Canaan Dog Temperament

by Myrna Shiboleth

One of the most unique points of our breed is its very special temperament. Not everyone can learn to live with this temperament, but for those of us that do; we find subsequently that it is hard to live with other breeds with more ordinary behaviour patterns.

The temperament of the Canaan is a direct result of the fact that this is what is called a primitive breed. What is a primitive breed? It is basically a breed that has retained the characteristics that were necessary for survival, and has not been changed as a result of many generations of human selection. Most breeds of dog have been changed even to an extreme from what the natural dog originally was, both in appearance and in behaviour. Dogs were selected over hundreds of generations to be more suited to the area in which they lived, the task they were expected to perform, and to be more amenable to living with and being trained by man. The result is what we see all around us a wide variety of breeds, with enormous variations in structure, movement, coat, external appearance, and behaviour. Over the last one hundred and fifty years dogs have also been selected for the show ring which has resulted in many show lines being quite different in structure and functionality from what the same breed was when it was used as a working dog. The Canaan is one of a very small number of breeds that has not been bred selectively in this way. The development of the Canaan has been controlled by natural factors: those characteristics, both structural and behavioural, that would allow him to survive most effectively were the ones that became set in the breed.

Even once the breed began its history of close association with man and selective breeding some 65 years ago, the breeders (fortunately!) concentrated on preserving the natural dog and not in changing it. This was reinforced by the continuous introduction of new stock from the wild and the Bedouins. So, what are the temperament factors that were essential to survival? First of all, high intelligence. Intelligence is indicated by the capacity to learn, to adapt to changing circumstances, to solve problems, to react effectively. The Canaan, throughout his history, has been faced by the necessity of keeping one step ahead in order to survive, and to cope with constant changes in his environment due to the turbulent history of his homeland. Over the last century, he has had to cope with the intrusion of modern civilisation into his traditional territory and he has managed this very well! Despite the difficulties, there are still Canaans that survive as free-living dogs, avoiding all attempts to destroy their packs.

The intelligence of the Canaan is quite different from that of many of the breeds that we are more familiar with. Herding dogs or hunting dogs, for instance, have been bred for many generations to be highly trainable and quick to learn what is expected of them, and then to be totally obedient and reliable in performance. This kind of obedient and submissive behaviour has always been the example, to most dog lovers, of what canine intelligence is. The Canaan learns just as quickly as any other breed, and can learn as great a variety of commands and tasks. However, he is never blindly obedient. His response depends on him being sure that there is no danger to him in obeying, on his having complete trust and respect for his handler, and in feeling that doing what he is trained to do will bring him a positive benefit. I am fond of using the following comparison to illustrate this facet of the Canaan temperament you can take a German Shepherd (perhaps the breed most highly selected for total trainability and obedience) to the edge of a cliff and tell him to jump, and he will lick your hand and obediently jump. Tell a Canaan the same thing and he will look at you and say, You first!

Another major characteristic is reactability. To survive in difficult conditions, the Canaan has to be able to react immediately to various stimuli. This means that, first of all, his senses are extremely keen and well developed, much more so than those of many other breeds. He has to be totally aware of what is going on around him. Another part of this is suspicion towards anything sudden or unfamiliar. This is a characteristic familiar to anyone who has worked with wild animals. A wild animal must be suspicious of anything strange and ready to react in a fight or flight pattern immediately in the wild, taking time to look things over will usually result in it being too late to safely react and protect yourself. And in most situations, all wild animals will use the flight option, unless the circumstances force them to fight.

