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Kelb tal-Fenek


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Il-Kelb tal-Fenek - A Fieldwork Description 

If somebody hears the term "Pharaoh Hound" for the first time, he might be tempted to think this breed is an old Egyptian luxury dog or a new breed, created to get a dog which looks like the animal drawings from ancient Egypt.


But both issues are incorrect: The breed we call by the name 'Pharaoh Hound' is a dog that is used on the Maltese Islands as a rabbit hunter since time immemorial. It was the British, through the misconceived advise from the former UICL (International Union of Sighthound Clubs), who gave the breed its unfounded name 'Pharaoh Hound'. The original name that the breed is called by it's Maltese owners is: 'Kelb tal-Fenek'. This means: 'The Dog of the Rabbit' or 'Rabbit Hound'.

In Malta, the Kelb tal-Fenek is still today kept and used for hunting nearly exclusively by farmers. If hunting in former times was a necessity to obtain food and therefore to solve certain hard circumstances of life, today it is considered a sport and a preservation of an ancient tradition.

Normally the Maltese hunter keeps a whole flock of Klieb (plural of 'Kelb' = dog) tal-Fenek, to make good use of their ability of co-operation. The Maltese especially prefer well co-operating pairs of one dog and one bitch; in Maltese called 'Mizzewgin' (couple). The selection of the dogs is exclusively practised for hunting abilities. This is the reason why the breed could preserve its efficiency (and as the result its beauty) up to our days.

Terrain and Prey

The typical Maltese landscape consists of rocks, terrace fields, rubble stones and rubble walls. The Maltese wild rabbit moves in this difficult terrain with extraordinary nimbleness. It really jumps from one stone to the next and can change its direction of running at one point immediately. Because of the rocky underground, the Maltese wild rabbits do not dig burrows, but hide under rocks, rubble walls and inside the cracks and crevices which are found near the coast.

The main hunting areas are found in the rural south and west of the island of Malta and in most areas of the less intensely populated neighbour island of Gozo. The third and smallest island of the Maltese archipelago, Comino, is a natural reserve so all hunting activities are prohibited. There are no game tenants, but the Maltese generally obey the unwritten rules, and do not hunt in areas which are reserved for other hunters.

The Search

As soon as the hunter has reached an area, which is far enough from the main traffic roads, he lets the hounds off the lead. With their sense of smell, which is remarkably well developed for a sighthound, they start sniffing for their prey. They are always moving away from the hunter and working against the wind, to get the smell of the rabbit early whilst the rabbit does not notice their approach. It is for that reason that the Kelb tal-Fenek likes to wallow in the excrement of rabbits or in any other, intensively smelling material to make his own smell unrecognisable for the keen nose of the rabbit.

It is typical for the anatomy of the Kelb tal-Fenek that this dog can reach a remarkable speed at the trot, although he always has his nose to the ground. The breed also has a high endurance which makes it capable of working throughout the whole night. One never gets the impression the dog is tired.

However, if hunting is practised during the daylight, the dog has almost no chance to surprise a rabbit outside its hiding place. When the dog locates a hidden rabbit, he announces this by loud barking and frantic scratching.

The Work with the Ferret

When the Kelb tal-Fenek announces a hidden rabbit, the hunter covers the shelter with a fine-meshed net. A ferret, carried by the hunter in a basket, is let into the hiding place of the rabbit. The ferret wears a little bell. This bell enables the dogs above ground to follow the sound of the ferret and its prey by using their large, flexible ears. When the rabbit bolts, the leading dog catches it, whilst the rest of the pack (or the partner in a Mizzewgin) is ready to snap if the rabbit should escape the first bite. The kill is practised in every case, whether the rabbit escapes the net through an undiscovered exit or likewise, if it has been entangled in the net.

Since the dogs grow up together with ferrets, they do not consider them as a prey, and there is a natural respect that the dogs have for the little animals with sharp teeth.

The Chase

If the hunting takes place in the twilight or in the darkness of the summer nights, there is a good chance for the dogs to find a rabbit in the open field, because rabbits have to search for food in the dry landscape in larger distances from their hiding places. If the Kelb tal-Fenek has scared a rabbit, he chases it, whilst he barks in the certain sound the Maltese call "Kurriera". In that way the hunter is always oriented where dogs and prey are, although the scene is very difficult to survey because of the darkness and the many rubble walls.

The other reason for the "Kurriera" is also to inform the other dogs so that they assist in chasing the fleeing rabbit. During chase the Kelb tal-Fenek does not only orientate itself on the prey but also takes into consideration the behaviour of his partners as well as the contours and cracks of the rough terrain. Instinctively the slower dogs try to shorten the turns of the rabbit so as to get the chance for the kill. In a well co-operating Mizzewgin often the smaller, nimble bitch takes the part of chasing, whilst the stronger, slower dog cuts the way of the rabbit.

