In the Bible, the book of Exodus calls Canaan — ancient Palestine and Phoenicia from about 3,000 BCE — a good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey. Flocks of sheep and goats prospered there, and where there are flocks, there are dogs. The dogs of these ancient Middle Eastern communities were known as Kelef Kanani, Hebrew words meaning Canaan Dog. It's likely that the Kelef Kanani differed little from his modern-day descendant, the Canaan Dog. Tomb drawings from Beni Hassan in Egypt, which date to 2200-2000 BCE, show dogs with smooth coats, prick ears, and bushy tails curling over their backs. No doubt they had the same alert, watchful, inquisitive expression that marks today's Canaan Dog, a breed that may well be a living portrait of early domesticated dogs.
The Middle Eastern herding dogs of the past kept their charges from straying, protected them from predators or thieves, and sounded the alarm when danger was near. But over the centuries, with the invasion of Roman conquerors and the dispersal of the land's inhabitants to the far corners of the earth, the Canaan Dog became unemployed. He retreated to the hilly desert of southern Israel, living a feral lifestyle that depended on his wits and fitness. Sometimes he continued in his nomadic life, earning a living with the Bedouin desert dwellers, or served as guards for the Druse, religious communities of hill people who made their home on Mount Carmel and other areas of what are now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Sculpted by this harsh lifestyle, the dog became a wily athlete, perfectly suited to his environment.
For centuries, the Canaan Dog continued his unfettered life in the desert, but in 1935, world events conspired to bring him back into the human community. Not only was World War II brewing, an independent Jewish state was in the offing. Isolated Jewish settlements in Palestine needed guard dogs that could withstand desert conditions, and the area's armed forces were looking for a desert-tough guard and patrol dog. Rudolphina Menzel, a professor of animal and comparative psychology at the University of Tel Aviv, was asked to develop a dog that would meet these needs. Her original plan was to work with established breeds, but in her mind's eye she kept picturing Canaan Dogs that she had seen in the desert. They had survival skills, and that was what was needed.
Dr. Menzel and her husband acquired several of the desert dogs and began breeding them, recording and refining their bloodlines. They trained their new breed for sentry work, land mine detection, and message delivery, and they were active with the Middle East Forces during World War II. After the war, some of the dogs took up second careers as guide dogs. By 1948, the Palestine Kennel Club had registered 150 of them.
In 1965, Ursula Berkowitz of Oxnard, California, imported four Canaan Dogs. The Canaan Dog Club of America was formed the same year. The United Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1992 and the American Kennel Club in 1997. The breed entered the national spotlight in 1998 when Ch. Catalina's Felix to the Max became the first Canaan Dog to compete in the Herding Group at the Westminster Kennel Club show. He's still a rare breed, ranking 150th among the 155 breeds and varieties registered by the AKC.
The Canaan's dense undercoat allows him to spend time outdoors in all kinds of weather, but when his people are home, he should be a housedog. He requires a securely fenced yard to protect him from traffic and from altercations with other dogs. With a consistent schedule, he's easy to housetrain.
Canaans love to dig and can make quite large excavations in a short period if left to their own devices. Provide them with a digging area they can call their own or redirect the digging tendency with other activities.
The Canaan doesn't require extensive exercise. He's usually satisfied with a couple of short walks a day or a walk plus some vigorous playtime in the backyard.
Canaans are gentle with children, devoted and protective. Always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between dogs and young children to prevent any biting or ear or tail pulling on the part of either party. Teach your child never to approach any dog while he's eating or sleeping or to try to take the dog's food away. No dog, no matter how loving, should ever be left unsupervised with a child.
Canaans can get along with other dogs, if they're brought up with them and socialized extensively, but they tend to play rough with a lot of vocalization. To people who don't know the breed, they may seem aggressive toward other dogs. They can be, but it's important to be able to tell the difference between rough play and true aggression. Study dog body language so you can know when to interfere and when to relax and let them be dogs. That said, adult Canaans are not the best candidates for playing at off-leash dog parks. They may try to bully or interfere with the play of other dogs. They can also be aggressive toward dogs of the same sex.
Canaans do best with cats when they're raised with them and when the cat is savvy enough to stand up to the dog instead of running from him. Running activates the Canaan's prey drive, and he will give chase. The breed's strong prey drive can lead them to chase and kill small animals, especially those they find outdoors. They are probably not a good choice for families with pets such as rabbits, hamsters, and gerbils.
Begin accustoming your Canaan to being brushed and examined when he's a puppy. Handle his paws frequently — dogs are touchy about their feet — and look inside his mouth and ears. Make grooming a positive experience filled with praise and rewards, and you'll lay the groundwork for easy veterinary exams and other handling when he's an adult.
The Canaan is described as alert, vigilant, devoted, and docile with his family. He's aloof toward strangers, although he should never be shy or aggressive, and highly territorial. His territoriality, which kicks in at about age 2, makes the Canaan a good alarm dog. He's sure to bark whenever anyone comes to the door, settling back down once he's certain you have the situation under control. That's assuming he views you as leader of the pack. If he doesn't, he may try to run things himself and make his own decisions about who's welcome and who's not. You must be willing and able to be a strong leader when you live with a Canaan.
The breed requires extensive socialization — exposure to many different people, places, sights, sounds, and experiences — and not just for a few months in puppyhood but for several years, if not a lifetime. A dog who has been exposed to a variety of people and situations while young will be less stressed and less likely to overreact when confronted with something new as an adult. If you plan to show or compete with your Canaan in any type of dog sport, socialization and training are essential to your success. Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.
Some Canaan Dogs go through a fear period starting at 9 to 12 months of age, which can last for as long as a year. They may be especially anxious around strangers and bark at seemingly harmless objects. During this period, be calm and confident, showing him that he has nothing to fear. Trying to soothe him will only encourage him to believe that there really is something out there waiting to get him.
Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who's beating up his littermates or the one who's hiding in the corner. Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who's available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you're comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.
Canaans are a hardy breed and don't suffer from any known hereditary health problems.
If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition. In Canaans, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).