The Canaan is highly suspicious of anything he is not familiar with and his tendency is to back off as long as he is not sure that it is safe. This results in people that do not understand basic survival behaviour calling him shy or cowardly at times. But this is not true. This is simple self-preservation. We see that Canaans that have a good deal of experience with varying environments, people, and situations are much calmer and less likely to be shy. They have learned what is normal and what requires a reaction. There is a good deal of difference in individuals, some being much more highly reactive than others. The relationship of the dog with his master and family has a good deal of influence on his reactivity as well. Over the last years, we have seen the development, overall, of a more stable and calm temperament. The Canaan, living more and more as a city dog and pet, has begun to adapt himself to his new life style, that of a 21st century dog. We should not penalize those Canaans that still show extreme reactivity, however, but try to help them with their adaptation to modern life. To the contrary, I think that we should penalize any Canaan that does not show basic traits of caution and suspicion. A dog that is friendly to everyone in all circumstances, unafraid of anything new or strange, and calm and accepting of everything -is not a Canaan!

Another important temperament characteristic of the Canaan is his need for structure, to be part of a pack. The pack structure is a very basic part of the canine social structure. All dogs want to be part of a pack. Isolation is the most serious punishment you can use on a dog. The Canaan, however, as a primitive dog, very much needs a well-organized pack hierarchy to provide him with the tools for coping with everyday life. In a pack, there is always a clearly defined and accepted leader, and this leader provides confidence and an example of behaviour to the more junior pack members. The Canaan very much needs this hierarchy. He wants to know his place in the pack, and to have a leader that he can depend on. This gives him self-confidence and courage. If there is no leader, one of two things may happen. The dog may become totally lacking in self-confidence and be unable to cope with anything, and will then be labelled shy or cowardly. If he is a dog with a more dominant nature, he may decide that if there is no leader, than he will be the leader, and he becomes dominant, hard to control, and aggressive. This dog tries to lead, but doesn't have the experience to know how to react to various situations, and ends up making many mistakes, some of which may be serious.

A Canaan who knows that you are his leader is self confident and content. He knows he can rely on you to give him the example of correct behaviour that he must follow, and an indication of how to behave in unfamiliar circumstances. He also feels, as part of a pack, that he is not alone, but that he has support in coping with things. Associated with pack behaviour is territoriality. Defence of the packs territory is essential to wild canines. The territory contains the packs necessities for survival: food, shelter, and a place to raise offspring. Overpopulation of a territory, or its invasion by outsiders could have serious results for all. Out of this basic necessity of defending the packs territory has come the strong, well-developed instinct of the Canaan to guard and protect his property. The Canaan does not want strangers, whether human or animal, invading his territory, and he will do what is necessary to protect it. The territory includes not only an actual physical location, but whatever is within it, which may also be his humans, their possessions, other livestock and so on. Our own pet cats, for instance, belong to our territory and us, but strange cats from outside the territory are another story! As a function of the necessity to protect his territory and his pack, the Canaan will make use of aggression. As a rule, in all dogs, the amount of aggression used is the minimum that is necessary to gain the desired effect. If barking at approaching strangers is enough to deter them from entering the territory, this is the amount of aggressive display that will be used.

I can have two groups of Canaans in adjoining yards, for example, and both groups will put on a big show at the fence, barking, snarling and threatening. But this is as far as it goes. Each group is putting on a display to define his territory, but as each group accepts the boundaries, there is no necessity for increased levels of aggression. However, if a strange animal insists on ignoring warnings and enters the territory, or if one of the other pack members is physically threatened, than the level of aggression necessary may be greater, even to the point of a bite. In general, even when a dog bites, the bite is intended as a warning or display of strength and is not serious. It is anti-survival for a dog to be prepared to easily get into a physical confrontation with another; the possibility of serious injury that will hamper his ability to survive is too great. Serious problems tend to arise if the dog has been trained to bite. His natural inhibitions have then been removed artificially. In relation to territorial defence, the pack structure and acceptance of a leader are very important. When someone comes to visit me, my dogs see that I, as leader, accept and welcome the visitor. Therefore, it becomes clear to the dog that this stranger is not a threat to the pack or the territory and is acceptable. Such a visitor can come in, have no fear of being attacked, and the dogs will often even approach, inspect the newcomer and allow him to stroke them. If the same visitor, however, were to come when I was not at home, the dogs would not allow him to enter the territory. The same is true of strange dogs. This is harder for the Canaan to accept, as for him a strange dog is definitely more of a threat than a strange human. But I can, through my authority as leader, make it clear to my dogs that a strange dog is allowed to enter. They will not become friendly and accepting, but as long as I am in the vicinity and making the decision, they will accept the fact that the dog is allowed to enter. As the pack leader, I also make it very clear to my dogs that there is no necessity for defence or aggression when we are outside of our territory. Therefore, when I take the dogs out, whether to a show or other location, they are calm and accepting at meeting strangers and strange dogs. This is not their territory, they are on neutral ground and therefore can be neutral in their reactions. However, they may find it necessary to react with a warning or more (if the warning is not heeded) if a stranger, dog or human, gets too close, thus invading our personal space, or is in some way threatening.

