The Cirneco dell'Etna is a small hound-type dog used in Sicily for rabbit
hunting and commonly misnomered as the "Sicilian greyhound" when translated.
It is found all over the Italian island and
particularly in the area surrounding the active volcano, Mount Etna, where
the dogs hunt on terrain formed by volcanic lava. Its presence in Sicily is
noteworthy as one of the few ancient breeds that have undergone very little
manipulation by man. Instead, the breed has been rigorously selected by
nature for its ability to work for hours in the heat without food and water.
Thus, the dog we have today is an extremely hardy breed, free from inherited
health problems. Affectionate and friendly, it is considered easier to train
than some of its sighthound cousins. The Cirneco dell'Etna is registered as
an Italian breed with the Italian Kennel Club (ENCI) and the Federation
Cynologique International (FCI) where it is classified in the fifth group as a
primitive hunting dog.
The first impression when observing a Cirneco, with its stunning tan
chestnut color, triangular shape prick ears and long pointed muzzle, is
that we are looking at a miniature Pharaoh Hound. The similarity is
striking, but the discerning eye will soon note the substantial difference in
the conformation of the two breeds. In fact, careful examination and
comparison of the FCI Cirneco dell'Etna breed standard with the AKC Pharaoh
Hound standard reveal eleven points where ideal breed characteristics differ
most notably in size and shape. The Cirneco is smaller, with a maximum height of
19.69 inches for males and at 18.11 inches for females (versus the Pharaoh Hound
maximums of 25 and 24 inches respectively) has a square outline and other differences including ear set, tail shape and set and color markings.
"Cirneco" is pronounced "cheer-NAY-ko" and its plural is Cirnechi
(cheer-NAY- kee). Most linguists believe that the word "Cirneco" is derived
from the Greek "Kyrenaikos", that is "cane cirenaico", or dog from Cyrene,
in what is now Libya in North Africa. The name first appears in writing in a 1533
bylaw in Sicily imposing sanctions against anyone using "cernechi" for
hunting, as they were considered damaging to prey.
Origins of the Cirneco dell Etna
The Cirneco has been in Sicily for thousands of years. Most authors
that the origins of the hound-type dog lie among ancient Egyptian prick-eared
dogs. Bas- reliefs discovered along the Nile and dated around 4000 B.C.
depict what could be the Cirneco today. Most probably, the Phoenicians
spread these prick-eared, hound-type dogs as they sailed along their trade
routes between Northern Africa and the Mediterranean coasts. Ancient records
of hounds with upright ears and a pointed muzzle are found in many countries in that part of the world.
The Italian cynologist and author, Fiorenzo Fiorone, deduces from the
absence of a true "hound" in Sicily, that the Cirneco is the result of a
progressive adaptation of the dogs left by the Phoenicians along the coasts
of Sicily. He suggests that the lack of wide-open spaces, the limited food available for the dogs and continuous inbreeding produced a sort of "miniaturizing
effect" which is common to all the animals of the Italian islands.
The most vivid proof of the presence of the Cirneco in Sicily for at
least the past 2500 years is the many coins minted between the 5th and 3rd
centuries B.C. depicting exemplars of the breed. In particular, the Cirneco
is used on coins minted at Segesta, with about 150 variations occurring on
silver coins and about 100 on bronze coins. In other Sicilian towns,
including Erice, Piakos, Motia and Palermo, the dog had symbolic/religious
significance and was often depicted by the local mint. Many coins made by
the Mamertini, a band of Italian mercenaries who conquered Messina in 286
B.C., depicted the Sicilian god Adranos, personification of the Etna volcano,
on one side and a Cirneco on the other. Specimens of this type of coin exist
at the Syracuse Museum, the British Museum in London, the Camerata private
collection in Sicily, and the Cobb Institute of Archeology at Mississippi
Other pieces of art which testify to the presence of the Cirneco in
ancient times are the mosaics of the Roman Villa Imperiale at Piazza Armerina
(Enna, Sicily), built in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. and a beautiful
"lekithos" found at Cuma and dated circa 380 B.C., conserved in the Museum of
Fine Arts/Boston, depicting a team of five hound-like dogs very similar to
the modern Cirneco.
