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Tag Archives: Cretan Hound

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Aliki is an expensive dog. She was a stray, humiliated, kicked and beaten for so long, that I felt she needed to be treated like a princess for the rest of her life. In case that sounds cheesy, here’s the translation: she gets the best organic food and veterinarian care there is; no frills, no jewelry, no fancy food bowl, just everything she really needs. And it has helped her, both physically and mentally: she is incredibly healthy and shiny, in great shape, and she understands that I take care of her and protect her, which has made her more confident.

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In this picture, she is in the woods in the South-East of The Netherlands, on New Year’s morning. We always get out of town for New Year’s Eve, because of the fireworks. The noise scares her so much, she ends up hiding in her ‘panic room’ (bathroom), shaking and shivering. So I decided early on that I would leave town for a couple of days with her and a friend. We go to a dog-friendly hotel or rent a ditto vacation home. It’s become a wonderful tradition.

Today was a good day for Aliki. She made a new friend in the park, even played with two other dogs, instead of trotting off to go sniff the whole area by herself. She increasingly interacts well with people, as she is no longer afraid they’ll hurt her. She also is becoming better at communicating with her fellow dogs. I still have to help a little sometimes by reminding her that I want her to be friendly and if she can’t be, to keep walking (that’s actually the command I use: ‘keep walking’) and ignore the dog she doesn’t like or is afraid of (as is more often the case). After a couple of years of training, our hard work is beginning to pay off. I can tell she understands that this new behavior keeps her out of trouble. So she is less afraid and more often wags her tail tentatively even while she is still bristling. I am always moved when I see her struggle with her ‘demons’ and I admire her for not giving up. She has come so far from the dog that jumped at every noise, snapped at almost every dog, nipped men she was afraid of in their calves, lunged at puppies…

Her friendship with Zorba was also essential; he’s a year younger than she is, also from Crete, and the sweetest, good-natured dog you’ll ever meet. They hit it off immediately and have been best friends ever since. His sweetness  disarms everyone, but especially for Aliki this was a good experience. Their friendship has mellowed her, which has helped with her behavior towards other dogs as well. I’m especially happy that she is so much better with pups now. She may growl, but does so very softly and without showing her teeth. Dogs have different opinions about education than we do: growling and snapping at pups is acceptable, but within certain boundaries. They’re not supposed to ever, ever hurt a pup. Not that Aliki ever did, but she definitely scared them. Now she sometimes plays with them, even has a few puppy friends.

But of course it’s not all about training. It’s also about cuddling. She really, really likes to be stroked, especially her chest. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do before going to bed. She’ll turn on her back and act like a little puppy, licking my hands as if her life depends on it. I let her, because I know it’s how she shows affection. During the day, when I am working, she is usually sleeping next to me in her basket. But every now and then she wakes up and gives me a little push with her nose to tell me she needs affection. Which I then provide, of course.

Usually I don’t blog about private matters, but this is an exception.

Since I adopted my Greek teenage-mom/stray Cretan Hound mix Aliki (Greek for Alice), in this picture still on Crete,

Aliki op Kreta

safe but scared of almost everything, my life has changed quite a bit. She wasn’t the first dog in my life – we had dogs at home – but it was the first time I had to deal with a rescue who was afraid of men, most other dogs, cats, and most people in general. Fortunately, she wasn’t afraid of me. So we began our life together. It started with learning how to go for a walk without panicking at every noise and movement. Simultaneously, I had to convince her not to growl and snap at every dog she was afraid of or didn’t like. She hated puppies, which was strange, considering she brought up eight of them in very difficult circumstances. Whatever the reason, it was a line she couldn’t cross as far as I was concerned. If dogs could talk, they would probably say the same thing about me that I heard from little children: she’s kind, but very strict. Which turned out to be the perfect way to deal with Aliki’s fears: correcting her gently but consistently and showering her with praise whenever she did something right. Which was a lot, since she turned out to be very smart. The first thing I taught her was a command that I use whenever she ends up at the wrong side of a tree or other tall obstacle: I say “Uh oh!” and she immediately retraces her steps to “my” side of the obstacle. I only had to explain it to her twice. At home, she settled in easily. Even though she never before had lived in a house she has respect for everything that she thinks belongs to me: she never even attempted to get on the furniture, let alone the bed. Early on, she even stepped back from her food bowl whenever I got near. I helped her change that by petting her while she was eating and encouraging her to continue. The only ‘bad’ thing she did (twice) was jump on the kitchen counter, like a cat, while I wasn’t looking to get to her food that was defrosting there. As luck would have it, though, the second time she did it, I was in the bathroom and I heard the sound of pottery being moved on the counter, so I called “No! Bad dog!” and that was that. She was in awe of my ability to see her even when I wasn’t around and never tried to pull that one again. Little by little she discovered that cuddling and being stroked is fun. Nowadays, when I am working (I work at home) she will be in her bed next to me, and when she feels it’s time for some love, she’ll get up and gently push her beautiful nose against my arm. And she has to reciprocate: whenever I stroke her, especially her chest which is her favorite spot, she will lick my hand as long as I can stand it. It’s kind of gross, but too sweet to tell her not to do it.

Over the almost three years she has been living with me, she has changed enormously:

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Here, in August 2013, she is having fun with her best friend Zorba (also from Crete): they love to push each other in the water or keep one another from getting out of the water. She has become much friendlier with other dogs, too, but I still need to keep an eye on her. For some reason, she is scared of all short-nosed, wrinkly-faced dogs. Whether it’s a boxer or a bulldog, a pit bull or even a pug, she will bristle and sometimes growl. The good news is that she doesn’t lunge at dogs she fears anymore. Whether on or off the leash, she will now just try to avoid them generally, which is a huge improvement. She is somewhat aloof in general towards other dogs, with the exception of (Mediterranean) rescues, especially galgos and podencos. It’s as if they smell each other from miles away. I hear the same thing from others with (Mediterranean) rescues. I suppose it’s their body language, which is far more natural than that of dogs who grew up with people.

(to be continued…)

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