The Canaan Dog – The National Dog of Israel

Love living with a dog? You may choose the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German shepherd, bulldog, poodle, or Chihuahua. You might have also known the Canaan dog, Israel’s national dog.

It may not top the polls of the world’s most popular dog breeds, owing to its rarity. Indeed, the Canaan dog is one of the rarest – and the oldest – dog breeds in the world. Some even believe that the Canaan dog was the first dog to be adopted and domesticated by man.

Humans have not altered the Canaan dog’s lineage; thus, it has retained its primitive characteristics and instincts.

Originating from the land of Canaan, it is a breed of pariah dog – a feral dog that lives close to human settlements throughout Asia.

Since the ancient era, the Bedouins have used Canaan dogs as flock and sentry dogs. Tradition states that at the time of the Diaspora, the Jews were forcefully driven out of their ancestral homeland. They had to leave behind their dogs, which returned to the wild.

Excavations at an ancient dog cemetery in Ashkelon reveal 700 dog skeletons, all of which are anatomically similar to the Canaan dog we know today. Archaeologists believe that these dogs were worshipped as sacred animals. 

At the risk of extinction?

Today, Canaan dogs are pretty rare, with only about 2,000 to 3,000 of them around the world, mostly in North America and Europe. They might be at risk of extinction if no serious actions have been taken.

Worse, the Sha’ar Hagai Canaans, the only kennel in the world specializing in this breed, was evicted by the Israeli authorities in 2011. After operating for more than four decades and having bred most of the world’s Canaan dogs, the kennel earned the brunt of the Israel Land Authority in its case against the Sha’ar Hagai residents. The kennel’s founder, Myrna Shiboleth, appealed to the authorities after receiving the eviction notice. She lost in her appeal. Without warning, the Israel Land Authority razed her kennel and bulldozed her house.

On the Israel Land Authority’s side, it claimed that Shiboleth and the other residents were squatting on public land that has been declared a national park in 1965.

Shiboleth moved her operations to Tuscany, Italy, and continues breeding Canaan dogs there up to the present. She still regularly visits the Negev desert, looking for specimens living by the Bedouin tribe camps in her continuous quest to preserve and strengthen the breed.

Breed recognition

The Canaan dog was first recognized by the Israel Kennel Club in 1953 and then by Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) in 1966. Eventually, kennel and canine clubs from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries recognized the breed as well. 

The Canaan dog’s profile was further raised when John F. Kennedy Jr. purchased a Canaan dog in 1995.

Appearance and temperament

The Canaan dog is a square dog of medium size. It can grow to between 35 to 55 pounds and has an average life span of 12 to 15 years.

It has the appearance of a wild dog, with a wedge-shaped head and erect, low-set, and pointed ears. It has a dense, harsh, short-to-medium-long outer coat and a tight and profuse undercoat according to the season. Its bushy tail is curled over the back when calm and confident, and cat-like paws with hard paw pads. Color ranges from cream to black, with shades of red and brown in-between, usually some white markings or all white with some patches of other colors.

The Canaan dog is alert and vigilant. It is docile and devoted to its human family but reserved and aloof towards strangers. Its highly territorial nature makes it a perfect guard and sentry dog, while its intelligence is coupled with drive and focus. With such traits, it is no accident that the Canaan dog was among the first breeds to locate landmines by scent. Canaan dogs can also perform search-and-rescue work and even do well as therapy dogs. 

The Canaan dog’s ancestors survived in the deserts as they adapted themselves well to the harsh and desolate conditions. In the imminent 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) asked Dr. Rudolphina Menzel to choose and train Canaan dogs to provide service to troops. They worked as sentry dogs, messenger dogs, and landmine detectors.

You have to expect some noise, though, as the Canaan dog tends to bark a lot. It will “sound off” the alarm at every perceived threat. As it tends to be a vocal breed, you may have to keep its barking and whining under control. Canaan dog puppies must have early and continuous socialization as possible to avoid over-protectiveness and aggression as an adult.

Because the Canaan dog is so rare, you may have to go on a waiting list and expect to pay a high price in acquiring this breed.