It's a dog lovers life

Breeding and showing pedigreed dogs has grown in popularity in Israel over the past two decades, often among the young and non-native born.

lady and dog 521 (photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
lady and dog 521
(photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
This past October, the Israel Kennel Club (IKC) celebrated its 40th anniversary as an internationally recognized organization. Today the IKC has more than 2,000 members and 25 member clubs representing owners of some 200 breeds – everything from Miniature Pinschers to Great Danes, Pekingese to Neapolitan Mastiffs.
Pure-bred dog shows for individual breeds were held in pre-state Palestine under the British, and in the 1950s and 60s there were two dog clubs in competition with each other. But, in 1972, a unified club was formed and officially recognized by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) the international organization of 86 national kennel clubs based in Belgium, which sets the standards for breeds, working trials and qualifications for show judges.
(The North American kennel clubs have different regulations and standards.) The dog shows in Israel are conformation shows. In other words, they are beauty shows, where the entries are judged against the FCIset breed standards. The two or three annual all-breed shows, at which dogs can win international awards (CACIB – the Certificat d’Aptitude au Championnat International de Beauté or Certificate of Aptitude for International Champion of Beauty), are the highlight of the local scene. Being relatively isolated from other cynological countries, winning “Best-in-Show” at these events is the highest prize one can reach for. The competition at these shows is often intense.
Many serious dog owners take their dogs abroad to compete in shows, and since the surrounding Arab countries do not have pure-bred dogs, there is no choice but to go to Europe to compete and, in any event, Israel does not maintain relations with most of them, notes Orit Nevo, the IKC executive secretary. “Many Israeli-bred dogs are on a par with those in Europe, as shown by the awards and titles they win,” she says.
“Israel is very isolated, but we’re part of the European dog scene. It’s difficult with so much competition. This is, of course, very expensive, and quite an economic strain on those of us who go abroad, but you can’t live on an isolated island,” Nevo, an international judge and longtime breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“We’re not doing too badly under the circumstances. Our top dogs are as good as any in Europe in many breeds: Cairn Terriers, Cane Corso, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Schnauzers, and Pinchers. The best Israeli dogs are as good quality as in Europe.” In fact, many owners send their highest quality bitches abroad for mating.
Although Israeli dog lovers are like dog enthusiasts anywhere, there are significant differences between the local dog scene and that of other countries, even those with similar small populations, primarily when it comes to recognizing the value of pure bred dogs. “Most Israelis are unfamiliar with dog culture. This can be partly attributed to a majority who come from religious or Middle Eastern backgrounds, where dogs are considered unclean,” explains veteran breeder, trainer and judge Myrna Shiboleth “I would also attribute this to the history of the Jews and even the Holocaust,” adds Orit Nevo. “In the Diaspora, historically, Jews were not allowed to raise dogs, they were denied land ownership; dogs belonged to the nobles. And then, of course, dogs were used by the Nazis.
“The vast majority of the population here has no idea why they should have a pedigreed dog from someone who’s carried out proper breeding,” Shiboleth tells The Report. “People say ‘a dog is a dog. If we want a pure-bred dog, what difference does it make if it has a pedigree? If it looks like a Labrador, it’s a Labrador.’ They don’t understand what goes into producing a good dog, or why they should go to someone who will take responsibility, which is why we have so many dogs that end up in pounds and rescue organizations.”
Shiboleth, who founded the Shaar Hagai Kennels in 1970, is acknowledged as the world authority on Canaan dogs, one of the few remaining breeds of feral dogs in the world and recognized as Israel’s national breed. In addition to Canaans, she has been breeding Rough (long-haired) Collies for decades. In recent years Shiboleth began importing and breeding Smooth (shorthaired) Collies, which have been successfully developed as Alzheimer’s assistance dogs, the first such service dogs in the world.
