibet and Hall’s Dogs of Africa (2003). There is perhaps a danger in comparing these types of books with conventional breed books. Because the majority of non-traditional dog books are written by professional academics (all the ones cited above were written by academics with advanced degrees) whereas the opposite is true for most breed books, there is the risk of sounding elitist. Nonetheless, it is also true that professional scholars, for the most part, practice due diligence and do their research, resulting in solid, interesting, well-documented books rather than a rehashing of what has too often been said before.
Brian Patrick Duggan is a Saluki fancier who has bred dozens of champions who also happens to have an advanced degree and works in a university. His Saluki: The Desert Hound and the English Travelers Who Brought It to the West (2009) is evidence that conformation breeders can write excellent breed monographs when the emphasis is not on the show ring. His references run to nine pages categorized as “books and book excerpts, journal articles, newspaper and magazine articles and issues, unpublished and miscellaneous sources, archives, private correspondence and interviews, other primary sources, and Internet sources”. His “Acknowledgements” — in itself interesting for anybody contemplating a book — run to five pages. This is the way to conduct research for writing a book!
One of the attractions of the book — as indicated by the subtitle — is that it focuses on a specific period in breed history. Duggan handles it deftly and well and, in the process, weaves biography and history, all tied together through the Saluki. His time frame is the latter half of the 19th century and the first of the 20th and Duggan does an excellent job of conveying the characters, events, and moods of the times in the Middle East. This is the time of T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) and the much documented, yet still somewhat enigmatic, Gertrude Bell. Author Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West is another English person who was smitten with the breed. Among Saluki fanciers, Florence Amherst, who brought the breed to the West, is probably better known. Duggan relates her story, from childhood to her passing at age 86. Her story embraces the popularization of the breed in the UK and North America and the attendant squabbles over proper “type” and establishment of clubs. For breed fanciers and historians Duggan includes considerable detail surrounding these matters. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum, and the impacts of the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the seemingly endless unrest in the Middle East are all addressed and considered in terms of the Saluki’s history in the West. Much attention is paid, in particular, to the military presence in the region and to the eccentrics (some of them military) who adopted the Saluki as their own, thereby paving the way for the breed’s journey to the West. I especially found fascinating the accounts of hunting with dogs in the desert (the hounds accompanied at times by other breeds such as a tough little Fox terrier named Whiskey). These remind us that dogs had histories and uses long before they became companions and show dogs.
There is much to admire and appreciate in Saluki. Duggan paints evocative pictures of the many characters about whom he writes, people without whom the Saluki would have been much later arriving in Europe and North America. His biographies are substantiated by solid research and punctuated with insightful anecdotes. Equally important and evocative on their own are dozens of archival photographs depicting Salukis and their owners, both Middle Eastern and English, although mainly the latter. Among these photos is the one believed to be the earliest ever taken of the breed. While conventional breed books tend to wax rhapsodical about “pillars of their breed,” Duggan acknowledges pivotal individual dogs in the Saluki’s early history in the West but does not focus on them to the exclusion of more important matters. He closely adheres to the task at hand; i.e., “the desert hound and the English travelers who brought it to the West.” He could easily have followed along a tangent of his own making, but did not.
No book is perfect, of course, and Saluki may not be everybody’s pint of bitter (or “cup of tea,” if you prefer). Some may find the discussions of historical events too detailed for a book about a dog breed and its history — fair enough. Others, and I count myself among them, will find that these provide context and are a much needed part of the overall narrative. Likewise, the biographies of those involved with the breed might prove tedious to some readers and the anecdotes that I find interesting and telling, for others might be irrelevant or worse, boring. Again, in my eyes, they provide colour, background, and context — all part of the breed’s history. A final potential criticism which, again, may just as easily be perceived as a strength, is the fine attention to detail. Duggan is clearly a details person and it shows. Moreover, this fine detail attention reflects the book’s greatest strength: his meticulous research. In short, this is a breed historian’s dream book. The Saluki has another highly desirable (but scarce and correspondingly expensive) book of which I am aware, The Saluki in History, Art and Sport by Hope Waters (1980). Duggan’s Saluki: The Desert Hound and the English Travelers Who Brought It to the West is a fine complement to Waters’ book and equally desirable, valuable and important on its own terms.
Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland. 2009. 315 pages, 56 photos, Glossary, Appendices, Notes, Index, Bibliography. Print edition (softcover) ISBN: 978-0-7864-3407-7. Also available as an e-book — ISBN 978-0-7864-8462-1. Award Winner: Maxwell Award for Best Breed Book from the Dog Writers Association of America; and Finalist: Best Non-Fiction Book with the Alliance of Pure Bred Dog Writers.