The Canaan Dog is a pariah (free-living) dog found in Israel and its surrounding area. Nobody really knows the exact truth about their origins. Some say that he is an originally domesticated dog turned feral, while others believe they may in fact be a separate species to the wolf and domestic breeds of today. The reality is that there is no evidence to prove, or disprove, either theory.
What is understood is that the type is an ancient breed, or to use a more correct term, land-race. Pre-biblical drawings and carvings have been found depicting dogs very similar to the Canaan Dog we know today and there is a rock carving from the first to third century BC mid Sinai that depicts a dog which is very like a Canaan type dog. In ancient Ashkelon, a graveyard was discovered, which is believed to be Phoenician from the middle of the fifth century BC. It contained 700 dogs, all carefully buried in the same position, on their sides with legs flexed and tail tucked in around the hind legs.
According to the archaeologists, there was a strong similarity between these dogs and the “Bedouin pariah dogs”, in other words, the Canaan Dog as it is known by today. A sarcophagus dated from the end of the fourth century BC, was found in Sidon, on which Alexander the Great and the King of Sidon are painted hunting a lion with the help of a hunting dog which is similar in build to the dogs of Ashkelon and similar in appearance to the Canaan Dog.
Bedouins and Druse people have used, and indeed still use, Pariah Dogs of the Canaan Dog type as guard dogs for a very long time. However, they have never bred them, but merely take males from the free-living and semi-free litters.
Professor Rudolphina Menzel, a Viennese a psychologist and dog trainer, was well known as one of the world’s foremost authorities on dogs. As a scientist, Professor Menzel had a great interest in pariah dogs, although her first love was Boxers, which she bred. Being a Zionist, she had a particular interest in the dog which developed in the area that is today Israel.
It was in the early nineteen-thirties when Menzel, together with her husband Dr Rudolph Menzel, emigrated from Vienna to Israel, then known as Palestine. Upon their arrival, Professor Menzel was approached by the Haganah (Jewish Defence Forces) for help in setting up a dog section. After finding that the usual breeds used for guarding, tracking and other tasks were unable to cope with the climate or harsh terrain, Menzel soon turned her attention to the local pariah dog. Here she found a dog with all the traits that would make them a good service dog — an alert and agile dog, being territorial and with highly developed senses.
Menzel began working with semi-free and free-living dogs of a specific type, luring them into her camp and gaining their trust. She also captured litters of puppies, finding them remarkably adaptable to domestication. The first successful adult she called Dugma (meaning example). It took her about 6 months to finally capture him, and yet within a few weeks she found she could take him into town and on buses!
It was in 1934 when Menzel initiated the first domestic breeding programme for Canaan Dogs, which she had named after the Land of Canaan. She had great success in training them as service dogs for the Haganah, where they excelled in guard work and proved highly successful in patrol and tracking work. They were also to be one of the first dogs trained to detect land mines.
In 1953, Menzel became involved in preparing guide dogs to assist blind Israelis to become more independent and lead as normal a life as possible. Working with an extremely low budget, Menzel trained several Canaan Dogs to fulfil the tasks. Although she had reasonable success, it was found that the Canaan Dog was not the ideal breed, being too independent in their nature. They were also found to be a bit too small and those trained were mainly used by children.
Menzel’s interest in the Canaan Dog was in its preservation. Her breeding programme reflected her aim to retain the natural traits of the breed, and she incorporated free-living stock into her programme whenever possible. In the nineteen-sixties Menzel began to export dogs to the USA and Europe.
At this stage, Menzel required the widest possible genepool, and this was reflected in the variety of type used for breeding, showing a difference in size, shape, tail carriage and coat type.
The Canaan Dog was first recognised by the Israel Kennel Club in 1953 and by the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale) in 1966. The first accepted a standard was written by Menzel. In the UK, The Kennel Club here in the UK first recognised the Canaan Dog in 1970.
Today the Canaan is regarded as a natural treasure, and the Israel Nature Reserves Authority recommends its preservation, although this has not yet been taken up.
The Canaan Dog in the UK
The first known Canaan Dog in the UK was Sheba, a bitch taken as a puppy from a wild born litter in 1964 in Damascus. Sheba was brought to the UK in 1965 but her owner could not cope with her, and in 1966 she went to live with Mrs Connie Higgins. Connie called her Shebaba (often shortening it to Baba) as she already had a GSD bitch called Sheba. Connie quickly became intrigued by Shebaba and began to try and learn about the breed. With her interest aroused, Connie contacted The Kennel Club in an attempt to register Shebaba, and there started the long hard fight for the Canaan Dog in England.
After reading many books and speaking to many people, Connie was finally put in touch with Professor Menzel in Israel. They corresponded frequently, with Professor Menzel asking many, many questions, and Connie sent her many photos of Shebaba, as well as hair and nail clippings. Finally Professor Menzel wrote back and stated that if Shebaba had been in Israel she would be accepted for registration and qualified at least “Very Good”. Armed with this evidence, Connie once again approached The Kennel Club and once again hit a brick wall.
In the meantime, Professor Menzel offered to send Connie a male dog, in the hope that he and Shebaba mate, and that by producing typical Canaan puppies The Kennel Club would register them. So, on 22nd April 1969 Tiron, a black and white male, came to the UK. For Tiron and Shebaba it was love at first sight, and on 28th December 1969 the first known litter of Canaan Dogs was born in the UK.
Finally the Kennel Club recognised the Canaan Dog, and the first registrations were issued for both Tiron Me B’nei HaBitachon and Saffra Shebaba, both dated 31st December 1970. Sadly, Shebaba’s first litter was born prior to registration, but she and Tiron had another litter born on 20th July 1971, and these were duly registered.
Unfortunately, Connie was not able to generate any interest in the breed and, after a serious accident and illness which put her in a wheelchair, was unable to continue promoting the breed. Sadly there are no dogs today that are descended from Tiron and Shebaba.
In 1986 the Canaan Dog was reintroduced into the UK when Ruth Corner returned after living in Israel for several years, having spent time at the Shaar Hagai Kennels. Ruth imported Isr.Ch. Rotem Me Shaar Hagai, who had been mated to Shimshon Me Shaar Hagai and produced a litter of 6 dogs and 2 bitches on 29th June 1986 in quarantine before returning to Israel. A few months later, Ruth imported Tehiyah Me Shaar Hagai, who had been mated to Isr Ch Yitzhar Me Shaar Hagai and produced 1 dog and 6 bitches on 15th October 1986. Tehiyah also returned to Israel.
From these litters, several puppies were successfully shown. Sadly, Ruth suffered from ill-health and could not carry on with her Canaan Dogs.
Today still sees less than a handful of people regularly exhibiting in the show ring and breeding within the UK.
As yet, the Canaan Dog is still classified as a rare breed by The Kennel Club. This means that although we can enter all levels of competition, we are not allocated Challenge Certificates and therefore cannot as yet earn the title of Champion or Junior Warrant, nor can Canaan Dogs be entered into the Stud Book.
The aim of breeders today around the world should be those same aims of Professor Menzel — that to preserve the breed and its original natural traits.