Environmental Adaptations of Canaan Dogs

For many centuries, wild and semi-wild Canaan Dogs have lived in the Middle East. During this time they evolved adaptations which are reflected in our breed standard today. Some of these are discussed below.

Size and Shape: Their medium-sized build gives Canaan Dogs the agility necessary to hunt the small- to medium-sized prey found in their environment. Also a medium-sized dog needs less food and water than a larger dog. Medium-sized dogs also have more surface area per unit of body weight than a larger dog, which helps in radiating excess heat. Like most wild canids, Canaan Dogs are square; their height from the ground to the withers (shoulder) equals the length from point of shoulder to point of buttocks. This build is optimal for trotting efficiency and agility so crucial to survival in the wild.

Ears: The ears of Canaan Dogs help to radiate excess body heat. Blood vessels carry warm blood from the interior of the body up into the thin skin of the ears where the heat can be radiated to cool the body during warm days. Other carnivores from warm climates show this same adaptation: compare the large ears of the fennec, a desert fox, to the short ears of an arctic fox.

All wild dogs have prick ears. These are the best shape for sound collection (imagine a drop-eared satellite dish!), have the greatest range of motion for postural communication, and provide the least hospitable environment for fungi and microbes.

Eyes: A Canaan Dog's eyes do not have deep wells in the inner corners as seen in breeds such as the Saint Bernard. This would act as a trap for sand and dirt that would irritate the eye. Canaan Dogs have evolved dark eye rims to prevent the reflection of bright light into the eye; a trait which human football and baseball players emulate when they smear dark grease under their eyes. The dark eye rims and dark nose also help to prevent sun damage to these unfurred areas.

Chest: The chest of Canaan Dogs should be of moderate breadth and deep, with well-sprung ribs. This creates plenty of room for the heart and lungs, which is crucial for an animal that may have to cover great distances in search of food.

Legs: Legs should be well-muscled and straight. Leg bones that are straight and properly angulated at the joints provide a system of levers against which muscles can act to produce efficient movement. These features are essential to an animal that must be swift and agile in pursuit of prey and in escaping from danger.

Feet: The shape of the feet are cat-like for traversing rocky ground. The nails are hard and strong to resist wear and tear while digging dens and digging up rodent prey.

Tail: Canaan Dogs have a high set tail which is carried curled over their back when feeling self-confident. Importantly, the tail can unfurl, to act as a counterweight during high speed turns or pounces. It also helps conserve heat by covering the nose during cool desert nights (for which reason it is also bushy).

Coat: A double coat is essential to the Canaan Dog. The outer coat is a weather-defying medium length, and is straight, harsh, and close-lying. It does not snag and retain burrs and thorns like a longer softer coat. Somewhat longer guard hairs along the neck and spine are erected during stressful encounters to make the dog look larger and more formidable and protect the spine from bites should the encounter escalate. The profuse undercoat provides additional protection, including insulation from the sun's heat and the evening's chill.

Colors: Black, or black and white dogs apparently predominate in northern Israel where rocks and brush create shadows into which the dogs blend. The tawny colors provide camouflage in desert areas further south. One would expect to find fewer black dogs in deserts where there is less shade, especially as these dogs' dark color would also absorb heat.

Gait: Canaan Dogs must move with athletic ability. Their brisk ground-covering trot appears effortless and tireless. They are incredibly agile and can change directions almost instantly. Wild Canaan Dogs had to cover large distances to find food and water, making stamina and efficient movement absolutely essential. Their agility not only helped them navigate rough terrain and catch their prey, but also helped them to avoid some of the large predators such as lions, wolves, and hyenas which have inhabited the region.

Temperament: Canaan Dogs had to be very alert to find prey and avoid predators. Canaan Dogs are fairly quiet unless sounding the alarm, because unnecessary noise in the wild would draw the attention of predators and prey, which is not conducive to survival. However, the natural sentry ability of Canaan Dogs is unparalleled. Because resources are scarce in the desert and therefore very valuable, it makes sense that this breed would be territorial and on guard against potential usurpers. Many other animals besides Canaan Dogs are famous for their alarm calls (think of prairie dogs). Vocalizing when danger is spotted accomplishes two things: intruders will often give up if they know they have been discovered and have lost the element of surprise. Secondly, other pack members are alerted and they can rush to the aid of the caller which will make any intruder think twice about proceeding. Canaan Dogs are devoted to their human family which is a form of this pack allegiance. The inquisitiveness, self-reliance, and intelligence which we value in the breed are all traits which helped Canaan Dogs survive the ever-changing conditions of the wild.

Adapted from an article which appeared in the Spring 95 issue of Desert Tracks, the newsletter of the ICDCA.

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