The Canaan dog is “what they call a mutt,” Saltz says.
A mutt is what the Canaan dog was to most observers until an Austrian biologist came to Palestine in the 1930s and started looking for dogs that could serve the nascent Jewish defense forces. Rudolphina Menzel identified them as a native breed that tolerated the climate well and named them after the biblical Land of Canaan.
The pooches were used in patrols and landmine detection units and performed as messenger dogs. Jewish settlers also prized the Canaan’s alertness and counted on them to bark at Arab intruders.
In 1965, the first Canaan dogs arrived in the United States, and it didn’t take long for Shiboleth — then an animal trainer in New York — to get hooked. She moved to Israel in 1969 with an American-born female Canaan in tow. In 1970, she and a handful of others founded Sha’ar Hagai in the Judean Hills, using Menzel’s breeding stock and dogs collected in the wild.
The Canaan dog was originally popular with the Jewish diaspora, but soon others were attracted by its natural look. Its profile was raised when John F. Kennedy Jr. purchased a Canaan in the 1990s. Today, the dog can be found in households across much of Europe and North America as well as in Russia and South Africa.
There are 2,000 to 3,000 Canaan dogs across the world, but most are closely related. If the gene pool is not continually strengthened with new bloodlines from the wild, experts say, the breed could develop degenerative diseases.
“Unless some true effort is made, they will just fade into history, and that would be a shame,” says Janice Koler-Matznick, an Oregon-based biologist and expert on primitive dog breeds.
The only person who regularly provides fresh blood is Shiboleth, who makes a couple of annual trips to the desert to find wild dogs or to get her females to mate with the Bedouins’ males.
Often, she comes back empty-handed.
“They’re disappearing much faster than I thought they would,” she says.
Cynthia Dodson and David Golden of Falls Church say they were “quite analytical” when they decided to get a dog 14 years ago. They liked the look of the pariah dogs they saw during trips overseas and wanted a dog that would be free of the genetic ailments that affect many breeds. They settled on the Canaan and got a pair.
“You can see in all their behavior how they’re closer to the wild, but they’re still very domesticated,” Golden says. “It’s not like we brought wolves into the house.”
Golden says he likes to imagine the relatives of his two dogs frolicking in the wilderness and jokes that he and Dodson tell stories to their couch-loving dogs about their wilder cousins.
“The story is important to us and to a lot of people,” he says. “To lose this linkage [to] thousands of years would be a real tragedy.”
Brulliard is a freelance writer.