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As my Aliki is a Cretan Hound mix, I wanted to find out more about this breed. It turns out to be almost 4,000 years old and was probably introduced on Crete in the Minoan age. Like most Mediterranean breeds, they originate in Africa. Their close cousins are breeds like Podencos (Spain), Sloughis/Berber Hounds (North Africa), Pharaoh Dogs/Kelb tal Fenek (Malta), Kelev Kna’ani/Canaan Dogs (Israel) and the Spanish Greyhound (Galgo). These breeds are called ‘primeval dogs’, probably because they aren’t as far removed from their wild cousins as most European and American pedigreed dogs.

A great source of information about dogs in Antiquity are images like you can find on ancient Greek pottery and Egyptian artifacts. It’s quite amazing how little these breeds have changed since ancient times. I guess they were lucky to be bred as work dogs, not for shows and kennel clubs. In that case they would have become mere caricatures of their original selves, like so many breeds that used to be wonderful.

Greek vase -- warriors with horse and dogAncient Egyptian Dogs1

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they are treated well. Not at all. Cretan hounds are ruthlessly killed if they don’t have what it takes to be great hare or rabbit hunters. The same – or worse – goes for podencos and galgos. They are tortured, maimed, hung by their necks to slowly asphyxiate if they don’t perform as well as their owners want them to. But even if they do their jobs, they are often kept in filthy shacks, chained to the concrete floor and hardly fed.

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The way these wonderful dogs are treated, is not just inhumane. It’s also a far cry from their standing in ancient times. Judging from the ways they were depicted, from the fact that there were burial grounds for dogs, and from the fact that they were sometimes embalmed to join their owners in their journey to the next world, it’s not a stretch to assume they stood in high regard. Especially in Egypt, where one of their gods, Anubis, was a desert dog (not a jackal!), these dogs must have had a certain status in human society.

anubis_dog

The classic authors praised the Cretan Hounds (Kressai Kynes) as the best hare-hunters known to man and in ancient times they were exported to the Greek colonies and other countries in Europe, reaching as far as Spain and the British islands, to mix and improve the local hounds. The dogs are evidently an ancient species, probably the oldest dog breed in Europe.

CretanHound6

Cretan Hounds are rare; only an estimated 400 of them exist. Their owners guard the breed even to the extent that a pure-bred Cretan Hound is never sold to an outsider. They never leave the island. They are, like their cousins around the Mediterranean, hare and rabbit hunters. They have excellent scent, speed, agility, and durability. Cretan Hound mixes, like my Aliki, are often adopted by foreigners. They are popular in Germany, where their owners organize agility contests, which the dogs themselves seem to enjoy very much. It’s a great sight to see these slender yet muscular dogs run and jump gracefully. Cretan HoundIMG_3175

Above a Cretan Hound, below Aliki. I noticed early on that Aliki has no problem with jumping fences that are at least three times as tall as she is, or with climbing complicated obstacles. Whenever she sees a rabbit or a hare, she will stand on her hind legs and follow the prey with her eyes. Of course only if she is on the leash, if she isn’t she’ll just go after it at an amazing speed. So far, luckily, she hasn’t caught anything. My impression is she doesn’t care if she catches her prey, the fun seems to be in the hunt itself. After all, she is never hungry anymore. Or maybe she just isn’t very good at hunting. But I doubt that. I witnessed her twice with a potential prey: one time it was a little mouse she had caught between her front legs; she just sniffed it, then pushed it with her nose and let it go. The other time there were some young waterbirds she went after (she’s an excellent swimmer as well). It was extremely funny, as these little birds dove every time she got near, and Aliki would look around kind of flabbergasted, not knowing where the fuck these birds had gone. Eventually, one of them emerged next to her, and again she just looked at it and then let it go. But I digress… It is likely that the Podencos and Galgos were taken to Spain by their mostly Berber (Amazigh) owners during the conquest of Spain in the period between the 8th and 15th centuries. But even before this, in ancient times, the Phoenician sailers whose trade routes covered all of Southern Europe, must have taken their dogs to places like Greece, Malta, Southern Italy and Spain. Malta is a case in point: the Kelb tal Fenek may have been named after the Phoenicians, as the meaning of the word Fenek is not completely clear. It could also mean “furry dog-like animal” or“fox”. Of course, all of this is speculation until there is solid DNA evidence. canaan dog

The Kelev Kna’ani/Canaan Dog is a special case: This breed is one of the oldest, dating back to biblical times. The caves of Einan and Hayonim are sites in which the oldest remains of dogs have been found (more than 10,000 years old). In the Hebrew Bible there are a number of references to roaming dogs and dogs that worked for humans. In ancient Egypt there were also burial sites for dogs, which were embalmed like members of the ruling class. Also other dog burial sites have been found in Israel, among which a Phoenician one where over 700 dogs are buried, all carefully placed in the same position. The Canaan dogs survived as pariah dogs until the 1930s, when Dr. Rudolphina Menzel came up with the idea to use these intelligent dogs, which by then were mainly found in the desert, as guard dogs for the scattered Jewish settlements and as military dogs. She captured and acquired wild and semi-wild Canaan dogs. She worked with semi-free and free-living dogs of a specific type, luring them into her camp and gaining their trust. She also captured litters of puppies, finding them remarkably adaptable to domestication. She began a breeding program in 1934, providing working dogs for the military and giving away pups to be pets and home guard dogs. She initiated a selective breeding program to produce the breed known today as the Canaan dog.

I found a lot of information for this article in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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11 Comments

  1. Wonderful like you describe your dog.
    There must be a lot of love in her life.

    Kind regards,

  2. Yes, she deserves a lot of love. She is the sweetest creature I’ve ever met… But I am also interested in this type of dogs: primeval dogs who are not inbred and still have more natural instincts than pedigreed dogs. By the way: I like your blog too, about windmills. Very cool.