Cirnechi can be found all over the island of Sicily but the cradle of
breed is considered the area surrounding Mount Etna. In 400 B.C., Dionysus
was said to have built a temple dedicated to the God Adranos on the
southwestern slope of the volcano, just outside the city of Adrano. Many
dogs were bred there and legend claims that a thousand Cirnechi guarded the temple.
These dogs had the divine ability to recognize thieves and disbelievers,
whom they attacked. They also accompanied and guided pilgrims to the temple,
being particularly benevolent to those visitors who showed signs of being
intoxicated. In 1973, when Fiorenzo Fiorone published his book "Cani da
Caccia" (Hunting dogs), he reported there were still a few thousand
Cirnechi in the area of Adrano.
Modern History of the Cirneco dell'Etna
The Cirneco was rarely seen and little known outside Sicily until 1932.
that year, Dr. Maurizio Migneco, a veterinarian from Adrano, published an
article in the journal il Cacciatore Italiano (The Italian Hunter) denouncing
the state of oblivion into which this ancient Italian breed had fallen. The
Cirneco's cause was taken up by a group headed by the Baroness Agata Paternò
Castello of the Dukes of Carcaci, a Sicilian aristocrat who was to dedicate
the next 26 years to the development of the breed, until her untimely death
in 1958. The Baroness thoroughly studied this ancient hunting dog and its
origins. At that time, most Cirnechi were in the hands of peasants and there
were no breeders capable of selecting and conserving the breed type. "Donna
Agata" searched all over Sicily and began selecting dogs epitomizing the
breed. She spent years breeding and selecting under the kennel name
Aetnensis. When she was sure that she had recovered type and conformation,
she consulted Professor Giuseppe Solaro, an eminent zoologist, who studied
the dogs' shape, proportions, and work method. He wrote the first breed
standard, which was approved by the Italian Kennel Club (ENCI) in 1939, only
seven years after Dr. Migneco's cry for action. At last the Cirneco was
recognized officially as a breed with the name "Il Cirneco dell'Etna". The
first Italian Show Champion was declared in 1952: the bitch Aetnensis Pupa,
bred by the Baroness. The Breed Club, recognized by ENCI in 1956, was
founded in 1951 in Catania with Dr. Migneco as its first president. The Club
secretary was "the lady of the Cirnechi" herself, Donna Agata. ENCI s
Technical Committee updated the breed standard in 1989 to bring it in line
with the FCI format.
In the 50 years since the proclamation of the first Show Champion, the
Cirneco has been bred consistently in Sicily and on the Italian mainland.
Cirnechi have also been exported to many European countries where their
elegant conformation has helped make them a success in the show ring and many
have become FCI International Show Champions. The dog's
affectionate temperament and adaptability make it an excellent family companion. In France, Finland and the USA, Cirnechi participate in official Lure Coursing Events and many have become champions in this discipline. In its home country Cirnechi are run in Field trials and participate in Agility competitions.
The Cirneco dell'Etna, a dog of antiquity, has emerged as a resilient
and hardy breed in its evolution into the twenty-first century.
Bonatti Nizzoli di Carentino Giovanni, Note per una monografia sul Cirneco
dell'Etna (Canis Etneus), 1972, Il Cacciatore Siciliano
Capra Ernesto e Giovanna, Le Quattordici Razze Canine Italiane,1995, EOS Editrice Oleggio
Fiorone Fiorenzo, Cani da Caccia, 1973, De Agostini
La Commare Alberto, Il Cane degli Dei, 1998 No.5, I Nostri Cani, ENCI
Modica Felice, Il Cirneco dell'Etna, 1996, Habitat Editori, Siena
Sciara Filippo, Il Cirneco di Sicilia, Evoluzione Attraverso i Secoli, No.9/1994, Il Progresso Veterinario,
Tricomi Domenico, Il Cirneco dell'Etna, 1998, Edizione Cinque, Biella
Urzi Giuseppe, Il Cirneco, 1998, ENCI Milano
Urzi Giuseppe, Il Cirneco dell Etna Monografia, 1997 No.3, I Nostri Cani, ENCI
Urzi Giuseppe, Ricominciamo da Zero, 1995 No.3, I Nostri Cani, ENCI
FCI, Cirneco dell'Etna Breed Standard, published November 11, 1989
AKC, Pharaoh Hound Breed Standard, as Approved May 10, 1983, Effective April