SHA’AR HAGAI, Israel — Pricked, pointy ears and almond-shaped brown eyes. A tan or black-and-white coat and a tail that curls upward. For many in Israel, this is the description of a pesky stray that feeds on garbage. But for a passionate few, it is a cultural treasure that should be preserved.
Meet the biblical dog.
“When they talk about dogs in the Bible, it was these,” says Myrna Shiboleth, who has done more than anyone to rescue the breed formally known as Canaan dog. “It was the same dog.”
The archaeological evidence bears it out, from 1st-century rock carvings in the Sinai to the skeletons of more than 700 dogs from the 5th century B.C. discovered south of Tel Aviv. When Jesus and Moses turned their heads to the sound of a barking dog, it was the Canaan that they saw.
But after surviving the birth of three religions, the Crusades and countless wars, the Canaan dog — one of the oldest known breeds of pariah dogs — is the focus of a battle that pitches people who believe in the value of preserving the primitive breed for scientific and sentimental reasons against modern bureaucracy. As often is the case in Israel, land use is at the heart of the battle.
In recent decades, scores of Canaan dogs were destroyed in rabies eradication programs, and now only a few hundred subsist in the Negev desert, often living at the edges of Bedouin camps. But as Bedouins increasingly settle in cities, the Canaan dogs either are left to fend for themselves or lose their breed’s traits by mating with urban dogs.
And now the Israeli government is threatening to close the operation that has been helping preserve the breed by collecting rare specimens in the desert, breeding them and shipping their offspring to kennels around the globe, where they are recognized by major organizations, from the American Kennel Club to the Federation Cynologique Internationale, the international canine federation.
In an eviction notice sent late last year, the Israel Land Authority argues that Sha’ar Hagai Kennels is illegally occupying government land. Sha’ar Hagai’s Shiboleth says she moved more than 40 years ago to what was then an abandoned water station and paid rent to the water company only to find out that it didn’t own the land. She says she asked the land authority about regularizing her situation and heard nothing — until she received the eviction notice. Moving, she says, would be prohibitively expensive, and few neighborhoods would welcome noisy kennels.
In an online petition, about 2,000 people from dozens of countries and nearly every U.S. state have taken up Shiboleth’s case, voicing outrage at what they see as Israel’s lack of attention to the fate of the “holy dog.” One even goes so far as to compare its fate to that of the Jewish people and their narrow escape from annihilation.
The matter is to be decided in court. If she is not successful there, Shiboleth and her dogs face an exodus that will most likely put an end to her breeding program.
What surprises many people is that the dog is getting so little support compared with other beasts of the Good Book.
Starting in the 1960s, Israel launched an ambitious program to bring back “the animals of the Bible to the land of the Bible,” says David Saltz, an ecology professor at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Targeted species included the Asiatic wild ass (a big success) and the ostrich (a complete failure). The reintroduction efforts went to extreme lengths: In one spectacular instance, four Persian fallow deer were smuggled out of Iran.
The Canaan dog has been recognized as Israel’s national breed, but today’s conservationists don’t put the hound on a par with the Arabian white oryx, which receives full support from Israeli authorities after four of the antelopes, purchased from the Phoenix Zoo, were reintroduced in 1978.
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.