    • Thanks for the compliment.
      The primeval dog is a new thing to me.
      The diseases of inbred pets is a horrible thing.

      Kind regards,

    • Jennifer Charbonneau
    • Posted October 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm
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    • Reply

    I’m not sure if you are still doing this blog, however I found it as I was looking for more information on Cretan Hounds. We adopted a rescue dog from Greece (Thessaloniki) 2 years ago. When I put in all her characteristics the Cretan Hound described her perfectly!
    She is about 5 years old and lived her life in Greece in a pen. Her rescuer tried to look after her and her 4 siblings as best she could, and eventually found a rescue organization here in Canada. This is how we came to get her.
    Many of your dog’s characteristics are similar to Lucy’s. She is extremely calm, except when she gets a scent. Is a very good hunter (has caught mice and squirrels). She is very fast, however in small bursts…she really loves the couch!
    She was very scared when we first got her (loud and sudden noices really frightened her), but she now is really good. Very intelligent and a quick learner. She unfortunately contracted Heartworm on her way over here and took about 4 months to nurse her back, but she is completely healthy now. We love her to bits!!

    • Thank you for your response, Jennifer! Yes, they are sweet and sensitive dogs. I am happy to hear your dog recovered from Heartworm. A good think you found out in time. I will keep posting about Mediterranean dogs every now and then, when I find out new information about their history.

  3. I too recently began doing research on my Cretan Hound. His name is Bodhi, and has been a member of our family since 2009. We rescued him while living abroad on the island of Crete. Someone had disposed of him in a friend’s fenced-in yard near Stavros Beach when he was still a puppy. While living there, I would see other dogs that looked so much like Bodhi, but never put too much thought to it. I just figured that his breed was exceptional for herding, and that was why there were other dogs like him on the Akrotiri Peninsula and in nearby Chania.

    We’ve since moved back to Southern California with Bodhi, and while looking at some pictures of dogs on the internet, I came across the Canaan, and eventually found the Cretan Hound. I’ve always felt that Bodhi was special, but I never knew just how rare a breed of dog he is. He truly is a great companion, and a loyal friend. Keep up the good work, and thanks for sharing some great information.

    • Thank you for your response. Yes, they are special, aren’t they? The history is fascinating. But the real joy is in having her around every day. Exactly as you describe: a great companion and a loyal friend. And wonderful to read that one of the Cretan Hounds made it all the way to California. Amazing. And just the right climate for the breed!

  4. We live in Crete and we recently found a Cretan Hound. I was on the roof of our house (wehere I have a bar, having a beer of course) and a pack of stray dogs ran past very noisily. With them was a beatutiful black hound. Our eyes met and it was love at first sight. I ran downstairs and chased after her, but althought she kept lookiong at me, the pack took her away fatster thanI could keep up. A few days later, my wife and sister in law found her and caught her. She was terrified at first, especially as I am a man. (Greek men are not very nice to dogs). She had a huge scar around her neck from being chained up and was emaciated, traimatised from being constantly raped by the pack. It took a few months to love her enough so that she felt secure and at home, by then she trusted us and became incredibly happy. We called her Poppy, named after a wonderful Greek vet here who is also kind and gentle. After almost six months, she became a beautiful, perfect home dog. We found her a home in Holland, where she now lives with a very loving owner.

    You will ask, why didn’t we keep Poppy? The reason is, there are many thousands of dogs on the streets of Crete. We find them, take them in, train and love them, then find them a “forever home”. We cannot keep them as village rules allow us only two dogs. BY finding homes, we help dozens of dogs, not just two.

    The Cretan Hound is not only ancient, but a very special animal. Poppy made me feel primevial, as if that early bond with a dog had only just been discovered. It was definitely love at first sight – as soon as our eyes met – and I still love her. Unselfishly, I had to find her a family, while we help the constantly growing queues of animals here.

    I hope that your love with your Cretan Hound lasts forever, they are really wonderful!

    Kind regards,

    And old man in Crete

    • Thank you so much for your wonderful message, Trevor! I am so grateful that you are doing this. And yes, it is very unselfish. They are so special! Once they trust you, they are the most amazing companions one could wish for. Aliki is actually doing great, less and less fearful, and increasingly sweet with other dogs. People in general are now her greatest friends. She has no fear of men anymore, either. I admire that so much in these dogs, how they are capable of bouncing back even after all they went through.

      • Thank you for your reply Manja, I won’t clog up your blog with endless replies, but a quick update: After we had sent Poppy to her new family, my wife found two very young puppies in the street. They had been abandoned in severe heat, with no food or water for several days. They were severely dehydrated and starving, they could hardly walk. We took them in and heard rumours that they were from a litter of four. The other two were found a few days later and moved to an empty house, where they were sheltered, fed and watered until finding a foster home. Our two have been growing at 1KG (2.2 lbs) a week and are now very happy and confident. One has a home in England and a flight booked in September. We are waiting to find a home for the little guy. There is someone in Holland who is interested, we hear. The other two siblings have been moved to another foster and have been found homes in Holland. Puppies have to be four months old to fly out of the country, so they will all stay with their fosters until then. After that, I’m sure it will only take days before we have another needy visitor. I suspect it will be a small white dog called “Doris”, who has been hanging around.

        The new puppy owners will find a strange legacy: both our puppies remember being so thirsty that they now love a water bowl so much, they will lie beside it with their face over the water. For them, it’s luxury to have fresh water any time you want it! The biggest luxury is still a loving Forever Family!

        Kind regards from sunny Crete,

        Trev

  5. I dont Know If My comments did appear Manja.. I hope so


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