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Israel’s Four-Legged Soldiers: Canine Pioneer, Rudolphina Menzel

By Randy Pinsky

Guide dogs, therapy companions, K-9 police back-up - was there ever a time when dogs did not assist humans? The field of animal psychology owes much of its development to a small but fierce Austrian-Jewish scientist named Rudolphina Menzel. Dubbed by her unofficial biographer Susan M. Kahn as “the Henrietta Szold (founder of Hadassah health services in Israel), Chaim Weizman (Israel’s first president) and Sigmund Freud of dogs, all rolled into one,” her legacy has been largely forgotten- until now.

“Canine Pioneer: The Extraordinary Life of Rudolphina Menzel” (2022) by Kahn aims to address this oversight. Menzel’s pioneering research on canine psychology and behavior fundamentally changeed the field of dog training, and Canine Pioneer was honored as the first book in the McGill-Queen’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies Series.  

Discovering Her Life’s Ambition at Age Four

Rudolphina Waltuch (1891-1973) was born to a wealthy family in Vienna, Austria. Though she could not have known that dog training would become her life’s work, Rudolphina’s curiosity ironically started in an altercation with a neighbor's dog. As the Zionist Archives aptly put it, “it was love at first bite.”

Rather than be scarred for life, the young Rudolphina mused on what could have provoked the animal. Her signature keen observation skills would serve her throughout her entire career.

Much to the chagrin of her bourgeois parents, she opened her heart (if not her home) to up to twenty strays, bribing neighbors with her allowance to help care for them.

She would become a fervent Zionist upon coming across a discarded Die Welt newspaper by Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement, even skipping school in order to attend his funeral.

Rudolphina went on to the University of Vienna in biology, psychology and chemistry. Her determined nature caught the eye of fellow Theodor Herzl Zionist College Students Club member and medical student, Rudolph Menzel. Their constant debating developed into something more and they were married soon after the First World War.

A Different Austria

A chemist by trade, Rudolphina would be challenged to find another such position when the couple moved to Linz (Hitler’s birthplace) for Rudolph’s residency. In training their adopted boxer Mowgli, Rudolphina launched what would become a sixteen-year detailed analysis on dog personality and character traits. The couple would become known across Europe as foremost specialists in canine cognition and breeders of police dogs.

By the 1940s, the Menzels had created a national association for service dog trainers, leading demonstrations and performances. It would be here that they would network with the wives of British police officers operating in pre-state Israel; contacts that would prove invaluable later on. 

Shev, Tish’ar, Boh 
(Sit, Stay, Come)

An active Zionist, Rudolphina used her passion for dogs as an avenue to further the cause, training her dogs to solely respond to commands in Hebrew.

Her kennel, B’nei Satan (“Children of the Devil'') and reputation for training exceptional guard dogs was noticed by the Austrian and German police, who purchased several of her dogs. Many others would be sent to the Yishuv (community) of pre-state Israel, where she and Rudolph led courses for the Haganah (army) in 1934 and 1937 at the invitation of future Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

A Twisted Irony

Things turned for the worse however when Austria surrendered to Germany. The writing was on the wall when Hitler himself ordered them to train dogs for the Nazi soldiers. Knowing that a squadron car had been sent to pick them up, they grabbed their belongings and their two favorite dogs and fled for Palestine with forged papers.

It would forever be a source of heartbreak for Rudolphina to know that her students were “using the knowledge they acquired from me to use dogs to exterminate my people and other peoples.”


The Menzels realized the potential role dogs could play in Israel’s development, but were met by swift rejection by a community distrustful of the animals. Many had escaped the Holocaust and had only associations of fear and aggression.

In 1943, the canine ‘pioneer’ (a play on words of her revolutionary work and efforts as a chalutz in Israel) would write, “Make room for a new pioneering path to reclaim the dog for the building of our country.” Through demonstrations and gradual socialization to the animals, she was able to show how useful dogs could be for protecting kibbutz farms, and serving in combat (helped by the fact that they already responded to commands in Hebrew).

Coming to the Rescue of the British

In 1938, Rudolphina founded the Palestine Research Institute for Canine Psychology and Training in Kiryat Motzkin, assessing dogs’ suitability for military service. Her dogs would be critical in detecting land mines for the Haganah canine unit (the precursor to the Oketz canine unit of the Israel Defense Force considered to be among the best in the world).

This work would lead to her playing a critical role in the Allied war effort in North Africa. In June 1942, high ranking British officials, recalling her reputation in dog training, appealed to her for bomb-detecting dogs against the plethora of German-planted mines. Rudolphina was conflicted as while the British were inconsistent allies to the Jews in Israel, they were fundamental for winning the war against Germany. Assisting the British would play a critical role in Israel’s ultimate independence. 

Secret Weapon

In May of 1948, the British presented the historic Partition Plan which proposed a state for the Jews and one for the Arabs.  While the Jewish community accepted the offer, their Arab counterparts rejected it and attacked the new state.

Rudolphina’s ‘four-legged soldiers’ of the B’nei Habitachon (“From the House of Protection”) kennel would be invaluable in the War of Independence, transporting messages, carrying medical supplies and ammunition, and searching for wounded soldiers.

She would proudly proclaim, “[dogs] were tools that built the country, no less than the plow, the tractor, the gun and the water tower.” Rudolphina saw great potential in the native Canaan dog, selectively bred for guard duty and better suited to the climate than the European dogs,  “friendly but also incredibly stubborn, perhaps not unlike Israelis themselves.”[1]

Ever Resilient

Although all signs pointed to Rudolphina being the obvious choice for leading the canine unit of the Israel Defense Force, a conspiracy against her resulting in one of her former students becoming commander while she would be demoted to part-time supervisor.

In reaction, she pivoted to training guide dogs for the blind. In 1952, she invited famous deaf-blind activist Helen Keller to assist with founding the Israel Institute for Orientation and Mobility of the Blind, the first guide dog institute in the Middle East.

Fifty years after her passing, Khan’s book has helped to bring Rudolphina out of relative obscurity and highlight the truly pioneering role she played in animal cognition. More than ‘merely’ a dog trainer, her work was fundamental in the Allies’ victory and as a secret weapon for the Haganah defense forces. As one of the book’s reviewers commented, “We have waited a long time for a heroine like Menzel.”


[1] John F. Kennedy had a Canaan dog, though he never identified it as such for political reasons.

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