A history of the Jewish dog

Dedicated to all true dog-lovers

Several years ago, the Israeli author Asher Kravitz published a warm and tender book which he titled “HaKelev HaYehudi”…. The Jewish Dog. It told the deeply moving story of Jewish life in a European city before, during and after the Holocaust from the dog’s point of view. The dog recalls Shabbat and holidays, joyful family gatherings, suffering and brutality under Nazi occupation, and redemption in old age.

I am reminded of that beautiful book by the life and death of my daughter’s beloved thirteen-year old dog, a mixture of Doberman and something else. We had always had dogs in our family, including a purebred German Shepherd and a Doberman who was as gentle as a pussy-cat and who often jumped up, to my wife’s great displeasure, on my bed to return my petting and affection with her licks and kisses. For us, a dog was not a dog, not an animal, but a member of our family. It is a child who never grows up and returns love and affection a hundred fold over. Only a dog-owner can understand this fact.

My daughter’s dog Justice (a good name for an attorney’s pet) was every bit a Jewish dog. As soon as the Shabbat and yomtov candles were lit, she would run to the table and sit quietly until Kiddush and ha-motzi were made, and waited patiently for her big slice of challah. When Shabbat ended and we were chanting the havdalah prayers, Justice sat beside us in anticipation of her share of the remnants of the Shabbat challah. No Shabbat or holiday observance passed by without Justice’s presence lying quietly near the dining room table awaiting for her share, and sometimes barking softly for a larger slice.

A few years ago, my wife and daughter had the opportunity to visit the Shaar Hagai kennels on the highway to Jerusalem. Shaar Hagai is a special place. Its Arabic name is Bab-el Wad and was the scene of extremely heavy fighting in 1948 between Jewish forces and the might of the Jordanian Legion. Many men on both sides shed their blood in that terrible battle. Shaar Hagai (The Gate of the Valley) is a revered and historic place in Israel due to the battle for Jerusalem which was fought there and for the special dog breeding kennel which has occupied the place for the past forty-four years.

The dogs who are bred there are among the oldest breed in the world, part of the Spitz family of dogs. Their existence can be traced for more than three thousand years. . Carvings and drawings of the dog can be found in the Bene Hassan tombs in Egypt (2200-2000 B.C.E), on the rocks found in Wadi Celoqua in central Sinai (1st-3rd century C.E) and Israeli archaeologists have found a clear depiction of the dog on a 2nd century C.E. sarcophagus dug up during an expedition in Ashkelon.

These dogs are pre-Biblical and they are the ones who roamed with Moses and the Israelites during the forty years of wandering in the desert, following the exodus from Egypt. They guarded the sheep and herds of the Hebrew tribes and protected them from attacks by wild wolves and hyenas. They became domesticated pets in Hebrew homes where Israelites settled. Loyal and devoted and easily trained they were used as guard dogs and herding dogs for the cattle.

When the Romans exiled the Jews from the land of Canaan, the dogs wandered around the mountain and desert areas of ancient Israel, scavaging for food where they could find it. Ultimately they found shelter in the nomadic Beduin camps and were put to good use by the Beduin for protecting their flocks, tents and property. These were pariah dogs, undomesticated, wandering, until they found human shelter. And so they lived their lives for two thousand years.

In 1934, Professor Rudolfina Menzel immigrated to Palestine from her native Vienna. Dr. Menzel was a world-renowned specialist on animal behavior. Shortly after her arrival in Palestine she began trekking across the country from her home in Haifa in search of wildlife to study. From a distance near the mountains she spotted two large dogs which she mistook for wolves. She was fascinated by their appearance and wanted to examine them more closely. Using food, she lured them closer to her home. Each day she set out plates of food and bowls of water which the dogs came and devoured. Every day the dogs appeared at her home and a bond of trust developed between them. One day, Dr. Menzel captured a litter of their pups, brought them into her home and raised them as domesticated pets. She was intrigued by their loyalty and by their behavior and recognized them as the wild pariah dogs of the Israeli desert area of previous centuries.

Dr. Menzel began to breed the dogs and at the request of the Haganah in 1936 she began to train them as guard dogs for the scattered Jewish settlements against attacks from marauding Arabs. Originally, people referred to these animals as Arab dogs. She named her breed the Kelev K’naani, the Canaan Dog, in honor of their original home, the land of Canaan.

