The Canaan Dog – Preserving a Biblical Dog in Modern Times

By Myrna Shiboleth

Abstract:  The Israel Canaan Dog is one of the few existing breeds of primitive dog, known for thousands of years, whose natural habitat is the present day state of Israel.  These dogs have not changed since biblical times, and their biological characteristics are evidence of adaptation of semi-arid zones. The breed still exists in the wild and with the Bedouins of the area.  Breeders in Israel continue to bring in new bloodlines from the wild, and are attempting to preserve the natural characteristics of these dogs, despite them now being a recognized breed that are being bred in many countries abroad. One of the major factors in the successful preservation of the breed is its growing popularity as a pure bred, registered pet.

The dog has existed as a dog, according to current theories, for as long as 150,000 years.  There is some controversy over where the originating point of the first dog was, whether in one place or in several, and there is still a good deal of research being done on this question.  But there is little doubt that one of the points of origin, and perhaps THE point of origin, of the dog was the Middle East.  The prevalent belief also is that the breeds existing today that are called primitive dogs, pariah dogs, land races, or similar, are very close in their characteristics and type to the original dog that branched off in a different direction from that of the wolf so long ago.

The Canaan Dog of Israel is one of these original breeds, which we believe has existed as is for thousands of years.

There are as many as forty references to dogs in the Bible and we learn that the dog was common and well known thousands of years ago (4). Dogs of those times were used as shepherds and guardians of the flocks and home.  References make it clear that the dog was of great importance in alerting the community to the presence of strangers.  Although many citations were derogatory, it is clear that the dog was an accepted and valued part of life in those times.  One of the oldest archaeological findings showing the relationship between man and dog, dating from about 12000 years ago, was found in Israel in the Galilee at a place called Ein Malacha.  This is the skeleton of a woman that was buried with her dog in her hand.

There is good reason to believe that the dog of Biblical times was the Canaan dog, the only breed truly native to the land of Canaan, the modern State of Israel.  Evidence includes the tomb drawings of Bene Hassan (2200-2000 BCE) (1,8), and rock carvings, such as those found in Wadi Celoqua in Central Sinai, depicting Canaan-type dogs chasing an antelope (1st-3rd century CE) (G. Ilani, personal communication), and from Har Harif in the Negev desert depicting an ibex hunt (photo – Orit Nevo).  A clear bas-relief of a Canaan type dog has been found on a 2nd century CE sarcophagus dug up in Ashkelon, and presently in the local archaeological museum.

A fairly recent discovery that presents evidence of the importance of the dog and its uniformity in ancient times is the find of a huge dog cemetery in archaeological digs at ancient Ashkelon.  This dates back to the fifth century BCE with over 700 dog skeletons found, including numerous puppies, adults and subadults.  Each dog was buried individually and with great care, reflecting a strong bond between dogs and humans. The ancient Phoenecians, the primary population of this area at this time, celebrated the dog and its healing powers, due to its habit of licking wounds, so these dogs may have been part of a temple healing ritual(10).  The description of the dogs by the archaeological team is as follows:  “The mature Ashkelon dogs were a little over 20 inches high and weighed a little more than 30 pounds.” (9). Wapnish and Hesse have found a modern counterpart in today’s “Bedouin sheepdogs”, known as Palestinian pariah dogs.  Or, as we would call them, Canaan dogs.

The Canaan Dog is one of the small group of rare and disappearing breeds that are considered to be primitive dogs, and are often referred to as “pariah dogs” or “land races”.  The pariahs, that include ancient indigenous breeds found mostly in Asia and Africa, are of great interest for a number of reasons.  They are in type the closest to the original dog, the dog that was the ancestor of all the modern breeds, and that may date back as much as 100,000 to 150,000 years.  These are the breeds that have survived on their own, the only criteria for the breed’s continuance being its ability to survive in very difficult conditions.  On the other hand, pariahs, in their life style and relation to man, are very similar to the first dogs ever domesticated, willing to develop a partnership with man but able to live on their own if necessary.

