by Dr. Victor Kaftal
Canaan Dogs used to be a rare breed but they are getting increasingly popular. I am getting a steady stream of e-mail or phone contacts of the type "Among all the breeds I researched, I found that Canaans were the best choice for my family. Do you have puppies?"
Some of the main culprits are the computerized "match programs". You put in your requests, i.e., intelligent + agile + healthy : verdict: Canaan Dog. Perhaps you even look up the breed and you find some mild caveats: independent ("good, I don't like a cloying dog"), aloof with strangers ("excellent, I can't stand it that my dog will pay more attention to every stranger we encounter than to myself"), needs socialization ("but of course, what dog doesn't, and won't it be wonderful to take the pup everywhere for a couple of weeks?") You get the gist: in the few lines of the description, the drawbacks of the breed sound so "normal" as to be almost enticing.
My goal in this article is to present these drawbacks more starkly, so as to help prospective owners decide if Canaan Dogs are REALLY the breed for them. And if yes, to help them enter into their long-term relationship with the new pup (Canaans are indeed long-lived) with open eyes and with a clearer idea of what to expect.
Reading that "Canaans are a "natural" breed - shaped by natural selection and not human selection - may sound appealing. But what it means is that there have not been centuries of breeding to "hard wire" into Canaans some of the traits that humans have so often found desirable in dogs that make life together easier. And that you will find more variability in temperament in this breed than in many others, which also means that you may have some surprises after you take your pup home.
Let's start with temperament. It is hard to tell if there are more dominant dogs (and bitches) among Canaans than among the average breed, or if, as many maintain, it is just that Canaans being closer to "nature" are more concerned about the hierarchy of the pack. Whichever is the case, if an above-average dominant Canaan is placed in the household with a below-average dominant human, he (or she) might decide to run for higher office. If the owners are blissfully unaware of the situation until it is pretty late in the game, there is a problem, possibly a serious one. A responsible breeder will be most cautious in placing a very dominant pup, but what about the second-ranking pup in the litter who will come into its own only in his new home? And can a breeder assess correctly the temperament of all the humans in the new household?
A prospective owner should be aware of the potential for dominance problems and should learn about them so as to recognize them at the start and correct them while it is still possible to do so easily. It is essential that the owner be honest in assessing her/his willingness to deal with such problems, were they to occur.
Asking the breeder to select a puppy way below average in the dominance scale may lead to an entirely different but possibly even more troubling set of problems, which for the lack of a better term I will call shyness. To survive in the wild, Canaans need to be aware and suspicious of their environment. In a household, Canaans that are too high on the "caution" scale may be quite unpleasant to live with. They may require a skillful blend of encouragement, firmness, and protectiveness and they may not be an ideal fit for an active household with plenty of visitors, travel, etc.
Of course, dogs with a middle temperament will be easier to live with, but they too will likely exhibit at least occasionally some of the same tendencies, just to a lesser degree.
And all Canaans, no matter what their temperament, will need plenty of socialization. No, not just a couple of weeks. I am talking about an ongoing process that with some dogs will last years. Some puppies undergo a major "fear period" in their first year and their owner will then have to reacquaint them gently with their environment. Adolescents change when hormones kick in and may become more aggressive or more dominant. Socialization, training, and constant attention to the dog's behavior are required.
If this description starts taking away some of the halo from the image you had of the Canaan Dog, excellent, I will have achieved part of my goal. No prospective Canaan owner should expect their new pup to be as easy to bring up as some of the traditional breeds, like Labradors.
But of course, I am not yet finished.
You may have read about their dog aggressiveness. Very true. This is a natural trait: in the wild, packs of Canaans have to defend their territory and chase away intruders and competitors. Almost all Canaans exhibit at least some dog aggressiveness. In some cases it is mild and "justified', like teaching some manners to other dogs rudely getting in their face. I know of Canaans that can play peacefully with most other dogs after they have been properly introduced. Other times you will find Canaans going out of their way to pick what to us seem totally unprovoked fights. Socialization might help but it is no sure cure. If you introduce a Canaan Dog into a household with another dog of the same sex, both intact, you will risk that they will be incompatible. So far I have never taken this risk myself, but I know of many who did and it turned out OK and of some who had to separate the dogs or had to pay huge vet's bills... Of course, Canaans can be trained and can be kept under control: I show my dogs extensively off leash in obedience and they never had fights there.