In 1948 the newly formed Defense Forces of Israel (Tzahal) asked Dr. Menzel to provide them with as many of the dogs as possible for use as guard dogs, watch dogs, patrol and tracking, and detecting mines. The dogs excelled in their tasks. After the War of Independence, Dr. Menzel began training the dogs as seeing-eye dogs for the blind and therapy dogs for the disabled. They became the Official National Dog Breed of the State of Israel in 1953 So highly-regarded as watchdogs and guard dogs and household loyal pets, Canaan Dog breed associations were established in the USA (the first four were sent to California in 1985 to a breeder), Canada, England, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic, Finland, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Denmark, Monaco and South Africa. There is great demand for them. They are recognized by the American Kennel Club as purebred dogs in the herding group.

One of Dr. Menzel’s students, Myrna Shiboleth, had immigrated from Chicago to Israel in 1969. She has been an animal trainer and served as a research technician on animal behavior at Tel-Aviv University. In 1970 Myrna established a kennel for the sole purpose of breeding the Canaan Dog and she built her kennel at Shaar Hagai where she still lives and breeds her famous dogs. Myrna has published several books on the history, care and training of the Canaan Dog and has lectured across the globe on the story of this ancient Jewish dog. More than forty Israel Canaan Dogs have become champions, ten International Champions and sixteen World Champions. Myrna Shiboleth is the world’s leading authority on the Canaan Dog. Breeders from all over the world contact her for information on the care and training of these amazing dogs.
It is thanks to her that the Canaan Dog is known and recognized by dog breeders and dog lovers across the globe, spanning continents. She has dedicated her entire life to the preservation of this ancient Jewish dog. And she has added a new chapter in Jewish history.

Some few years ago, there was a series of housebreak robberies in a community in Oxnard, California. Five homes stood next to one another. The first four homes were robbed. But not the fifth. The owner of that home had a Canaan Dog as a house pet and its furious barking frightened the would-be robbers away. Sometime later, the police arrested three suspects and brought them to the area where the robberies had taken place. The Canaan Dog was taken outside and by its barking it was able to identify two of the robbers.

The biggest distinction between the Israel Canaan Dog and other breeds is territoriality. The Canaan Dog is highly suspicious of unknown persons or objects in its territory and it will bark loudly to alert its owner. It is a highly independent dog and truly thinks for itself. The story is told of an owner who always sat in a favorite chair in his living room. One day, he decided to move the chair to another place. His Canaan Dog did not stop barking until his owner had returned the chair to its original place, respecting territory.

Israeli soldiers and the National Police Force depend upon the Canaan Dog to patrol and to guard. These dogs love children and are devoted to their owners. Israeli owners usually give their dog a Hebrew name and teach them the basic commands in Hebrew:
shvi (sit), bo-ee (come), artza (down), tishari (stay), sheket (quiet), etc.

Visitors frequently come to the Shaar Hagai kennels to look at these Jewish dogs, wondering what names Moses may have given them, and how they romped in the courtyards of the palaces of Kings David and Solomon.

Like the long centuries of the wandering Jewish people who survived all adversity over the past three thousand years, likewise these Jewish dogs are a symbol of the stamina and strength and survivability of the history of our people.


Shaar Hagai was built on property outside of Jerusalem (its mailing address is Mevatzeret Zion) that was isolated and derelict. It had a few buildings that were built by the British during the Mandate years, but were abandoned from the time they left.

In 1970 when Myrna Shiboleth moved to Shaar Hagai and began her kennel and breeding, she rented the land to build a home in which to live and an area for her kennel. For the first seventeen years, she lived there without electricity or phone, paying monthly rent. It was only years later that she learned that the authority who contracted with her had no legal authority over the land. Myrna has valiantly been trying to negotiate with the Israel Government Land Authority to legalize her position, but they will not work with her. They have ignored her.

Recently, the IGLA, a highly autocratic and bureaucratic arm of the Israeli government, informed Myrna that she, her family and all the dogs must evacuate or be evicted for illegally residing on that property. They have taken Myrna to court and the battle has been ongoing.

The Shaar Hagai Kennels has been there for forty-four years. Myrna has no resources to buy a new piece of property and has exhausted a great deal of money in legal costs to fight eviction. She is pleading for help.

An online petition has been circulating. The site can be found at

Also, if anyone knows a high official in the Israeli government, she urges that they send a letter on behalf of the kennels to force the Lands Authority to cancel the eviction and asking that they negotiate in good faith. Anyone wishing to help can contact Myrna at the kennel e-mail:

Many thanks for any help you can offer to save her home and the home of Israel’s national dog.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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