Thursday, March 29, 2012

“Biblical” Dog in Trouble

An article in The Washington Post highlights the plight of Israel’s ancient dog “breed”, the Canaan, which is struggling to hang on due to rabies eradication programs, loss of habitat (meaning a change in human lifestyle) and cross-breeding.

There are a mere few hundred estimated to be left in Israel’s wilderness mainly living on the edge of Bedouin camps. However, across the world there are 2-3,000 Canaan dogs being kept as pets. Myrna Shiboleth, who runs Sha’ar Hagai Kennels in Israel, is the one breeder trying to bring fresh blood into the breeding program by getting new dogs from the wild or encouraging the wild Canaans to mate with her stock but she is finding it harder and harder to find any wild ones.

The Canaan’s recognition as a breed only began in the 1930s when a visiting Austrian biologist used them to train as guard dogs for Jewish settlements. However, it’s history as a pariah dog goes back a long way with it being recognized in “1st-century rock carvings in the Sinai” and “skeletons of more than 700 dogs from the 5th century B.C. discovered south of Tel Aviv”. It is also suggested that references to dogs in the bible must have been referring to the Canaan.

Therefore, it actually seems wrong to me to call the Canaan a breed at all. The above article (and elsewhere) is littered with terms that identify the Canaan as a middle-eastern village dog or pariah. Not everyone will agree with this but to me it seems highly probable that it did not come into being through direct human selection as with other breeds but as a consequence of scavenging around human communities as with dogs such as the south-east Asian dingo, and as such is not strictly a “breed”.  To me, the only way to save the Canaan is conserve it in situ because it’s lifestyle is as much a part of it as it’s physical characteristics are but this is particularly difficult in Israel’s restricted space.

The Canaan is Israel’s national dog, which makes my next suggestion difficult, but the remaining wild Canaans are not restricted to political boundaries and looking further afield in neighboring countries would undoubtedly reveal a larger wild population.

It is almost as if we now have two Canaans: the breed dog being kept as pets and the free-ranging original version. An alternative, and to me preferable, approach would be to say that the Canaan is an Israeli breed bred from the middle-eastern pariah dog, and not to use the label at all for the dogs still living the pariah lifestyle.

There is much good, although inconclusive, evidence that dog domestication first occurred in the middle-east, so perhaps an incentive to focus efforts on conserving the free-ranging “Canaan” dogs would be the possibility that these animals represent not only the biblical dog but also the closest relatives we have to the original dogs. 

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