When searching, the Kelb tal-Fenek moves away from his owner and into the wind, but when chasing a prey, he normally drives it towards his master. This instinctive behaviour often makes it possible for the hunter to intervene before the pack lacerates the rabbit.

Because of the difficult Maltese landscape, speed is not the outstanding attribute of the Kelb tal-Fenek as a sighthound, but he shows an extraordinary power in jumping, nimbleness and attentiveness. A good Kelb tal-Fenek is always attentive of the terrain that he is hunting on, and gives due consideration to where he actually treads (although this is not often noticed due to the speed at which this is done). A Kelb tal-Fenek is likewise always aware that his prey will change its direction of running or will bolt into shelter. This is expressed in the breed's style of running on flat ground, which is, compared with a Whippet or Greyhound, a bit reserved. The ears, often laid back in gallop, are erect at every action of the prey as a sign of high attentiveness and strain. People who have seen the terrain on which the Kelb tal-Fenek hunts are quick to comment that other sighthounds would break their legs if they would travel at such speed on this type of ground.

Behaviour if Dog Looses Sight of Prey

If the Kelb tal-Fenek looses sight of the rabbit during the chase he searches through the area by widening circles, using his excellent sense of smell, until he finds his prey again. In difficult terrain the dog sometimes orientates itself by jumping.

The Kill

If the Kelb tal-Fenek catches a rabbit in chase, he grips it by a bite into the neck or back and shakes it until it is dead. Often he makes his prey tumble by hitting it with one front paw in advance.

If the rabbit bolts into a hiding place, the Kelb tal-Fenek announces this, as described previously, by loud barking. This sound is different from the typical "Kurriera", so that the dog's master knows when he can continue hunting with net and ferret.

If there are cracks in the hunting areas, which can be used as shelters by the rabbits, they are covered with nets before the hunting starts. So the rabbit entangles in the net if it tries to jump back into the crack.

Other Uses in Hunting

In the Maltese islands, the Kelb tal-Fenek is not exclusively used for hunting rabbits. Sometimes, although rarely today, he is also used in hunting quail and woodcock. The Kelb tal-Fenek searches and flushes the birds so that the hunter can shoot them down. This is indicative of the breed's excellent sense of smell.

Although it is not common, a few hunters also train their dogs for retrieving the shot down birds or the killed rabbits.

A natural liking of the Kelb tal-Fenek is to hunt hidden mice or rats. If a number of dogs are working together, one can very well see the instinctive participation of tasks which makes a Mizzewgin. Whilst one dog intensely digs, the other dog(s) stand nearby, without looking away from the hiding place of the prey. The erect ears and fine wrinkles on the dog's head show the expression of strained attentiveness. If the prey tries to escape, in every case it will be caught by one of the waiting dogs, if it has not been killed by the digging dog before. This practice of hunting mice or rats is much disliked by the Maltese hunters since it distracts the Kelb tal-Fenek from its true prey - the rabbit. It is therefore very much discouraged.

Other Uses

The Kelb tal-Fenek is traditionally not popular as a pet in Malta. But in the agricultural scope, besides his use in hunting, he also tasks as a guard dog. With his keen sense of hearing he quickly locates the approach of strangers and announces them by loud barking.

Some farmers also use the Kelb tal-Fenek to accompany their flocks of sheep and goats when bringing them to their pasture grounds. But in this use, the Kelb tal-Fenek does not show any intensive work with the flock like a real shepherd dog.


The Kelb tal-Fenek owes his survival and actual appearance to his efficiency, which is the reason that this dog has been pure bred under the specific conditions of the Maltese Islands during these past centuries, following delivered traditions.

To keep a Kelb tal-Fenek outside Malta means to take away this natural framework. It is therefore the obligation of every Kelb tal-Fenek-owner abroad, to bear in mind this Maltese inheritance and to preserve the character and appearance of the breed.

This includes giving the Kelb tal-Fenek the opportunity to use his intelligence and efficiency. Among the possible activities, the participation in lure coursing has an outstanding position. The present fieldwork description of the Kelb tal-Fenek shall give owners and likewise judging officials a chance to better understand of the character and behaviour of this fascinating breed.

However one should never forget the fact that lure coursing can only be an imperfect compensation for the performance the dog has to deliver in its country of origin. The lure coursing trial can never simulate the condition of live coursing. An objective judging of the hunting performance of the Kelb tal-Fenek is - like in all breeds of hunting dogs - only possible during chase of live prey under the conditions of the country of origin.

Jan Scotland