The Canaan Dog: New Blood

If we were playing Jeopardy, the short answer would be that she is the world’s foremost expert breeder of Israel’s national dog breed, the Canaan dog.

The winning question: Who is Myrna Shiboleth?

We, however, have gotten a little ahead of ourselves.

In 1938, canine expert, Dr. Rudolphina Menzel and her husband, Dr. Rudolph Menzel, immigrated to Palestine from Vienna, Austria following Hitler’s demand that the couple lend their dog training services to the Nazi military.

Once in Israel, Dr. Rudolphina worked with training guide dogs for the blind, and hers was the leading institution in the field in Israel. She was also asked by the Haganah to help set up a canine division. Finding that standard breeds used for guarding and tracking were unable to cope with the harsh climate and terrain of the land, Dr. Rudolphina started to investigate local pariah dogs and found them to be not only amenable to domestication, but very quick to learn.

She set up a redomestication program for the dogs, and was responsible for gaining recognition for the Canaan Dog. She also wrote the breed standard which was accepted by the FCI in 1966.

Wikipedia will tell you that in 1970, Shaar Hagai Kennels “worked closely with Dr. Menzel in the development and breeding of the [Canaan Dog] breed, and continued Dr. Menzel’s work after her death in 1973.” What Wikipedia doesn’t mention is that Shaar Hagai Kennels is Myrna Shiboleth.

Myrna Shiboleth had emmigrated from Chicago to Israel in 1969. She’d been an animal trainer and served as a research technician on animal behavior at Tel-Aviv University. In 1970, Myrna established the kennel at Shaar Hagai 20 km. west of Jerusalem for the sole purpose of breeding the Canaan Dog.

A few years ago, Shiboleth reestablished her kennel in Europe, and NPDD is honored to have her as a friend. We recently caught up with Myrna and learned about some new desert-born pups. The following is her story about it:

In September 2019, I took a trip back to Israel.

One of the primary purposes of the trip was to see if it was possible to observe a small pack of dogs that appeared to be Canaans and to identify them as such. This pack is found in the south of Israel and lives on the edge of a settlement and in an area that includes wilderness areas and agricultural lands. Trying to keep on with the Canaan Preservation Project, and to go on bringing in new dogs from the desert while they still exist is very difficult to do long distance….it was time to come and try to see what the possibilities are.

A friend, who is very interested in nature and the Canaans, and who lives in the area, has been following and observing them for a long time. She also observed the mating of the bitch who was the pack leader and the male who also has been her companion for a long time. There is also another bitch in the pack, and a few puppies of about 4 months of age.

Canaan packs are always very small, rarely more than two or three, and sometimes a few pups that are not independent, as the conditions are so difficult and finding enough resources to support a larger number is nearly impossible. They are very devoted to each other, and a pair will stay together for life if they can. Canaan bitches are very particular about whom they mate with, and we have seen in fact bitches that would ignore all sorts of males in their vicinity and travel a distance to find a Canaan male to mate with.

It was important for me to see these dogs, as it could be possible to find the den of the mother and to take a few pups when they are old enough and raise them as family dogs, as dogs that will be available for breeding in future, to add some new genetic variation to the breed.

Friday night, my first day in Israel and a night with a full moon, we went out to the wilderness area where the dogs live in hopes of seeing them. It was a beautiful night, clear and cool, and everything illuminated by the wonderful full moon. The wilderness, so harsh in the daylight, was magical in the moonlight. And to our joy, the bitch was there, very heavily pregnant and resting in the fields. We could get to about 200 meters from her and observe her with binoculars.

Watching her, seeing her body build and movement, athletic and balanced, her head and expression, and her behavior, I had no doubt that she is a pure Canaan, also the fact that she has been able to survive for several years (she is about five or six) in a difficult and dangerous area indicates her purity. I was really thrilled!

She was the only dog we saw that night. We made plans to come again on the next Friday. Friday is the best day, as the Arab construction workers do not work on Friday, the area is quiet, and the dogs more readily come out and move around. In general, it is only possible to see the dogs early in the morning or in the evening. During the day, they disappear into sheltered areas and rest, not attracting attention.

I very much wanted to see the male. I had seen photos of him, but needed to see him in the flesh, to be sure he was also a Canaan, and therefore the pups would be of great value to us.

We walked along the dirt track leading away from the construction sites towards the open areas and the fields. There were many dog tracks here, and also tracks of many quail, one of the most common prey of these dogs. There were also here and there some remnants of other prey, bits of fur and bone. My friend told us that they also hunt small game – mice and rats, lizards, and such, but also can hunt foxes and even cats. (sorry to all the tender hearted, but this is the truth of nature…) My friend has set up a feeding station and puts out supplemental food for them daily, to encourage them to stay in this area so she can go on observing them.

And then, as we climbed over a mountain of construction rubble and sand, there they were, several hundred meters away, resting in a field and watching us closely to see what our intentions were. The second bitch was there with two four month old pups; the pups were not hers, but the pups of another bitch that had been killed by the local teenagers, who thought that chasing and killing dogs with ATVs was a great sport. The mother of these pups was a mixed breed, but when she was killed, the pack adopted and cared for the pups, whose father seemed to be the male of the pack.

When we tried to get closer, the male immediately went on guard, barking and warning us to keep our distance, supported by one of the pups. But when we stopped approaching, they settled down again, always keeping a wary eye on what we were doing.

The male was a lovely Canaan in appearance, strong, with good bone, excellent construction and typical movement. He had one broken ear, not surprising for a dog who has to deal with all sorts of challenges, but other than that, he was a beautiful boy. I was so happy to see him. The second bitch also appeared to be a Canaan, although a bit less typical than the other two.