To scientists and others with interest in the development of the dog, these breeds are described as a naturally occurring type of dog “breed” in which the dogs are similar in appearance and usually also in behavior.  They were created by natural selection as suited for their local environments (size, coat type, color) and through only a small amount of direct artificial selection, which is nearly always post-breeding (culling of excess pups and elimination of undesirable individuals – those that, for instance, can not learn to stop bothering livestock/poultry).  These are not “pure” breeds in the modern sense of having a narrow gene pool selected for some purpose, with no other breeds allowed to be crossed in. There is always the possibility of some minor mixing with other breeds that were brought to the living area of the primitive dogs, but only characteristics that would be favorable to survival would have persisted, and overall any “foreign” influence would quickly be diluted into the strong gene pool of the pariahs.

The Canaan Dog holds a special and unique position in today’s cynological world.  On the one hand, this breed is fully recognized by all of the world’s kennel clubs and is gaining more and more popularity as a pet and family dog in various parts of the world.  On the other hand, in its land of origin, Israel, this breed also still exists as a wild or semi wild dog that must fight for its survival.

The Canaan dog is a member of what is considered to be the oldest family of dogs, the Spitzes.  This extensive family, with members in all parts of the world, is perhaps the closest to the “original” dog.  Throughout this canine family, the basic characteristics of the wild dog remain – prick ears, moderate size and build in most breeds, thick and weather resistant coat, functional skull shape, well developed senses, natural trotting gait, and great strength and stamina.  The family further evolved to adapt to specific environments – the Nordic breeds, such as the huskies, laikas, elk and bearhounds, adapting to the cold and harsh conditions of the north, whereas the Basenji of Africa developed a very short, flat coat without undercoat suited to the Congo rainforests.  However, most members of the family retained certain basic characteristics – body build tending to the square or nearly square, tail carried high and curled over the back, erect ears, a short quick trot, and personality traits of caution and suspiciousness, high reactivity, aggressiveness in particular to other dogs in their territory, independence, and strong loyality to their own “pack”.  The Canaan dog is one of the few breeds known to be successfully adapted to a desert environment.  Studies done at Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University of the Negev, as well as a personal study done by the author, indicate its astonishing ability to survive the great range of temperatures and lack of water of a desert habitat. (2,7).  Physiological adaptations developed, no doubt, through the thousands of years in the demanding conditions of its home.  Throughout the upheavals of history it survived, at times a valued working dog, at times a scavenger no better than a wild animal.  And like the other wild residents of the area, only the strongest and fittest survived to breed and pass on their characteristics.

In 1934, Professor Rudolphina Menzel, a noted cynologist, immigrated to Palestine.  In her native Austria she had gained a reputation as an animal behaviorist and expert on dogs.  On arrival, she was requested by the Haganah (the Israel pre-state military organization), to build up a network of service dogs for guarding, tracking, mine detection and similar tasks.  She quickly discovered that the breeds commonly used for such tasks in Europe, such as German Shepherds, Boxers, and Dobermans, were not suitable for use in Palestine – they suffered greatly from the dry heat and the hard, rocky ground.  While attempting to find a solution to the problem, Prof. Menzel began to study the local pariah dogs, mostly ownerless, that lived on the outskirts of settlements, Bedouin encampments, and in the desert and wilderness.  Her scientific eye saw that these dogs might well be a breed that had adapted to the conditions so difficult for other dogs. (3).

She began a program of “redomestication”, collecting puppies and adults from the pariah groups, and found them to be highly receptive to change and quick to adjust to domestication.  She also found them readily trainable, and, as she had expected, able to function efficiently in the difficult local environment.  She set up breeding units from the Bedouin and Druse dog populations, and was able to provide useful working dogs for defense and guard purposes.  “Canaan dogs”, as she named them, after the Biblical Land of Canaan, were very effective in patrol work, perimeter guard, and nose work, including their use as messenger dogs, and were the first to be trained to solve the difficult problem of mine detection.  She even trained a few as guide dogs for the blind, though the natural suspiciousness and reactivity makes most Canaans unsuitable for this sort of task.

