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Moving to Southern Illinois was a happy coincidence for Vicki Blair.

Growing up in upper Michigan, Blair had a long-time fascination with Salukis — the dog. But, she had never heard of the Salukis — the team.

“I was interested in them when I was in grade school,” she said. “When we studied the Middle East I thought they were a fascinating breed. I never lost interest in them.”

Blair was still unaware of the Southern Illinois University Salukis when she and her husband moved to the area about 30 years ago. The Blairs moved to Southern Illinois when Jim, her husband, who worked in the federal justice system, was transferred to Marion.

“He called me at work one day and told me we’re going to Southern Illinois, around the Marion area,” Vicki said. “I said, ‘Exactly where is that?’ because I truly had no idea, but it’s really been wonderful for us. Our children have been raised here. Our daughter is a graduate of SIU and I have a granddaughter that is seriously looking at going here.”

A short time after arriving in Southern Illinois, the Blairs became aware of the SIU Salukis. The coincidence was too good to pass up. Now, the Blairs and a pair of their Salukis are fixtures at SIU basketball and football games.

“I had developed a close friendship with a breeder in Florida before that,” Vicki said. “Generally, Saluki breeders don’t breed often and when they called me and said they were having a litter and asked me if I wanted a puppy ... that started it all.”

By all, Blair means her family has had a total of 16 Salukis. They currently own 10. The animals have the run of their home and property near Energy. Salukis are a generally healthy breed, not susceptible to hip dysplasia or other ailments. Their life expectancy is 14 to 16 years.

Generally speaking, Salukis don’t require a lot of care. They need grooming and exercise. They aren’t emotionally needy. Yet, they aren’t a popular breed like Labradors or Yorkies.

It may have something to do with their DNA. Salukis are the oldest known domesticated breed. And, they were bred to be pack animals.

“They’re just very different from other dogs,” Blair said. “They do require interaction. They are a pack animal. They don’t hunt with one, they hunt in packs. They can do without people contact.

“I don’t think it’s wise to own just one. They need that other involvement. They need to have that interaction. You can really tell that too. We’ll take two to the basketball games, the minute we walk back into the house with the two that have been at the game, they are all over them.”

In addition to taking the Salukis to see their athletic namesakes on a regular basis, Blair gives presentations on the breed throughout the region.

The history of the breed

Bred as hunting dogs, Salukis rely on keen eyesight, incredible stamina and teamwork. They can attain speeds of 35- to 42-miles-per-hour and sustain it for four to five miles. Their hunting game plan is simple — run their prey until it collapses.

“There is so much in the history of that breed that is so interesting,” she said. “Because they are hunting dogs, it’s like every body part has a purpose — how their feet are padded and they have hair tufts between their toes. The hair keeps the sand out from between their toes."

“They can see for more than a mile. With the Saluki, their peripheral vision is larger than humans. They can see almost completely around. They’re pretty amazing dogs. That’s why we enjoy them.”

And, there is no question SIU fans enjoy the real Salukis. At a basketball game this winter, fans flocked to the Blairs to have their pictures taken with Pharoah and Meti. The dogs are carefully socialized before being taken to sporting events.

“We train them and socialize them as soon as they’re old enough and have had their shots,” Blair said. “We socialize them with everyone we can, older people, the handicapped, with older people. Ours are used to being around a lot of people and it doesn’t bother them. That’s not the norm for the breed.”

At the games, the dogs are magnets for fans. The Blairs rotate the dogs they bring to the games.

“We just decide,” Vicki said. “The older ones, we’re kind of not taking out as much anymore, especially in colder weather. I don’t care to have them out. We just swap them out because we like to have them all have contact with the crowd.”

Regardless of what the SIU Salukis do on the field or the floor, the actual Salukis are always a hit.

“Everybody has been very positive about it,” Blair said. “People will say, ’They’re the reason we come.’ Or, ‘We look forward to seeing them,’ or, ‘Can I get my picture taken with the dogs?’ Especially SIU grads, we try to accommodate them as much as possible.”

As for whether the actual canines like football or basketball better, that just depends.

“I think probably they like basketball because it’s inside, but they like football because the weather is usually really good and they like being outside,” Blair said.

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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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