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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.