Prof. Menzel was instrumental in gaining international recognition for the breed; the breed standard prepared by her was accepted by the Federation Cynologique International in 1966.  (The last revision was accepted in 1987). The first specimens of the breed to be sent abroad were sent to the US in 1965 and to Germany shortly after.  In 1970, Shaar Hagai Kennels near Jerusalem joined in the development and breeding of these dogs, carrying on after her death in 1973.  The breeding, training and exhibiting of the dogs is carried out according to her guidelines, as well as the inclusion of new desert and Bedouin bloodlines whenever possible, so as to retain the natural characteristics of the breed.

Today it is becoming more and more difficult to find wild-born Canaans.  One of the reasons is the strict rabies control program in Israel, which includes the destruction of feral dog packs.  There are many such packs on the outskirts of towns and villages that are composed of a variety of dogs, mostly mixed breeds, that have been abandoned by owners.  These dogs live primarily from scavenging, and packs are often quite large, composed of ten dogs or more. These packs can be aggressive and dangerous to livestock and even to children.  Wardens charged with the task of destroying these packs do not differentiate between them and packs of Canaans (rarely numbering more than three or four) which are rarely aggressive to livestock and not known to be aggressive to humans.

Another reason is the spread of civilization and the settling of many Bedouins in towns and villages.  This change in lifestyle results in the introduction of other breeds that mix with the natural population.  There are still Canaans in the more remote areas and living with Bedouin tribes that still live a traditional lifestyle in areas distant from “civilization”, but they are becoming fewer and harder to locate.

The Canaan is well established today in Israel and abroad.  It is officially the Israel national breed, accepted as such by the Israel Kennel Club.  Canaans are in demand in Israel as pets – they are extremely alert watchdogs that are very territorial but not highly aggressive, good family dogs, very reliable with children, and easy to care for.  They have few health problems.  A series of examinations over the years of numbers of dogs, from the ages of one year to over twelve years, seems to indicate that hip dysplasia is nearly non-existent in the breed.  There are few indications of other health or genetic problems.  The Canaans as puppies were very susceptible to parvovirus when the disease first appeared in Israel, but over the last years they seem to have built up a natural resistance on a level with that of other breeds.

Today’s modern breeds are suffering more and more from degenerative, reproductive, and health problems, the result of a combination of a more and more limited gene pool in each specific breed, and selection for various breed specific characteristics that can be considered anti-survival.  In almost all of the modern breeds, there is no outside gene pool that could serve to improve the health and well being of the breed.

The pariahs in general and the Canaan in particular hold great value to the canine world in the continuing presence of unregistered wild and feral stock that can be added to the gene pool. In this way, the characteristics that have enabled these breeds to survive for thousands of years can be strengthened and preserved.  In addition, there is a great deal of interest in studying the behavior of these breeds in their natural habitat and unchanged way of life.  This provides us with a wealth of information on the natural behavior of the dog, from the time he first became associated with man, his capabilities and methods of survival in various conditions, and the way his relationship with man develops.

For these reasons, we find that the demand for Canaans abroad is growing rapidly; people seem to be interested in a natural healthy dog.  There are multiple exports every year. There are active breed clubs in numerous countries – US, England, Germany, France, Italy, Finland – and more and more Canaans are being seen at dog shows, winning titles both in conformation and in performance.  This Biblical dog has made a highly successful transition to the modern world where it is becoming more and more valued as a working dog and companion, as it was thousands of years ago.

Although the idea of breeding and registering the natural land races of dog with recognized kennel clubs has a lot of opposition among those involved with these breeds, we feel that this is what has given us the opportunity to preserve the Canaan Dog.  In the early years, we found it very difficult to find homes for puppies or to interest people in the breed.  Only after a lot of publicity, emphasizing the uniqueness of these dogs, and the presentation of Canaans at shows and other events where the general public was able to see them, did people start developing an interest in having these dogs as pets and working dogs.  Today, although very few people in Israel are interested in the Canaan as a show dog, there is a lot of demand for puppies as pets and family guard dogs, which makes more widespread breeding and selection possible.

Publicity of the breed abroad, in the form of articles, films, photos, and traveling with Canaans to shows abroad has also developed the interest in the breed overseas to the level it is at now.

