Alert, smart, a natural sheepdog, aggressive yet faithful and trainable, everything about the Canaan Dog suggests this is the dog of the Bible. Yet the story of the renaissance of the national dog of Israel, is akin to the survival of the Jewish people: nothing short of a miracle.
The story begins in Austria at the turn of the 20th century where psychologist, biochemist and biologist Rudolphina Menzel, established a training school for guard and tracker dogs for the Austrian police. With a delicious dose of hindsight irony, they trained them for the Viennese authorities by teaching the dogs to respond to commands in Hebrew.
In the early 1930’s, with British policies becoming more pro-Arab, the Menzels made a quick visit to Eretz Yisrael to train dogs for the Haganah. After four years they returned to Austria. When Hitler annexed their homeland, he ordered the couple to trains dogs for the German army. They immediately fled Austria with the help of a friend who had been drafted into the SS. They sailed to Israel’s shores with some of their dogs and shortly after their arrival, set up a center to train dogs to sniff out mines.
The British asked the couple to train 400 dogs for their 1942 campaign in North Africa. The Menzels agreed only with permission from the Jewish authorities, and on the condition that these dogs would never be used against Jews.
Rudolphina set out to scour the land for suitable dogs. She captured a group of semi-pariahs scavenging the desert and hillsides. Rare for dogs, these had a double coat. The outer one was bristly and the inner one was soft. It was a coat that protected them from the harsh cold winters and defended them from the relentless heat of the summer. This adaptation rendered them suitable for the harshest of tasks. The dogs were perfect for what they needed. The couple initiated a selective breeding program, the result of which was the Canaan Dog.
All the pariah dogs in the world belong to the Canaan family. Many scientists view the species as the missing link in the stages from wolf to domestic dog. Evidence for the domestication of the dog is ample in Israel. In Ashkelon, Archeologists discovered a dog graveyard with remains of about 1500 skeletons (mostly puppies) buried carefully side by side. From examining the bones, they found that they were similar to the Canaan Dog. It raises questions: did the puppies die of natural causes ? Were they sacrificed, or were they pets who were lovingly interred in the ground?
And did the people who lived 2500 years ago also coddle their pets and sneak treats under the table?
The brilliant innovate Rudolphina Menzel went on to publish research on the dogs’ behavior which was awarded high praise from academics throughout the world. She also became the first woman to receive a professorship at an Israeli university.
First published here