An excellent example of this was presented by Yitzhar (Isr.Ch. Bundessieger Yitzhar me Shaar Hagai) when I was travelling with him in Europe. When accompanying me on walks in new and strange surroundings, he totally ignored passers-by, but if anyone started walking towards me, he would immediately stand in front of me in a protective stance, growling. Another excellent example was given by Hami (Isr.Ch.WW Hama me Shaar Hagai). I took her to our local obedience club occasionally. One day, the instructors were starting agitation on dogs that were in training for Schutzhund. I decided to test Hamis reactions. We stood in a circle with the other dogs and handlers, as the instructor, inside the circle, moved from dog to dog, flapping a burlap sack and making threatening gestures and noises. The other dogs were in hysterics, leaping up and down in excitement on the end of the lead, growling, snapping, and trying to lunge at the instructor as the handlers held them back. Hami stood quietly next to me, watching this display attentively, but showing no reaction. The instructor, seeing how passive she was, decided that she would not react, and lounged up to us, suddenly flapping his sack and waving his arms in threat. Hami instantly reacted, snarling and leaping, not for the flapping sack, but in the direction of his throat. The instructor stumbled back in shock. I was not surprised. Up to this point, it had been interesting to watch, but now the threat was personal and called for a reaction, which Hami immediately provided. Never underestimate your Canaan!

Another outstanding characteristic of the Canaan temperament is his loyalty and devotion to his own pack. The Canaan is extremely attached and devoted to his own people, and feels no necessity to be fussed over or petted by strangers. He may condescend to his masters wishes by allowing visitors to pet him, but he does not seek this kind of attention.

His devotion is not expressed blatantly. He is not the kind of dog that is always climbing all over you, shoving his nose under your hand, and following you from room to room, crying if the door is shut on him. He is perfectly content to lie quietly in the corner, knowing where you are and what you are doing, and to be ready to immediately join you if something interesting is going on.

However, his total devotion is unquestioned. The Canaan has a very hard time adjusting to a new home and new owners once he has given his love and loyalty to someone. An excellent example of this was Barry, a young dog that I sold to a new home when he was about ten months old. His new owner was an elderly lady who wanted a dog to live with her in the house as a companion and watch dog. She had had dogs before and knew how to handle them. Barry had grown up out of doors with the other puppies and dogs, and had lived in the house with me for a short period when I housetrained him and gave him some basic obedience training.

About a week after Barry went to his new home, his new owner called me to tell me that he still wasn't eating and also wasn't drinking. She was giving him water into his mouth with a spoon, and trying to hand feed him. He spent his time under the kitchen table very depressed. I gave her some advice on how to manage him, and told her that it was hard for him to adjust, but he certainly would start eating very soon. He must be very hungry by now!Nearly another week passed, and Barry was still refusing to eat and drink. There was nothing more to be done. I went to pick him up and bring him home. The minute he saw me, he came out from under the table and ran to the door, Lets go home! clear in every line of his body. When we got home, he ran in at the gate, snarled at a neighbour that was too close to his territory, went directly to the water dish, drank his fill, and happily ate a hearty meal. He was home!