We try as much as possible to monitor what is happening with the breed in other countries.  Our goal is to try and keep the breed as it is, without the changes and deterioration that has occurred in many other breeds.  There is still a great deal of interest all over the world in continuing to bring in new bloodlines.  Breeders abroad are aware of the unique possibilities we still have with the Canaan, of bringing in new lines from the desert, and are very interested in continuing with this.  This is one method we have for influencing the direction of the breeding abroad.

There are several methods we have been using to bring in new bloodlines.  The easiest method is to “capture” very small puppies and raise them in “civilization”.  This means locating new litters and removing the puppies as soon as they are old enough to get along without their mother.  A two to three month old puppy is already suspicious enough and fast and agile enough to evade being caught and to disappear into the wilderness areas where he will not be found.  The puppies then have to be raised and examined when fully grown to determine if they really fit the breed type.  We take puppies only when we can verify the parents.  The mother is usually in the vicinity and can be identified, as she will try to protect her litter.  The father, in many cases, is also in the vicinity and can be identified – the Canaans tend to be very devoted to one another, and often the same pair remains together for life if nothing interferes.   The Bedouin are of great help in this, as they are usually aware of where litters may be found, and can often identify the dogs and tell us who the sire and dam of a litter is.

Another method is to try to capture an adult.  In most cases, the adults that are available are those that are attached to Bedouin camps.  The Bedouin dogs are semi wild and can often not be approached by anyone but the children, who seem to build up a friendly relationship with the dogs.  But the Bedouin are sometimes willing to try to capture such dogs, if they don’t feel a need for them as camp guards, and let us take them.  In the last few years, there have been several adults brought in from various areas, and all of them have adjusted extremely well to “domestic” life.

A final possibility is to bring a bitch in season to an area where there are excellent quality dogs, and to allow her to breed to a Bedouin or semi wild dog.  This is also not easy, as the dogs are very suspicious, and it can take them a long time and a lot of hesitation to even approach a strange bitch in season.  In some cases, despite our patience in waiting for something to happen, the suspicion was too strong and the dog was never willing to approach and breed the bitch, despite her games and seductive moves.  But we have had one success in getting a litter this way, and it is a possible way of bringing in new lines in the future.

Over the last few years, about 15 dogs have been brought in from the wild or the Bedouin.  The procedure for entering them in the stud book is to first examine the dog as an adult to see if it fits the breed requirements, and then to do a trial breeding with a fully pedigreed and proven mate.  Several dogs have proven themselves as a valuable addition to the gene pool, and there is a generation of their descendents that are now of breeding age themselves.  Some of the desert stock has been discarded as potential breeding stock due to lack of correct type (things that have been considered incorrect are ears that don’t stand, incorrect bites, or structural faults that might interfere with effective survival, not “show points”) or faults which may indicate mixed blood.  Some of the desert dogs are still young and developing and will be judged as to their potential as breeding stock in the future.

We are continuing to look for and try to bring in more dogs from the desert.  This program is helping to preserve the very unique characteristics of the Canaan Dog, one of the few “natural” dogs still left on earth.


  1. Ash, E.C. 1927. Dogs: Their History and Development. Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York
  2. Meir, M. 1980. Comparative water economy and thermoregulation of Sloughi, Canaan, and Pointer dog. M.Sc. thesis. Tel Aviv University
  3. Menzel, R. and Menzel, R. 1960. Pariahunde. A.Ziemsen Verlag, Wittenburg Lutherstadt
  4. Moller-Christensen, V. and Jordt Jorgensen, K.E. 1965. Encyclopedia of Bible Creature. Fortress Press, Philadelphia
  5. Schneider-Leyer, E. 1964. Dogs of the World. Popular Dogs Publications, London
  6. Shiboleth, M. 1985. The Israel Canaan Dog. Alpine Pubs., Loveland, Colo.
  7. Shiboleth, M. 1994. The Israel Canaan Dog. A new and revised edition. Loveland, Colo.
  8. Fiennes, R. and Fiennes, A. 1970. The Natural History of Dogs.  Natural History Press, Garden City, NY
  9. Stager. L.E. 1991. Why were hundreds of dogs buried at Ashkelon?  Biblical Archaeological Review 17:26-42
  10. 10. The Dog Days of Ashkelon, Michael Shurkin, BR 20:02, April 2004