The Canaan Dog – Pariah Breed of Israel

March 14, 2016

canaan cliff cooperBy Linda Cole

A pariah dog breed has remained relatively unchanged over thousands of years of domestication, developing primarily on their own by natural selection with little direct influence from humans. These free-ranging dogs who lived on the outskirts of human civilization may have once been domesticated, but for some reason retreated to live on their own; however, they never strayed too far away. Throughout their history, pariah dogs never fully rejected human companionship and entered into relationships with man as hunters and guard dogs. Some of these breeds are considered purebred dogs and recognized by kennel clubs around the world, including the American Kennel Club. The Canaan Dog is a pariah purebred native to Israel and dates back to pre-Biblical times. This rare breed was officially recognized by AKC in 1997 – and is Israel’s national dog breed.

Originating in the Land of Canaan, this clever, athletic and confident dog has been around since at least 2200 – 2000 BC. Tomb drawings at the ancient Egyptian cemetery site Beni-Hassan, as well as a third century AD rock carving, depict dogs that are very similar to the Canaan dog we know today. In their native land, these dogs are known as Kelev K’naani, which is Hebrew and means Canaan dog. The Israelites used these dogs to guard, protect and herd their flocks of sheep and goats.

The Canaan dog is a good example of early domesticated dogs. A member of the Spitz family, they have a smooth coat, prick ears, and a bushy tail that curls over their backs. Alert, inquisitive, quick on their feet (they can turn on a dime) and watchful, these dogs were perfectly adapted to desert life and living on their own, which was important for their survival.

When the Romans invaded and drove the Israelites from their land, Canaan dogs retreated to the only safe refuge for Israeli wildlife – the Negev Desert. The dogs returned to a wild to semi-wild life where they survived by their wits and agility for centuries. Some dogs were taken in by nomadic Bedouin tribes and used as herding dogs for their flocks and guard dogs to protect their families. The Druze people who lived on Mt. Carmel put some to work as sentries and guard dogs. But most of these wily and intelligent dogs took on the harsh conditions in the desert on their own.

CanaanDogFace ArikkThe Canaan dog was pulled from their semi-wild life in the 1930s and re-domesticated because of world events. With fears of a second world war on the horizon, and the creation of an independent Jewish state, the Israeli Defense Force (the Haganah) wanted a rugged, stable desert smart guard and war dog. The task of finding the perfect dog was given to Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, a professor of animal and comparative psychology at the University of Tel Aviv, and dog trainer. She chose the Canaan dog because of their superior skills to survive the desert environment and their trainability.

The objective was to capture a select group of dogs, tame them, train them and then breed them. It took six months for her to capture her first dog, but would soon have enough to begin a breeding program and provide canines to guard isolated Israeli settlements and aid the military as sentries, messengers, Red Cross helpers and land mine detectors.

After WW II, these dogs were trained to be guide dogs. Today’s Canaan dog comes from this breeding program. It’s a breed that has remained relatively unchanged from their original state. There are still Canaan dogs who continue to live semi-wild lives in the desert. Most of the purebred Canaan dogs, however, are not found in their native lands and now live in North America and Europe.

Standing 19 to 24″ at the shoulder and weighing 35 to 55 pounds, the Canaan has an average life span of 12 to 15 years. This is an easy to train dog who is quick to learn anything you want to teach him, but has retained his independent nature. Make sure you have plenty of CANIDAE treats on hand when training, because he definitely has a “make it worth my time” attitude. Keep training sessions short, because he is easily bored with too much repetition and will lose interest.

The Canaan is affectionate with his family and devoted to them, but isn’t a dog that seeks out a lot of attention. He’s suspicious of strangers or anything new in his environment, can be a barker and a digger, and is territorial. Because of his territorial nature, he can be aggressive with other dogs, but can get along with other pets as long as he’s been raised with them.

An active dog with stamina to spare, the Canaan requires more exercise than just a walk around the block. This pariah dog from Israel is extremely intelligent with the ability to problem solve, and is a versatile breed that enjoys dog sports like herding, tracking, agility, conformation and obedience.

Top photo by Cliff Cooper/Flickr
Bottom photo by Arikk/Wikimedia Commons

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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