By Jane Moore
The Cirneco dell’Etna (pronounced “cheer-nay-ko”) is a little hound used in Sicily for rabbit hunting. It is found all over Sicily in particular in the area surrounding Mount Etna where they are specifically bred to hunt on the terrain formed by volcanic lava. The breed has been rigorously selected over centuries for its ability to work for hours in the heat without food and water thus creating the dog we have today: an extremely hardy breed, free from inherited health problems. The Cirneco is very similar to the Pharaoh hound in appearance and shares the same origins in the Mediterranean basin.
The Cirneco is a primitive dog that is one of the few ancient breeds that has undergone very little manipulation by man. It has been selected by nature, by the environment and the use to which it has been put over the three thousand years it has been present in Sicily. Affectionate and friendly, it is considered easier to train that some of its sighthound cousins. The Cirneco dell’Etna is recognised by the FCI (Federation Cynologique International) It is classified in the 5th group as a “primitive hunting dog”.
In Sicily, the Cirneco is usually kept in hunting kennels, but it adapts very well to life in a family and likes nothing more than to lounge on sofas and beds. Cirnechi have been exported to many European countries and are now being introduced into the US where they are proving to be a great success among the “pioneers” of the breed in that country.
At the beginning of this century a Sicilian aristocrat, Baroness Agata Paterno Castello dei Duchi Carcaci, became interested in this ancient breed and studied its origin. At that time most cirnechi (plural of cirneco) were in the hands of peasants who, understandably, due to the prevailing economic situation, relied on the dogs’ hunting ability as one of the few means of obtaining protein. There were no other breeders capable of selecting and conserving the breed type. “Donna Agata” searched all over Sicily and began to select dogs epitomizing the breed. She spent years breeding and selecting and when she was sure she had recovered type and conformation she consulted Professor Solaro, an eminent zoologist who studied the shape, proportions and work method of the dogs. In 1939 the first standard was officially presented, written by Solaro, and at last the Cirneco was recognised officially as a breed. The standard was up-dated in 1989 by the technical committee of the Italian Kennel Club. The first Italian Show Champion was declared in 1952, the bitch “Aetnensis Pupa”, bred by the Baroness.
In 1993 it became obligatory in Italy for any of the breed competing for the Italian Championship to qualify first in a work trial and only subsequently be entered in the Working Class in championship shows; in 2001 FCI changed introduced the same rule for the International Championship.
Cirneco work trials are organised quite frequently in Sicily and every year in March a trial and Breed Show is held in Northern Italy. In this work trial, game is not shot but the dogs’ natural ability to hunt is assessed. The Cirneco characteristically hunts using sight, hearing and scent; it is a delight to watch as it leaps and bounds searching for prey.
Important breeding aims
At the present time size is one of the the main characteristics being addressed by Italian breeders. The standard states 46 to 50 cm with tolerance to 52 cm for dogs and 42 to 46 cm with tolerance to 50 cm for bitches. The Sicilians have always bred small dogs for hunting purposes, but in recent years, some of the most elegant specimens have been successful in the show ring, although over standard height, particularly outside Italy. There was a move some years ago to raise the standard height, this was strongly rejected by the breed club. Another essential characteristic, which is being lost, is the “rustic” coat. In many of the dogs, it is too fine, not all suitable for the job of searching for prey in thick bushes! Too much in-breeding has contributed to the deterioration in the quality of the coat. Another important feature to be taken into consideration when selecting for breeding, is ear carriage. The Cirneco should have strong, parallel, erect ears, with thick cartilage.
Register numbers in LOI and LIR (in Italy)
LOI/ROI -Libro Origine Italiano (official stud book, 4 full generations)
LIR/RSR – Libro Italiano Riconosciuti (open book – Lir 4th generation dogs can transfer to LOI after obtaining at least “Molto Buono” – “Very Good” from a specialist judge in an ENCI National or International Show)
Also a LIR dog who becomes Italian Champion can transfer to the LOI register.
Unfortunately many cirnechi, especially in Sicily, although pure bred for many generations, are not registered.
Below are the number of cirnechi registered with ENCI each year since 1983