Our pregnant bitch was nowhere to be seen, and we felt that she must have whelped and was staying in the den with her pups. We had seen several dens dug into the rocky, sandy hills around us, very deep and with a turn to the right so that the dogs and pups when inside were completely protected. We were confident that in a few days, the mother would start coming out for food, and it would be possible to find exactly where her den is.

I had been accompanied this time by two friends who were really thrilled to see free living Canaans and promised their help in future.

Our plans now were for my friend to keep a close eye on the pack, and especially the mother, and when the pups are old enough, six weeks or so, but not so big that it would be impossible to catch them, we would take a few of them to raise in “civilization”, as pets and working dogs, and then be able to use them for breeding, to add a new bloodline to the gene pool of the breed. We had never had any Canaans from this particular area before, and the chances are excellent that they are completely unrelated to the lines we have. I am so happy at this success! It has made the Israel trip very worthwhile.

After returning to Italy, I tried to keep in regular touch to follow what was happening. My friend had not yet been able to find the den, it was very well hidden and the mother was very, very cautious. We were worried that soon the pups would be out and running around and impossible to catch.

More problems arose. The location of the pack was on the edge of a town, in an area where there was a lot of building activity. Now, there was a lot of additional activity with trucks bringing new building supplies and many more workers. The dogs did not like this, and the pack abandoned the area and disappeared. My friend was very worried, not knowing if something had happened to them or to where they had moved.

She scoured the area looking for them, with no luck. But then finally, after several weeks, she spotted the adults in a new area some distance away. The mother seemed to still have a quantity of milk, which gave us the hope that the pups were still alive and nursing in the new location.

And then, after some days of observations in the new area, my friend saw the pups, running with the pack. They were now about two months old and were perfectly capable of running after their mother. But now trying to catch any of them would be very difficult. There were four pups, three females and one male.

Canaan Dog,Myrna Shiboleth,Dr. Rudolphina Menzel,Dr. Rudolph Menzel,Israel

The father with pups. Photo by Heally Gross

My friend set up a feeding station for them in the new location and the dogs quickly learned to come to eat. Now it was urgent to try and catch the pups, before they were too big and fast.

A plan was made with the help of a professional dog catcher, a time was set, and I waited impatiently to hear the results. Luck was with us this time! The three female pups were caught and brought to a secure location where they could be socialized and get used to living with people.

The male ran off with his mother, and we were actually glad that she still had one of the pups with her. But the dangers of life in nature and the threat of the local population and their sport of hunting down the free living dogs resulted in the male pup disappearing after a few weeks…

The pups are now living with Canaan people, and being raised and socialized in positive environments, and learning to trust people. I have high hopes of being able to use them for breeding in the future, to bring in a completely new bloodline.

My friend meanwhile has been working on making friend with the mother, who has been named Ofek. She has learned to come close and accept food that is left out, and she is very close to taking food from my friend’s hand. This is tremendous progress, and again shows that these are not wild animals, but dogs, that are ready to form a relationship with people. No attempt will be made to capture her though, she is five or six and has lived free all her life. She is very clever and understands the dangers of her environment, and would not be happy to be confined. We can only hope that she goes on surviving…

Canaan Dog,Myrna Shiboleth,Dr. Rudolphina Menzel,Dr. Rudolph Menzel,Israel

The Canaan Dog bitch. Photo Heally Gross

It was great to be able to get in some new stock, but my possibilities are so limited now, by the distance and the difficulty of managing things from outside Israel. But that is the situation presently, I do not know what the future will bring.

Here in Italy we are in Lockdown now, are supposed to stay home and go out only for critical things, We get food and dog food delivered. People are very disciplined and very helpful and the authorities are very efficient – everyone is doing their best. But it is scary….

Hope you don’t have to cope with many problems where you are!!! This whole situation is going to cause a lot of life changes in the near future. It feels like living in a science fiction novel. I used to read a lot of science fiction, but lost interest some years ago when it stopped being fiction. But I never expected to live through a scenario like this!

We are indebted to Myrna for this vivid update about a marvelous breed, and to Heally Gross for incredible photographs. Stay well, Myrna and Heally!

8 thoughts on “The Canaan Dog: New Blood”

  1. Thank you Myrna for your exciting description of these free born dogs. I love this breed and hope these new female pups add to the gene pool. You are one of a kind whose focus and dedication is amazing.

    • Agreed, Karen. Myrna is an icon and we were thrilled to get her update.

  2. I have a good friend who lived in Jordan for a year or so. She took In a Canaan Dog puppy from the streets, intending to get him healthy and fine him a new home. Well, he now lives in Virginia with her. He’s a lovely dog, very devoted.

    • They sound like an amazing breed, Sharyn, with centuries of survival under their, uh, collar….

  3. I defy anyone to look at any dog of whatever “breed” and know it is “pure” or not. These may well be but so too may others that are dismissed. From genetic testing of over 50 free living pure dogs of this type we know there is a high percentage of DM carrier among them but few at risk, unlike the human bred Canaan that have among the highest DM at risk rate as per data of the OFA because of inbreeding. There are also other less common genetic health issues. It is therefore essential that any “new blood” be fully tested for all known genetic health issues and to check purity before adding them to the “breed”. Only Embark have data on what they term “village dogs”, which of course is what these dogs are until accepted by kennel clubs. Further Canaan dogs are not Israels national dog, that is purely a wish claimed by some in Israel. To be officially considered a national dog, flower, bird or anything else requires government approval.

  4. Our Yukiko came to us from the streets of Amaan, Jordan two years ago. She is a true Canaan Dog and carries it proudly~she an amazing dog!

    • Everything we read about the breed concurs with you, Laura. Amazing dogs, and oh, the history!

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