At left, David Golden and Cynthia Dodson with Avi and, at right, their 'arch-nemesis' Keith Shank and Lil Roy. At left, David Golden and Cynthia Dodson with Avi and, at right, their 'arch-nemesis' Keith Shank and Lil Roy. At left, David Golden and Cynthia Dodson with Avi and, at right, their 'arch-nemesis' Keith Shank and Lil Roy. (Photo: Courtesy Golden/Shank Families)

Inside the most unusual rivalry at the Westminster Dog Show

The Canaan is so rare that only two owners are competing for best-in-breed at the prestigious event.

Here's a prediction that you can take to the bank: One of these two dog owners will win the best in breed at this year's Westminster Dog Show.

There's a simple mathematical certainty for this. While there are hundreds of golden retrievers and German shepherds and English bulldogs competing at Westminster, there are only three Canaan dogs competing. And to make this wager even a little easier, two of those dogs share the same owner. So, one way or another, the best Canaan dog in the country is a 50/50 sure thing.

In one corner, we have Avi, the reigning Westminster champion for the past two years. At 5 years old, he's the second-most winningest Canaan dog of all time, and struts into the ring with well-earned bravura and confidence. In the other corner is the up-and-comer, Lil Roy. He has bested Avi a few times including, most recently, at the all-important American Kennel Club Championships in December.

"But to be fair, Avi has beaten Lil Roy like 10 times," said David Golden who, with his wife Cynthia Dodson, have raised Avi in rural Virginia since he was a puppy. "I would say there's a friendly rivalry. But it's a very different dynamic. Even though they're our competition, we like it a whole lot better. It's very lonely without them."

The feeling is mutual. "They're our best friends," said Minnesotan Keith Shank who, with his wife Cheryl, were packing Lil Roy's dog show accoutrements for the trip to Manhattan this weekend. "As long as one of us wins, then we're happy."

This mutual admiration society is not necessarily something you'd expect in the no-holds-barred world of dog show competitions. But the Canaan dog is unique, so it's no wonder the owners are following suit.

Handler Brittany Cipriotti (left) shows Avi to the judge at the 2019 Westminster Dog Show. Handler Brittany Cipriotti (left) shows Avi to the judge at the 2019 Westminster Dog Show. (Photo: Courtesy David Golden)

What's special about the Canaan dog?

The Canaan dog is one of the oldest in the world, dating back thousands of years. The breed originates from Israel, where evidence of the first-ever domesticated dogs was discovered. Archaeologists digging in the Israeli city of Ashkelon unearthed 700 dog skeletons, all of which appeared similar to the modern Canaan dog. Indeed, some were buried with their humans, leading archaeologists to hypothesize that the dogs were revered as sacred animals.

Israel Hershkovitz, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, has a replica of one of these skeletons encased in plaster in his office. It's interesting," he told From The Grapevine when we visited him. "It means that she cared very much about her dog. Think about it, a young woman living 15,000 years ago, buried with her own dog. It's very touching if you think about. That's why I left it here on my wall."

For Golden, the historical component of the Canaan dog plays an important part of why he and Dodson feel connected to this breed. "Knowing that this is a very ancient breed of dog and looking at these dogs and knowing that they can trace their lineage back thousands of years is really fascinating to us. It's very compelling. It's living history right in your house."

Keith Shank (center) introducing his Canaan dogs at a meet-the-breed event. Keith Shank (center) introducing his Canaan dogs at a meet-the-breed event. (Photo: Courtesy Keith Shank)

Canaan dogs are known for being smart and self-sufficient. "Given the fact that they evolved on their own to survive, they are frequently smarter than us," said Golden. "So it means you have to be on your toes a lot of the time. But that's good. It makes life interesting." Added Shank: "They're intelligent. They're like children. They know where the line is, but they're also going to put their foot over it to test you."

The dogs are also highly adaptable. "If you want to sit on the couch, they will gladly sit next to you," said Shank, "but if you want to run a marathon, they will stay right up there with you the whole time."

But the breed is in danger of going extinct. It's estimated that there are fewer than 5,000 Canaan dogs left in the world. Avi's sister Anni is giving birth to a litter of puppies next week. "We love this breed and we want them to endure," said Dodson. "And our part of giving back is to go out and introduce our beautiful dogs to people."

Admittedly, the small community of Canaan owners makes qualifying for dog shows a tad easier. "There are a million Labradoodles," Shank said with a laugh.

Anni, seen here at a previous dog show, will not be competing at Westminster. She has a litter of Canaan puppies due any day now. Anni, seen here at a previous dog show, will not be competing at Westminster. She has a litter of Canaan puppies due any day now. (Photo: Courtesy David Golden)

Is there pressure to perform at Madison Square Garden?

Lil Roy, whose show name is Kochav Mazal Tov Lil Roy Me Toro, is kind of non-plussed to perform at the most prestigious dog show in the country. "Roy's personality is just awesome," said Shank. "We brought him to Westminster last year, but it was more for the experience because there's so many dogs there. It's so crowded. I wanted him to get a flavor for it to make sure he was solid. And he could've cared less. He just went with the flow. And to him it was just another show."

But for Shank, the journey is much more meaningful. He's only been to the Big Apple a few times. "It's kind of like going to the Super Bowl." His wife scored tickets to "Hamilton" on Broadway.

"What's so difficult and stressful about Westminster are the logistics," explained Golden, who is still trying to figure out how to ferry back and forth from the hotel to the two different venues – Pier 94 by the Hudson River and Madison Square Garden in Midtown. Avi, he revealed, might be traveling to Westminster by Uber.

But that's only one concern for Golden and his wife. Their 2-year-old Canaan dog, Vino, will be making his Westminster debut. "We're keeping our fingers and toes and everything else we can find crossed," he said.

Asked what he would do if he won at Westminster, Shank pauses to consider the possibility. "That would be one heck of a party," he told us. "That would be like hitting a grand slam in the World Series at the bottom of the ninth with two outs."

Two-year-old Vino, whose mother was born in Israel, will be making his debut at the Westminster Dog Show this year. Two-year-old Vino, whose mother was born in Israel, will be making his debut at the Westminster Dog Show this year. (Photo: Courtesy David Golden)

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