Another difference in Israel is that there are only a handful of real breeders with adequate facilities for raising dogs for sale. The main reason is simply lack of space: In Europe most breeders live in the country and have plenty of land for the dogs and kennels. “It’s very difficult in Israel to find a place where you can keep a number of dogs without the neighbors complaining, or where you’d have enough space,” explains Shiboleth. “Most people here live in very confined spaces in towns, and raising dogs is very expensive.”
Even on moshavim, kennels are problematic, unless they’re located far from residential areas.
The one-million strong Russian-speaking community that immigrated to Israel during and after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s has clearly made its mark on Israeli society, including the local dog scene. “I think without the Russian immigrants we would have almost nothing today. This aliya was a tremendous boost to the Israeli dog scene,” says Shiboleth.
“There was never that much interest in dogs, certainly not to the degree we see today. They knew what the dog world was about from Russia. They were interested and active, and they brought in really good dogs.”
“More than quantity it was a matter of quality,” says Orit Nevo. “When it came to dogs, Israelis weren’t so competitive in the past, but in Russia there is a tradition of purebred dogs and competitiveness. Israel really gave them a chance to excel.”
That excellence is nowhere more obvious than in the terrier breeds, which hardly existed in Israel before the Soviet aliya. Most of the dog owners of terrier breeds brought to shows, such as Schnauzers, are Russian speakers. “They’re the ones who are willing to invest time and money in this,” says Inna Blayvas, head of the IKC show committee, and herself an immigrant from Russia. “For example, the special haircut that one must give a Schnauzer in order to show him. You have to travel long distances to find someone who knows how to do this – often three hours in each direction. Most native Israelis aren’t willing to go to these lengths.”
It’s not that the immigrants brought dogs here, she points out, but that “they have developed this hobby here, importing good dogs from Europe. Russian speakers love dogs and are naturally competitive.”
Blayvas, a computer programmer, often takes dogs abroad to show. “I really enjoy going abroad, and I don’t spend money on anything else; I save all my money for dog shows. I love shows and in order to win I am willing to invest,” she laughs.
In the last 15 years or so, the Israel dog scene has seen an increase in the popularity of junior handling competitions. Youngsters from ages six to 16 demonstrate their abilities handling dogs in the show ring: how to present the dog and themselves, including posture, eye contact and even knowledge. In other words, the animal holding the leash is the one being judged.
Teenagers, who have proven themselves particularly adept at handling, have been able to earn money entering other people’s dogs in shows. The best young handlers, most of them girls, are always fully booked.
“It gives the kids sensitivity to another creature, teaches them cooperation and the value of competition and fair sports,” says Nevo.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about aspects of the teen handler trend. “Sometimes it becomes very competitive, with the girls wearing fancy outfits and posing, forgetting that they’re showing dogs,” says Shiboleth, whose daughter Dorcas became Israel’s first junior handler 30 years ago, at the age of 10.
Many of the teen handlers find their experiences in the ring an entry to the army canine units when they go into the IDF. Acceptance into these units means undergoing a fiercely competitive testing procedure. Twenty-year-old Ilana Gutman from Arad is a career officer in the Israel Air Force’s canine unit. She began her career as a dog handler at the age of 13, when some friends introduced her to junior handling.
“There’s no school for learning how to be a handler,” says Gutman, “but it comes with working with different dogs and developing a special kind of contact.”
Paz Davidovich, 23, is a professional dog trainer and handler who also got her start as a junior handler at the age of 12.
In 2005, she represented Israel as a junior handler in the annual Crufts Show in Birmingham, England, the world’s biggest and most prestigious dog show. “In Israel the dog show scene is family-like and warm. Abroad it’s a very different world,” Davidovich relates. “Everything is so big, there are so many participants and so many dogs, and you kind of get lost.”
Davidovich, whose younger sister Yael just won the local Junior Handlers competition, is now working to save enough money for a course in canine therapy for people with special needs at the Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, near Netanya. “Something happens to us; this is our own special world. You work very hard, but there is a kind of freedom that is hard to explain to others. You develop special relationships with other people as well as the dogs.”