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These dogs specialize in pursuing prey, keeping it in sight, and overpowering it by their great speed and agility. They must be able to detect motion quickly, so they have keen vision. Sighthounds must be able to capture fast, agile prey such as deer and hare, so they have a very flexible back and long legs for a long stride, a deep chest to support an unusually (compared to other dogs) large heart, very efficient lungs for both anaerobic and aerobic sprints, and a lean, wiry body to keep their weight at a minimum. The typical sighthound type also has a light, lean head, which is referred to as being dolichocephalic in its proportions. This shape can create the illusion that their heads are longer than usual. Wolves and other wild dogs are dolichocephalic, but some domesticated dogs have become brachycephalic (short-headed) due to artificial selection by humans over the course of 12,000 years. Dolichocephalic breeds have a wider field of vision but smaller overlap between the eyes and therefore possibly poorer depth perception in some of their field of view than brachycephalic breeds; most, if not all dog breeds have less visual acuity than their antecedent the wolf. There is currently no science based evidence available to confirm the popular belief that sighthounds have a higher visual acuity than other types of dogs. However, there is increasing evidence that dolichocephalic breeds, thanks to a higher number of retinal ganglion cells in their “visual streak”, retain more heightened sensitivity than other breeds to objects and rapid movement in the horizontal field of vision.
Sighthounds such as the saluki/sloughi type have existed for at least 5,000 years, with the earliest presumed sighthound remains appearing in the excavations of Sumer dated approximately 7000–6000 BC. The earliest description of a sighthound in European recorded history comes from Arrian's Cynegeticus, of the 2nd century AD. Although today most sighthounds are kept primarily as pets, they have been bred for thousands of years to detect movement, chase, capture, and kill prey primarily by speed. They thrive on physical activity. Some have mellow personalities, others are watchful or even hostile towards strangers, but the instinct to chase running animals remains strong.
Apart from coursing, open-field coursing, and hunting, various dog sports are practiced with purebred sighthounds, and sometimes with Lurchers and Longdogs. Such sports include racing, lure coursing, and other events.
There has been considerable debate in many quarters about what breeds are considered to be sighthounds. This is partially because most Anglophone kennel clubs, the KC and AKC, do not have a "Sighthound" group per se, where they are included in the larger "Hound" group. Nonetheless, the Old World (FCI) understanding of the sighthound is quite clear and well documented: sighthounds are gräoid (greyhound) shaped dogs, which owe their specific build to their recorded function of speed hunting.
While this debate may simply appear to be a matter of semantics, it is of deeper importance when categorizing breeds through a thorough understanding of their true history and function. The original, authentic and documented use of a breed is paramount in deciding its category as a hound, sighthound, working dog, toy breed, etc. It is also of practical concern where the sport of lure coursing is concerned, which is typically only open to breeds which may be considered to be sighthounds by the host breed clubs (in North America, particularly the USA) or the organizations that govern the sport (elsewhere).
For instance, the Canadian Kennel Club(CKC), the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the American Sighthound Field Association (ASFA) consider the Basenji, originally a breed that tracks and drives game, to be eligible for the purpose of lure coursing even though the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) does not. The Basenji is far from alone in this. The Rhodesian Ridgeback, was actually classified as a gun dog by its founding parent club for several decades, only to be changed much later. Since that time the Ridgeback has been mired in a perpetual "classification conundrum", and is considered to be a scent hound by the FCI.
Other breeds that fall into varyingly gray areas include the Ibizan Hound, Pharaoh Hound, Cirneco dell'Etna, all originally rabbit hunting and retrieving scent hounds, the Portuguese Podengo, Peruvian Inca Orchid, and the Thai Ridgeback. All of these breeds are recognized as eligible to compete in lure coursing trials by either the American Kennel Club and/or the American Sighthound Field Association, but may not be by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale.
Many hunting dog types capable of hunting by speed and sight are not recognized as sighthounds, either informally or formally by a major kennel club. These include:
A number of breeds, which do not hunt solely by speed and sight, as well as a number of non-hunting breeds, are currently being recognized as sighthounds, either informally or formally by kennel clubs, or lure and live coursing clubs. These include:
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