The battle to save Israel's biblical-era desert dogs

A kennel devoted to the survival of the rare Canaan is facing eviction by the government, says Catrina Stewart in Jerusalem

Motorists thundering past on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway probably never notice the modest kennels set slightly back from the road in the British Mandate-era buildings that are home to Israel's only breeding programme for the native, biblical-era Canaan dog.

Indeed, many Israelis have never even heard of the Canaan dog – distinctive for its pointed ears, curled tail and fiercely independent spirit – even though it is the country's national breed.

Owing to a land dispute, the future of the little-known Canaan is now in doubt. Myrna Shiboleth, a diminutive Israeli originally from Chicago, who has devoted years to ensuring the survival of the breed at the Shaar Hagi kennels south of Jerusalem, is now fighting an eviction order from the Israeli government.

If forced to leave her home of four decades, Mrs Shiboleth says she will almost certainly have to end her breeding project. Experts fear the abandonment of the programme could lead to the extinction of the Canaan breed within a generation, robbing Israel of an important part of its history.

"Whatever money we had, we put into this," Mrs Shiboleth says. "It could mean we'd just have to stop. We certainly don't have anything to buy a new property."

Small but fearsome, the Canaan dog is believed to have roamed for millennia across the arid reaches of ancient Canaan, the area that roughly corresponds to modern-day Israel, Lebanon and parts of Jordan. One of the oldest breeds in existence today, it has been immortalised in etchings and drawings dating as far back as the fourth century BC.

Although Bedouin tribesmen have long recognised the breed's worth as prized guard dogs to protect their flocks from predators, it was only when Rudolphina Menzel, a Jewish woman who moved to Mandate-era Palestine in the 1930s, was asked by the Jewish pre-state military, the Haganah, to set up a dog section for tracking and mine clearance that the Canaan gained formal recognition as a breed.

She noticed that imported dogs, such as Dobermans and German Shepherds, found it difficult to cope with the dry and dusty conditions, so she started to study the native dog more closely, selecting the purest of those from which to start breeding.

Mrs Shiboleth took over from the Menzels in the 1970s, selecting derelict British-built buildings for her kennels after identifying Israel's Water Authority as the legal owners. For the next decade or so, the Shiboleths paid rent for the property, but it subsequently transpired that the land belonged not to the Water Authority, but to Israel's Land Administration, ILA.

Despite making repeated requests to normalise their situation with the ILA over the next three decades, their letters went unanswered – until a year ago, when the state body ordered them to leave the site, saying that it was situated in a national park.

Thousands of Canaan lovers have flocked to the Shiboleths' support by signing an online petition in recognition of their efforts to put the breed on the map, but a final decision is in the hands of the courts, with the next hearing scheduled for October.

The land administration says that the case fell through the cracks. "ILA, for various reasons, remained quiet, but now it's time to make order," ILA's lawyer told the court at a hearing last month, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported. ILA did not respond to a request for comment.

Although there are isolated pockets of Canaan dogs all over the world, breeders say they rely on the Shiboleths to widen the gene pool with wild dogs sourced in the Middle East, a task that is essential to ensuring that the breed ultimately survives.

Twice a year, Mrs Shiboleth goes out

to the Bedouin villages in Israel's Negev desert to find new dogs, a task that is getting progressively harder as Bedouin lifestyles gravitate away from their farmsteads, in part because of government policies aimed at pushing the Bedouin into cities. At the same time, Jewish communities are springing up in their place, replacing farmsteads with urban developments.

"In 10 or 20 years, no more [wild] Canaan dogs will exist in the desert," says Ze'ev Trainen, a scientist and Israeli dog expert.

"If by then, the genetic scale is broad enough, it is possible to have [this breed] for many generations, but otherwise it will become extinct."

It is a sobering thought. A gene pool that is as wide as possible is essential, as in-breeding ultimately leads to infertility, and hundreds of dog breeds are on the endangered list for that very reason.

Although Israel has made extensive efforts to reintroduce indigenous species to the land, its efforts have largely focused on animals such as the Arabian oryx and the onager, or wild ass. The Canaan dog, says Professor Trainen, is not categorised as a wild animal, and as a consequence, it is neglected. The same is true in other parts of the Middle East where perfect specimens still exist, but are regarded as strays.

Those who extol the virtues of the Canaan dog say that its demise would mean the disappearance of one of the last truly natural breeds.

"The Canaan is the forefather of the dog we have now," says Mrs Shiboleth. "We think it's very important that such a dog exists so that people can see what a dog really was."

It retains a keen instinct for survival, which is rare among domesticated dogs. When a sandstorm brews, for example, it digs a shallow trench and flattens its ears against its eyes for protection. "Nature creates things to survive. Every feature is not there for looks; it's there for a purpose," says Ellen Minto, who owns Canaan dogs in Britain. "I like that."

But it's not a dog that suits everyone. Unlike more servile breeds, such as the Labrador, it is a highly intelligent dog, described by those who own it as an equal, not a pet.

"Canaans are never your servant; they're your partner," says Mrs Shiboleth. "They have to respect you. You can't buy them with food or with toys."

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