It's a dog's life: exotic breeds change face of canine fashion

It looks like an anorexic greyhound on a crash Atkins diet and trots in the style of a showjumper at a dressage event, its bony paws stepping high.

The creature is a pure-bred Azawakh dog, a hunting companion of nomadic Arabs for centuries, and now coming to a park near you.

The Azawakh is a breed showing for the first time this year at Crufts, the world's biggest dog show, alongside three other exotics new to this country: the Eurasier, the Portuguese Podengo and the Pyrenean Mastiff.

Their recognition by the Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, is a sign of the growing popularity of obscure foreign dogs at a time when some traditional English breeds of terrier and spaniel are in danger of dying out.

The Azawakh must be among the most curious of all dogs. This particular Azawakh, known as Lisen, was not hunting for the Tuareg in the desert yesterday, but shivering in the sleet in Green Park where it was being put through its paces for the benefit of the press.

"It's a very fast, ancient pure breed with lots of stamina. The Tuareg have always used them as guard or hunting dogs. If there was a rabbit or a gazelle here he would be after it like a shot,'' said Suzanna Kemp from Derbyshire, the dog's owner. There aren't many gazelles in Green Park and any rabbits were staying in their burrows, but Lisen was still able to strut its curious stuff, accelerating over the grass.

Across the other side of the canine world is the Eurasier, bred in Germany 30 years ago from a combination of Wolf Spitz, Chow Chow and Samoyed to create a user-friendly pet. The Eurasier is domesticated, doesn't need much exercise, only barks if threatened and has non-allergenic hair. Owning something that looks vaguely like a wolf costs £1,000. Stacey Watkins, who owns one, said: "It's the perfect family pet.''

The Kennel Club was recently accused by Country Life of failing to ensure the survival of dogs such as the Sussex Spaniel and the Old English Sheepdog, breeds in which registrations of puppies are declining. The club is working with the breed societies to ensure populations remain stable.

Betty Judge, secretary of the Portuguese Pondengo Club, said dog enthusiasts were taking to overseas breeds because of social changes and a preference for something not found in native breeds. Mrs Judge said: "People don't have the space any more for big, heavy, country dogs. These kind of dogs are more adaptable for your lifestyle."

Crufts 2004 will be held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham from 4 to 7 March.

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