Aloofness with strangers. We are not talking about the first 10 minutes they meet someone new: I had Canaans that kept barking at friends of mine that they had seen regularly for years. They seem to distinguish between their pack (i.e., the strict household) and everyone else. It is if they were saying to me: "he may be YOUR friend, but he is not mine, and I wish you asked me before inviting him". Again, socialization can help, but it is not a 100% effective cure. Teaching them to shut up in such cases is possible but quite hard. This brings the additional problem of noise: close neighbors may complain. Of course, there are also some Canaans that are more outgoing and that will make friends more easily.
Another drawback connected to this is that Canaans are not the ideal guard dogs. The problem is that their territoriality and suspicion of strangers are so strong as to often become indiscriminate and therefore less useful. If you (or your neighbor) hear your dog sound the alarm, you may think it is the mailman or a squirrel, not a real intruder. Dogs of most breeds will tend to protect their owner in case of danger, and Canaans are no exception, but if your primary need is protection or guarding I would recommend some of the breeds traditionally used for that purpose.
Tendency to run away. No statistics are available, but I would say it is above average. I personally lost a dog when a storm blew a gate open, and have heard of several other Canaans similarly lost. If the dog is to be given the run of a yard, a secure fence is a MUST. And sometimes a fence may not be enough, some Canaans (fortunately just a minority) climb fences (I have heard of dogs that would scale 6 ft chain link fences without breaking into a sweat) or dig underneath them. If you are unlucky and your pup turns into an escape artist, there are solutions like adding a radio fence (e.g., an "invisible fence", but I would never use a radio fence alone) or confine the dog to a really secure run with sunken sides and a covered top. Such solutions can be expensive or may not always be possible. Talking of yards, some Canaans are committed diggers - fortunately, none of mine have tried so far to reach China by the direct way but I have seen photos of really impressive holes. And many Canaans are proficient hunters: squirrels, groundhogs, skunks, etc.
Trainability. Yes, you read that Canaans are very intelligent, can learn fast, and can excel at various performance activities, like agility, obedience, tracking etc. and this is all true. But still, they are not easy to train. The missing ingredient, is that they are difficult to motivate. Some breeds, e.g, the Border Collies, have an apparently hard wired desire to work : "Master, please, give me a command, any command and I will eagerly obey" . Not so Canaans. They are independent, and as much as they may love their owner, they don't often see a connection between that love and obeying his commands. In other words, their "willingness to please" is relatively low. Some of them are "chow hounds" and will work for food, but unfortunately not all. And being intelligent they can get bored easily, which compounds the problem: "I already heeled nicely for you yesterday in practice, why do I need to heel again in this stupid obedience trial ring?" So, yes, they can be trained, and some of them do quite well in competitions, but reliability is sometimes an issue, especially in obedience. If competitive performance is very important for you and you do not particularly relish a challenge, you may want to settle on an easier "traditional breed".
As you can tell, I focus most on the temperament and behavior of the dogs. But what about the rest?
Shedding. Yes, they shed, and how! You may have read that they have only two shedding seasons a year and this too is true: January -June and July-December. Jokes apart, if they have a correct double coat (as the breed Standard prescribes) they will indeed "blow" their undercoat twice a year but they will still shed some most of the time. We always find dog hair on my wife's evening dress (she still can't get used to it...), inside my computer (I don't care - it hasn't caused a short yet), and everywhere in between.
Health. Yes, compared to many other breeds, they are relatively healthy, but still, they have their share of problems. Natural selection will eliminate genetic faults that interfere with survival, but only if they appear before the dogs carrying them reproduce, which in the natural state is at a relatively young age. So, don't expect to avoid the vet!
Even if this list did not reach the 101 mark I promised in my title, it is long enough. It should make abundantly clear why Canaans are not a breed for everyone. Only you can tell if they are the right breed for you, and I hope I have given you some food for thought.