Canaans, being very survival oriented, usually do not go to this extreme, but I have had Canaans in boarding with me who would eat, drink, come out of their kennels to do their business, and then immediately return and sit in the corner, waiting for their masters to come and get them and refusing to have anything to do with me. Most of my own dogs, if I have to go away and leave someone to care for the kennel, will eat and drink, but will refuse to let anyone else touch them until I get back.

On the other hand, combined with extreme loyalty and devotion, is the characteristic of independence. The Canaan has a mind of his own. You can tell him what to do, but he will make up his own mind. A successful relationship with a Canaan is based on mutual respect, never on the expectation of submissiveness. If you have built up the proper relationship of leadership with your Canaan, and he respects you, and if you respect his drives and needs, then the partnership will be a success.

This, of course, is connected with the question of obedience. The Canaan can be very obedient. He does, very easily, learn the rules of the household, is very easy to housetrain, is not destructive, and quickly learns to understand commands. However, he will not follow commands automatically. One example of this was Zaaka (Isr.Ch. Zaaka me Shaar Hagai). She was a bitch that I did quite a lot of obedience work with. At the time, we were members of an obedience club, and we all practiced together and did shows and demonstrations. One day, we went to a new location for practice. It was a huge field, empty except for a few huge boulders scattered here and there. We were practising a group recall, and all the dogs were left in a Sit-stay at one end of the field while we went off to the other end. We all called the dogs, and they all came running towards us. Zaaka, however, as she came past one of the huge boulders, slowed down, stopped, smelled it, walked around and examined it from all sides, and then, after deciding that it posed no threat, happily continued on her way to me.

However, I have never had any trouble with disobedience when it was important. The Canaans are not dogs that run away, like many of the other Spitz breeds. Even when off lead, they always stay in eye contact. As pack animals, they will not leave the pack, and are always ready to accept the directions of the leader.

Canaans work best when they have a good reason or motivation for it. This can make obedience competition somewhat of a problem. It tends to bore them. Shachmat (Isr.Int.WW Shachmat me Shaar Hagai), for instance, is very well trained and has won some obedience competitions here. So when I needed a dog to accompany me to do demonstrations for groups of children at various schools and community centers, I decided to take him. Usually I use a Border Collie for these demonstrations. Border Collies are willing to do the same thing over and over a million times. Just give me a command, please, please, please!!!! but the bitch that usually worked these shows was in season. Shachmat was thrilled. He loves going places. The first show he did superbly, with great style and verve. The next day, he also worked very well, though he threw me a few questioning glances. But as the days went by, I saw his enthusiasm dwindling more and more. We have done this already! Why are we doing it again?!!! Finally, he was still performing all the commands correctly, but in slow motion. This was boring, boring, boring.! He was glad to relinquish the job to the Border Collie when she finished her season.

Agility and such, on the other hand, is fun and interesting, and the Canaans usually love it.I would like to mention once again the characteristic of suspiciousness. This is one of the primary traits of the breed, which has been essential for the survival of these dogs. I have seen articles lately on Canaans being temperament tested under various schemes and tests. I think it essential that we understand that, while a Canaan will learn to very effectively cope with the norms of his environment, for instance, a city dwelling dog will be accustomed to a lot of noise, traffic, busy streets, trams, and whatever, we do not want to breed for dogs that will be totally laid back and ignore anything that is unusual. This may be considered to be a stable temperament and is fine for a Labrador or such, who are expected to be very nonreactive, basically, to strange things. However, it is not natural behaviour for a Canaan. The Canaan must react to strange things and circumstances instantly, though if he is a dog with a stable temperament, he will quickly discern what is threatening and what is not, and will react accordingly.

These are the basic factors in the Canaan temperament.