Canaan Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Canaan Dog

Barely changed since Biblical times, the Canaan Dog is one of the most ancient breeds. Having worked with sheep-herders in the Middle East as much as 4000 years ago, the breed was relegated to pariah status by the advance of the Roman Empire, and only returned to domesticity in very recent times. Having survived for around two millennia on its wits in the Israeli desert, it exhibits high intelligence, an instinct to hunt, territorial behaviour, and wariness of strangers. While it may have become accustomed to vast, open spaces in the past, it is also supremely adaptable, and is equally at home in the densest of urban or most remote of rural settings. It is a protective breed, and usually very good with children, although it is not suitable for novice owners, as it is a truly primitive breed, and will constantly push to assume a dominant position in the family pack if it senses uncertainty or lack of confidence from its people.

Intensive socialisation from puppyhood is vital, and a constant effort to meet new people in positive situations must be made for several years in order to overcome the Canaan’s instinctive cautiousness and sensitivity around strangers, which can manifest as aggression. In addition, many individuals are dog-aggressive, especially when meeting others of the same sex. For this reason, it would not be recommended for homes with other dogs, and smaller pets are likely to be viewed as prey. Despite these specific considerations, the Canaan is a very trainable dog in the right hands; indeed, it was for service work with the disabled, and as a mine detection dog with the Israeli armed forces that it was domesticated in the twentieth century. It has very light exercise requirements, and a low-shedding coat that is easy to care for. Furthermore, millennia of desert living have shaped a breed with an extremely low rate of inherited disease, meaning the Canaan dog has much to recommend it to an experienced owner looking to acquire a rare breed. It has a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years.

About & History

Passages from the Bible dating to around 3000 BCE describe the use of sheep-herding dogs, called Kelef Kanani, by the ancient Hebrews in the Canaan region, which encompassed much of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Greece. Wall paintings discovered in the mid-1800s in an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hassan, dated to 2200–2000 BCE, depict a man walking two animals on leads: one is a mongoose, the other is unmistakably the Canaan Dog – placing it firmly in the position of being one of the oldest domesticated breeds. With the arrival of the Roman conquerors, many of the native farmers in the region were displaced, as were their dogs, with many surviving Canaans retreating to the arid wastes of the Israeli desert. There, the breed somehow managed to survive for centuries, and although the Bedouin sometimes captured and domesticated Canaans for use as guard dogs and herders, the vast majority of these pariah dogs had little or no contact with humans throughout this time.

However, in the 1930s, the Israeli military contracted Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, an Austrian cynologist of some renown, to develop a breed suitable for use by its troops in the harsh desert conditions. Although she initially planned to cross-breed several existing breeds for this purpose, Dr. Menzel was struck by the vigour of the feral dogs she had seen roaming the country, and decided to attempt to capture and breed several of these individuals. After months of effort, she and her husband managed to trap Dugma, a male dog who was to become central to her breeding program. Despite the difficulty in first capturing this dog, within weeks he was tamed to the point of being able to walk in public on a lead. By 1934, Dr. Menzel had enough dogs in captivity to begin breeding in earnest, and from there the Canaan was reborn as a domesticated dog.

Since then, the Canaan Dog has been employed as a resilient and reliable guard and mine detection dog by the Israeli army, and has also shown itself to be a capable guide dog. Although it does not have the refined skills of some of the more modern herding breeds, for example, the Border Collie, its adaptations to the desert have allowed it to continue in this role in its homeland. The breed has only relatively recently left the shores of Israel, with the first individuals arriving in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, and official Kennel Club recognition following in 1970. It is considered a rare breed with between two and three thousand dogs registered internationally.


Canaan Dog Large Photo
Matilda /

In the wild, the Canaan presents several distinct body shapes, but it has been largely standardised since its domestication. It is a Spitz-type breed, with a strong, compact body. It has a wedge-shaped head that appears very broad by virtue of its low-set erect ears, between which it has a flat skull. The muzzle is reasonably broad and long, with a strong jaw and large teeth. The Canaan’s eyes are dark brown, obliquely set, and have dark lids.

