Scenthounds and sighthounds: eyes vs. nose!

Narrated from: Special Dogs

Learn the difference from hound to hound!

“Tally-ho, and away we go!” once echoed through the woods of old England, as red-clad hunters spurred their horses in tracking a fox on the run. And of course, there would always be hounds – a whole lot of them in most cases, stumbling in heaps and barking themselves hoarse!

Hounds are probably the most famous hunting dogs. If you are observant, you may have noticed that the hounds leading the hunters on a chase with the fox usually sport big, floppy ears, and look a little, well, stubby. On the other hand, hounds are also famous for dog racing. Racing hounds are elegant, long-legged creatures with aerodynamic muzzles and impressive running capabilities.

Why so different?

It turns out that there is a huge difference from hound to hound. These dogs are exceptional hunters – but tend to catch their game using quite different tactics.

There are two main varieties of hounds, with a large number of famous breeds belonging to each group: scenthounds and sighthounds.

As the name suggests, the main difference between the two hound groups lies in their primary means of tracking prey: eyes or nose. Hunting hounds have been bred for hundreds and even thousands of years separately, so often it is hard to believe that the stocky beagle and the sleek greyhound belong to the same family!

The differences

The sighthounds are the light cavalry chargers of the hound ranks. Sighthounds are bred for sight and speed. They have lean, flexible bodies, long legs, and elongated, aerodynamic heads. It is believed that the first sighthounds appeared about 7 000 – 8 000 years ago, with breeds such as the Saluki being at least 5 000 years old.

Sighthounds also boast one of the largest hearts in the dog kingdom, which works with a pair of efficient lungs to make the sighthound an exceptional sprinter. Their prey includes deer and hares, agile animals that run in a zig-zag fashion and are very hard to catch when startled.

Compared to sighthounds, their scenthound cousins may look like turtles trying to race hares. They usually have rather tough, sturdy bodies, large noses and big, floppy ears. The big ears are the trademark of many scenthounds. It is believed that the shape of the ears actually helps the dogs collect scent from the air.

Scenthounds are exceptionally good sniffers. They are not bred for speed, but rather for endurance, and their task is to track their prey relentlessly – some scenthounds are even able to track scent across running water! Once the prey is located, the hunter is usually alerted by the dog’s baying – and most scenthounds can be heard from great distances!

There are also many sub-groups in the scenthound family, like the coonhounds, also known as Tree Hounds.

OK, who is better? 

Well, there is no answer to that question. Different hounds are supposed to operate in different conditions. In the open, with the prey in sight, a sighthound will have a huge advantage, but in the forest scenthounds hold the upper hand, especially during prolonged hunts.

Both scenthounds and sighthounds are experts at what they do.

Good pets?

Hounds are difficult pets at best. Dogs from both groups can be quite stubborn and are very difficult to train – after all, for thousands of years they have been trained to operate independently!

Scenthounds are generally considered better-suited for a pet’s life. They are not the best-looking dogs, but usually bond well with humans and often get very affectionate. They are also very good with children. However, scenthounds often prove very willful – such a dog can ruin a living space if it gets overexcited, moody, curious or just playful. Scenthounds are also barkers, and often turn into a menace for the whole neighborhood.

However, sighthounds are much more difficult to manage. They have very high energy levels and need to run at least for an hour – every single day! The prey drive also poses a huge problem – prey drive is the urge of the dog to leap after an animal resembling its natural prey.


Many famous dog breeds fall into the so-called “hound group”. Quite a lot of them are not European, and look nothing like the well-known European and American specimens (Basenji, Afghan Hound), while others are so highly specialized than do not look like hounds at all (Dachshund).

The American Kennel Club recognizes 25 different hound breeds, of which 15 are scenthounds, and 10 are sighthounds. 
Some of the well-known sighthound breeds are:

◊ Afghan Hound
◊ Basenji
◊ Borzoi
◊ Greyhound
◊ Ibizan Hound
◊ Irish Wolfhound
◊ Pharaoh Hound
◊ Saluki
◊ Scottish Deerhound
◊ Whippet

While some of the scenthound breeds are:

◊ American Foxhound
◊ Basset Hound
◊ Beagle
◊ Black and Tan Coonhound
◊ Bloodhound
◊ Bluetick Coonhound
◊ Dachshund

◊ English Foxhound
◊ Harrier
◊ Norwegian Elkhound
◊ Otterhound
◊ Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen
◊ Plott
◊ Redbone Coonhound
◊ Rhodesian Ridgeback

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