The Canaan Dog

Israel's natural breed; loyal, protective, and talented


The Canaan Dog of Israel is a survivor. Born as a herding and flock guardian dog of the ancient Israelites, the breed was consigned to a meager feral existence when the Romans invaded and all but destroyed their homeland more than 2000 years ago. Many of the dogs left civilization to eke out an existence in the country's harsh Negev desert and bleak plains; some remained semi-domesticated as shepherds and guardians for Bedouin tribes or guards for the Druze religious sect on Mt. Carmel.

During the intervening centuries, the Arabs kept an eye on these semi-feral dogs, sometimes stealing male pups to be used as flock herds and guards. The breed was rediscovered in 1935 by Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, a professor of animal and comparative psychology at the University of Tel Aviv in Palestine. The Israeli Defense Force was looking for a service dog that could thrive in desert conditions and asked Dr. Menzel for help. She began working with European breeds, but soon abandoned them in favor of the untamed dogs with the admirable survival skills.

Dr. Menzel's first Canaan Dog was Dugma, a black and white male who evaded capture for more than six months. Once captured, however, he was quickly tamed. Dr. Menzel rounded up many Canaan Dogs throughout Palestine and trained many to serve as mine detectors, searchers for wounded soldiers, and sentries during World War II. After the Israeli war for independence in 1948, Dr. Menzel turned her talents to helping the blind, combining administration of the nation's first school for blind people with the breeding program of Canaan Dogs, the nation's first seeing eye dogs.

The Canaan Dog made its way to the US in 1965 when Dr. Menzel sent four dogs to Ursula Berkowitz in California. Two of the four came from the Dr. Menzel's institute for the blind, one from the Druse sect, and one from the Bedouins. The breed has made slow and careful progress in the intervening years. It was recognized by the United Kennel Club in 1992 and by the American Kennel Club in 1997; in its first year as an AKC breed, owners registered 410 individual Canaan Dogs and 11 litters.

In Israel, the Canaan Dog is still used as a flock and home guardian. Its numbers in the wild are diminishing, but it has caught on as a home guardian and is still used by the Israeli Defense Forces as a patrol and guard dog.

Looks and attitude

A member of the spitz family, the Canaan Dog is medium-sized with elongated head narrowing to a blunt muzzle; prick ears; a square, muscular body; and a curved tail that is carried high over the back when the dog is alert or excited.

The breed is 19-24 inches tall at the withers with bitches smaller than males. Weight ranges from 35-55 pounds. Coat varies from flat to rough to thick and stand-offish. The rough coat has long, usually softer guard hairs behind the ears, on the tail, at the back of the legs, and on the underside. The stand-off coat is reminiscent of the Norwegian Elkhound or Siberian Husky coat.

The Canaan Dog comes in black and white, various shades of brown and white, or solid black or brown with little or no white markings. Gray color and brindle pattern are unacceptable. Dogs that are mostly white must have a colored mask with or without a blaze.

The dog looks like an athlete and moves with strong reach and drive in a tireless trot — structure and movement that assure survival in the desert and versatility in the home and kennel. He is nimble, able to twist and turn after sheep or compete in agility competitions.

The Canaan Dog is alert, loyal, and affectionate to his family and watchful and aloof with strangers. He is intelligent, self-reliant, responsive, adaptable, and easily trained by experienced dog owners; his territorial attitude, propensity for dog aggression, and independent character may be a bit much for first-time or meek owners. He's not a follower; he does not need constant attention or reassurance and thus he may not be suitable for a family that enjoys close contact with an attentive pet.


This is a hardy breed with a low incidence of hip dysplasia, and the Canaan Dog Club of America is anxious to keep it that way. Dogs must be certified free of dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals if breeders want to advertise their puppies in the club newsletter. Breeders are also encouraged to test dogs for thyroid disease and to have their eyes checked annually.

The club's health chairman maintains records on dogs as reported by breeders and owners and has created a health survey that is sent to breeders when a litter reaches two years of age. The breeder fills out part of the survey and forwards it to the owners of the puppies for completion. The survey covers the health and temperament history of the dog.

The club and its members jealously guard the health and placement of puppies. Only eight litters were born in the first six months of 1996; the club and the individual breeders work together to make sure all puppies are placed in appropriate homes.

The future of the breed

The CDCA has the immediate future of the Canaan Dog mapped out. Now that AKC recognition is in place, the club will continue to protect the genetic well-being of the breed by sharing information and promoting research; to encourage breeders to produce healthy companion dogs and place their puppies in good homes; and to advocate that owners socialize and train their dogs at least through the AKC Canine Good Citizen program.

CDCA also recognizes the need to keep the breed out of puppy mills and to retain the original characteristics that originally drew them to Israel's native breed.

The Canaan Dog is represented by two clubs in the US. CDCA is the breed's AKC parent club; the Israel Canaan Dog Club of America promotes the breed as it is found in Israel and furthers Dr. Menzel's efforts to preserve this natural dog.

For more information visit The Canaan Dog Club of America, Inc.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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