Its neck is muscular and well set onto the shoulders, and the body shape is square, with equal proportions along the vertical and horizontal. The chest is deep and wide, and the strong abdomen is well tucked up. As a Spitz, the Canaan has a thick, bushy tail that is set high and carried in a curl over the back. The fore and hind limbs are of equal length and well angulated at each joint, and the paws are strong and cat-like in their shape. The Canaan has a brisk, short gait that is deceptively fast.

The coat is thick, with a harsh, straight outer layer and very dense undercoat. Rather than being designed to retain heat, this thick double layer serves to insulate the body from the heat of the sun. It comes in a range of colours:

  • Sandy
  • Gold
  • Red
  • Cream
  • Black

Spots, patches and symmetrical masks are all accepted markings, but the breed standard refuses to recognise grey, brindle, black-and-tan and tricolour variations. Male Canaans measure 50–60 cm (20–24 in) tall, and weigh 20–25 kg (44–55 lb); females range from 45 to 50 cm (18–20 in) and 18 to 23 kg (40–51 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Canaan Dog is a loving and loyal family pet, but is not a breed that enjoys attention from people it has not bonded with. In order to survive in the wild, it was necessary that it develop a cautious approach to life, and it tends to treat novel experiences and individuals as threats until proven otherwise. For this reason, it is an alert and very noisy watch dog, though its tendency to bark indiscriminately may limit its usefulness in this role.

It is protective and gentle around children, but its primitive nature means that its position as the subordinate pack member must be reinforced by the entire family. Novice dog owners, or those used to “softer” breeds may struggle to assert themselves in the Canaan’s eyes, which can lead to problems with dominance behaviours. The breed does not generally mix well with other pets, including dogs.


As evidenced by the varying uses to which the breed has been put in its native Israel, the Canaan Dog can be trained to a high level, but it can also be stubborn. The member of the family whom the dog identifies as being the pack leader is the one most likely to have success with training, as the Canaan can get bored easily, and is quite likely to adopt a “Why should I bother?” attitude with other humans.

While socialisation is important for all dogs in puppyhood, for the Canaan, this process of being introduced to new people, then being rewarded for good behaviour, must continue for years, if not for life, in order to mitigate its natural suspicion.


The rigorous process of natural selection to which the breed was subjected for almost two millennia resulted in the prevention or elimination of most of the inherited health conditions seen in the modern pedigrees. Although the following have been reported in individual Canaan Dogs, there appear to be no significant health problems in the breed:


Failure of one or both testicles to descend into the scrotum in male dogs.


Neurological disorder causing seizures.


Autoimmune disease of the thyroid gland causing decreased levels of thyroid hormone, necessary to maintain normal metabolism.

Medial Patellar Luxation

Mal-alignment of the bones of the hindlimb leading to lack of stability of the kneecap.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Canaan Dog has a relatively low requirement for exercise, and will adapt its activity levels to match those of its owner. While it can live happily in an apartment with 20 to 30 minutes of walking each day, it can also happily accompany more active owners on running or cycling excursions.


The breed has a very low-maintenance coat that needs only weekly brushing, very infrequent baths, and should not be clipped. In addition, it sheds very little and does not have a strong doggy odour, making the Canaan Dog a very pleasant breed to share a home with. Its nails may need to be clipped every few weeks, a routine that should be started when the dog is young and more likely to comply, as older dogs experiencing nail clipping for the first time can find the process stressful.

Famous Canaan Dogs

Probably the most famous Canaan Dog of recent times was Friday, owned by John F. Kennedy Jr. in the 1990s.


The Sibercaan, a Siberian Husky / Canaan Dog mix, appears to be the only currently recognised hybrid derived from the breed.

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