Pooches and pariahs

Alert, smart, a natural sheepdog, aggressive yet faithful and trainable, everything about the Canaan dog suggests this is the dog of the Bible. Yet the story of the renaissance of this dog, now the national dog of the State of Israel, is like the survival of Israel, nothing short of a miracle. 

The story begins in Austria at the turn of the 20th century. 

After her studies in Vienna, Rudolphina Menzel now a doctor, psychologist, biochemist and biologist established a training school for guard and tracker dogs in her home town. She also went on to publish research on the dogs’ behavior which was awarded high praise from academics throughout the world. Decades later, the little-known industrious and brilliant innovate academic, would be the first woman in Israel to receive a professorship at an Israeli university.

It was in the 1920’s in Vienna – no less – that Rudolphina and her new husband began to train dogs for the Austrian police. With a delicious dose of irony, they prepared them for the Austrian authorities by training the dogs to respond to commands in Hebrew!  

In the early 1930’s, with the British policies in Mandate Palestine becoming more anti-Jewish, the Menzels made a quick visit to the Land of Israel to train dogs for The Haganah, the clandestine Jewish defense force. Four years later, and with the Anschluss of Austria, Rudolphina and her husband now back home, escaped the Nazis with the help of a friend who had been drafted into the SS. Hitler had ordered the couple to trains dogs for the German army. The couple embarked on a ship and sailed to Israel’s shores with some of their dogs, where shortly after they set up a center to train dogs to sniff out mines. 

For their 1942 campaign in North Africa, the British asked the couple to train 400 dogs. The Menzels not only sort permission from the Jewish authorities, they only agreed on the condition that these dogs would never be used against Jews. 

The British held to their commitment. 

To accomplish their mission of supplying dogs for the British, Rudolphina set out to scour the Land for suitable dogs. She captured a group of semi-wild scavengers roaming around the desert and hillsides. Rare for dogs, they had a double coat. The outer one bristly and the inner one, soft. It was  ideal for insulation. It protected them from the harsh cold winters and defended them from the relentless heat of the summer. This adaptation rendered them field dogs, suitable for the harshest of tasks. 

Her and her husband trained and bred the pariah dogs, then initiated a selective breeding program. The result of this initiative was the dog now famously known as the Canaan dog. 

Pariahs are ancient breeds. All the pariah dogs in the world belong to this Canaan family, from North America, through Europe, the Middle East, Africa to Iran. Some even see the Canaan as the “missing link” in the unknown stages of the transformation from wolf to domestic dog. That would not be surprising. Archeological evidence for the ancient domestication of the dog is ample in the Middle East. In the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, Archeologists discovered a dog graveyard with remains of about 1500 dog skeletons (mostly puppies) buried carefully side by side. From examining the bones, scientists discovered that there is a great similarity with the Canaan. No matter what the breed, it begs the question: did the puppies die of natural causes or were they sacrificed? Could it also be, that the people who lived 2500 years ago when the land was under Persian rule (during the time of Ezra, Nehemiah and Ruth), actually coddled their pets, sneaked treats under the table and lovingly interred them in the ground? Surely, we say to ourselves, doting on pooches is the kind of stuff people do today, not then. Because of our natural inability to identify with peoples of ancient cultures, it is hard to imagine that they would be like us.

Unusual for a medium-large dog, the Canaan has an extraordinary long-life span – a whopping 18 years leading to an inside joke among Israelis – albeit tongue in cheek- that while other dog breeds have died out, the Canaan is like the People of Israel, refusing to disappear with the passing of time. No wonder it has been adopted by the State of Israel as the nation’s official dog.