In the 2000 film “Best in Show,” five dogs and their eccentric owners compete in the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show at Beyman Center in Philadelphia. The pairs of entrants run the gamut of personalities: campy to yuppie, daft to intense. And each of their respective dogs is equally as high maintenance and colorful.
Though intended as a lighthearted film, “Best in Show” is less satire and more imitation.
“It’s not a comedy; it’s a documentary,” David Golden said.
Like “Best in Show” stars Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest, Golden was a Jew looking for his pooch to win Best in Show, though not at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, but at the National Dog Show from the Kennel Club of Philadelphia at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks, which took place Nov. 20 and 21.
Just like their owner, Golden’s canines share a Jewish background, originating in Israel centuries ago.
Golden is a member of the Canaan Dog Club of America, champions of the Canaan Dog, an ancient breed first seen in 9,000-year-old wall carvings in Ashkelon, Israel, depicted wearing leashes held by hunters.
In past centuries, Canaan Dogs guarded livestock in Bedouin villages, and some dogs were domesticated. In the 1930s, a group of dog trainers immigrated to what became Israel, looking to domesticate a breed to serve general military purposes in the prototype for the Israel Defense Forces.
With large, low-set ears and a lithe, white body speckled black or tan, the Canaan Dog fit the bill of a devoted protector that could easily camouflage in its desert environment.
In the 1960s, Austrian dog experts Rudolph and Rudolphina Menzel brought the Canaan Dog to the United States, where they were redomesticated. However, they remain similar to the likeness of their ancestors.
Golden, who has traveled across the world and took a liking to the naturally evolved dogs, has owned Canaan Dogs for almost 30 years, becoming more and more interested in showing them nationwide.
He is no exception to the host of distinctive dog owners at the National Dog Show, donning a full suit and paisley tie for the weekend competition, complete with a cooked and seasoned chicken breast hidden in his jacket pocket, which he discreetly fed bites of to his dogs Avi and Anni.
Avi has competed at dog shows for six of his seven years of life, winning Best in Breed at the National Dog Show five years running. As reported in a 2017 Jewish Exponent article, Avi not only won Best in Breed that year but came in third among the competition’s herding dogs.
The breed competition on Nov. 20 was a family affair. Along with Avi and his sister Anni, two other Canaan Dogs competed at the show: Anni’s two offspring, both of whom have different owners.
Having only four dogs in the ring for the Best of Breed competition is uncommon. Of the 195 breeds the American Kennel Club recognizes, the Canaan Dog is the 184th most popular, losing out to dogs such as the Australian Shepherd, which have been more recently developed, rather than naturally evolved.
But the dogs have a small, yet loyal following.
Thomas Cassel of Collingswood, New Jersey, rescued two Canaan Dogs this year after a breeder passed away. He hopes to start showing his dogs when they get older after learning more about the showing process from Golden.
“I didn’t just rescue a dog; I joined the community,” Cassel said.
Besides Cassel’s interest in the breed’s appearance, his Jewish identity factored into his connection with Canaan Dogs.
“I started reading up on the history, and it’s just an amazing history,” he said.
Jews do have a slightly disproportionate interest in the breed, Golden said. Before coming to Philadelphia, Golden was in Tucson, Arizona, attending the annual national show for Canaan Dogs. Of the 20 Canaan Dogs in attendance, about a quarter of their owners were Jewish.
And in true Jewish fashion, Golden, who attends about 100 shows each year, is adamant about the preservation of the breed and what makes it unique — L’dor v’dor.
“This is it,” Golden said. “All the dogs in here are special, but this is it.”
On the morning of Nov. 20 during the Best in Breed judging, Avi and Anni lost out to Anni’s seven-month offspring Estee. Standing next to Avi on the grooming table after the judging, Golden stroked Avi’s long ears down to his neck, kissing the canine’s brow.
“I’m disappointed,” Golden said of Avi’s broken winning streak.
Still, Golden doesn’t count himself or his Canaan losers. After all, his dog bred the competition’s winner, the next generation of Canaan Dogs to compete: “It’s a bit of a passing of the torch.”