The call of the wild

Israel's native dog may be domesticated, but still shows a streak of independence.

dog head 88 (photo credit: )
dog head 88
(photo credit: )
Seconds before his first seizure, Ethan was alone, the family's Canaani dog, Raiah, his only company. But before Ethan even sensed anything unusual, Raiah became agitated and dashed out of the room to alert Ethan's mom. When Raiah returned with his mother a few moments later, Ethan was on the floor, experiencing a violent seizure. Cerebral palsy had already limited the use of Ethan's left arm and hand, and doctors discovered the nine-year-old also suffered from a seizure disorder. Today, sudden seizures come as no surprise to Ethan, but Raiah never fails to predict when one will occur. At Raiah's warning, Ethan lies flat on the floor or bed to prepare for the violent spasms that overtake his body. And Raiah stays beside him, laying her head on Ethan's chest until the seizure subsides. For her keen senses and loyal devotion to her owner, Raiah won the American Kennel Club Award in Canine Excellence for Exemplary Companion Dog last year. But these characteristics are just par for the course for Canaani dogs. "They're fascinating dogs, highly intelligent and extremely devoted to their own," says Myrna Shiboleth from her living room, where the walls are covered with hundreds of trophies her Canaani dogs have won. Calling herself the "world's expert on Canaanis," Shiboleth breeds Canaanis along with collies at her dog farm right outside Jerusalem. "I find them very challenging," she explains. "They're very independent - you can't buy their affection, you have to earn it. You have to build a relationship of mutual respect. They're not like other dogs that you can just give them a treat and they'll do what you say." "There's this joke I have," she continues, "that if you take a German shepherd to the edge of a cliff and say 'jump,' he'll lick your hand and jump. If you take a Canaani to the edge of a cliff and say 'jump,' he'll say 'you first.'" In fact, Canaanis don't often win the best in show prizes because they don't care and aren't submissive enough, adds Shiboleth. NATIVE TO Israel, their name comes from the ancient moniker for the land of Israel, and the dogs have been around since that time. Drawings found on the tombs at Beni Hassan, a small village in Egypt, date to 2,200-2,000 BCE and depict dogs that show a distinctive resemblance to modern Canaani dogs. Today, Canaanis are among the small minority of dogs left in the world that are still completely "natural," meaning they haven't been selectively bred for thousands of years to attain specific characteristics, says Shiboleth. Rather, they are true primitive dogs, a result of natural selection for survival in nature. They are the wild dogs of this part of the world, similar to the pariah dogs [see box] of Africa and India, and are very healthy animals operating primarily on survival instincts. As such, they display extreme alertness and reactivity and a suspicion of all strange things, including unfamiliar animals and people, which makes them excellent guard dogs. This was, in fact, their first use, when the Beduin employed them to guard their herds and tents. But the dog was officially discovered in the 1930s, when Rudolphina Menzel, a German animal behaviorist, was asked by the Palmah to develop reliable service dogs. Menzel came to Israel with Boxers, the dogs she had bred in Germany, but found the animals couldn't survive in Israel's environment. In her search for an animal that could withstand the desert conditions, she came across the wild dogs roaming the land. In Kiryat Haim, where she lived, Menzel managed to catch one of the dogs, who very quickly became domesticated. Dogs are, by their nature, ready for domestication, explains Shiboleth, and thus Menzel didn't have a difficult time breeding the wild Canaani and determining the breed standard - a detailed list of characteristics used to judge a given dog against the hypothetical ideal specimen of that breed. Now recognized in Israel and internationally, Israel's native dog breed is gaining popularity, and was even used, for a time, by the IDF as guard dogs, messenger dogs and mine detectors, says Shiboleth. AT THE SHA'AR Hagai kennels where she lives and works, Shiboleth has worked with Canaani dogs for 36 years, ever since she made aliya from the United States. The Canaanis she breeds there are exported all over the world to accommodate the growing interest in natural, healthy breeds, and Canaani puppies can often sell for a few thousand dollars. But the Canaani dog is already facing peril. As the human population in Israel grows, the area that the native wild Canaani population can exist in diminishes. And with people often come foreign dog breeds, which mix with Canaanis and decrease the native population. Furthermore, at the animal shelter for dogs and cats in Atarot, Canaanis or Canaani mixes represent the largest population - accounting for almost a third of the 300 dogs there, many of whom are dumped by negligent owners. "Canaanis are very adorable as puppies, they look like little bear cubs," says Eve Orchaya, who works for the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA). "But they grow up and are very smart animals and bark a lot and people get tired of them and abandon them. And on top of that, they often don't neuter them, so the dog has puppies and we find all of them along the side of a road." Canaanis are also often dumped near army bases throughout Israel, in the hope that soldiers will feed them scraps and pay them some attention. But unfortunately, says Orchaya, there are so many roaming around that "when the situation gets out of hand, the army authorizes them to be shot." According to Orchaya, the breeding of Canaanis is irresponsible considering the numbers dumped, but Shiboleth maintains that the problem is irresponsible owners, who buy a dog on a whim or for their children and once they realize the work involved, get rid of it. "Canaani dogs are more work than other dogs in the sense that you have to develop a relationship with them, they aren't subservient animals, they have a mind of their own," says one owner of a two-year-old Canaani dog named Sasha. "She has a distinct personality," continues the owner. "She's quick to learn new things, she's a great companion, a great watchdog and she's very loving and loyal." Though the Canaani was not available for comment, Shiboleth says Canaanis are also great with children and love to be around people. Dogs are the only animal, she adds, that will always choose to be with people over its own kind. "Sometimes we even think that Sasha thinks she's a person," concludes the owner. "We feel like we have to remind her, and sometimes ourselves, that she's actually just a dog." Where the wild things are Originally referring to the wild dogs of India, the "pariah dog" is a general term applied to any population of stray or feral dogs, regardless of their geographic location. The word "pariah" comes from India, where it originally designated members of the lowest social caste, the "untouchables," or social outcasts. In Australia, the pariah dogs are called Dingos, in the southern United States, they are known as Carolina dogs, in Asia, as Thai Ridgebacks and in Israel as Canaanis. Despite differences due to climate and environment, these pariahs often resemble each other. But wherever they are in the world, they are wild dogs living on the fringe of civilization. Strays often scavenge on the human population for food while feral dogs, which are fully wild, have no contact with humans at all. Like the Canaanis, pariah dogs all over the world are threatened by urbanization, human persecution and by their mixing with true domestic dog breeds, such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and the dogs most owned and bred by humans. Today, these unique pariah dogs are as close to the first dog - as separate from the wolf - that there are in the world.