Living primitives are reminders of the journey ancient wolves took to becoming modern dogs and this romantic idea alone got me hooked. After working with dozens of huskies in the arctic, I came home to the States with the mission to find THE perfect primitive to adopt. Two Portuguese Podengos later, I continue to learn and obsess over primitives, falling in love with them more and more.
So what makes a primitive a primitive? All it means is that genetically these dogs are less refined, only bred and used for their work function (hunting, sledding, herding, or guarding), and then left to roam and pass their own time, resulting in stronger independence and survival skills…over a a few thousand years.
Deer’s infamous judgmental glare.
To many, primitive breeds are absolutely stunning when it comes to aesthetics. They easily resemble wolves and foxes you would see in the wild, their gazes often striking and seductive, and their auras mysterious. As much as I openly berate others for choosing dogs based on looks, it’s not a secret that I am attracted to the many of the same features.
Primitives are usually medium-sized (25 to 60 pounds), with upright ears, a long muzzle, and long upright or curved tails. They also have superior senses of sight, smell, and hearing. They resemble their ancestors most because they haven’t been exaggerated yet to human desires. Many modern supermutts start looking primitive because their genes dilute back to their original core.
Because they are so balanced, it shouldn’t be surprising that primitives are typically healthy. Their lives are much harsher (because of environment and work) and without much intervention by humans, evolution naturally weeded out the sick and the weak. Another day I’ll write the argument against continuing many modern breeds, but I think there is a lot to be learned when primitives are some of the last healthy breeds. I would be crazy if I didn’t say that I want my dogs to live long lives, so why don’t other people? I’m glad Deer is nearly 17 and still going because she has the right genes to do so!
Well, along with this longevity comes a lot of energy. There aren’t many primitive breeds you will find that are lazy. In fact, most of them require exercise and mental stimulation beyond a typical dog. This goes back to their history and original functions – working all day, and then left to wander and play by themselves. They also tend to be very alert dogs, ready to “go” in a heart’s beat. “Trapping” these dogs quickly leads to mass destruction, aggression, escaping, or neuroticism. For example, Jasper’s previous show dog life resulted in a massive amounts of pent up energy wasted on anxieties and emotional damage.
You don’t walk Basenjis, they walk themselves, says Haru, my goddog.
In a study by animal behaviorists, they discovered that when food was placed beyond reach, wolves persisted on solving the problem on their own whereas domesticated dogs gave up easily and looked for a human for help.
This learned helplessness is what I consider the “sacrifice” some wolves made when evolving into the modern dog. While learning to depend on humans, these wolves’ instincts to survive began to numb. They didn’t need to hunt, or defend their home, or fight out their pack order anymore. As long as they learned to read humans and did what the humans wanted, they were given everything they needed to survive. The less aggressive, the more submissive, and the cuter these wolves got, the more they were bred, drawing the decisive line to the beginning of dogs.
This helplessness is what also turns me off about most dogs, but what makes them so endearing to others. They “need” us beyond just food and shelter – they crave our approval and depend on us to the point of naivety. Many dogs don’t know what to do without their humans – crying and fighting themselves when left alone or ignored.
What I think is the main danger of breeding this dependence is our natural tendency as humans to take advantage of these dogs. This eagerness to please is easily mistaken and anthropomorphized into “loyalty” and “love.”
Don’t get me wrong – I do believe most dogs love their humans…just not the way we think. They lack the ability to think on their own and are prone to living a narrow world where most of their happiness depends on and is entrusted with humans. The idea that dogs can tell apart bad people from good is highly inaccurate as many dogs that are abused or neglected (even on a minor level) will still stay at home and obey unquestionably. It’s like they have Stockholm Syndrome!
Ponyo, a friend’s Canaan Dog, does not approve of this situation.
Now take the average primitive breed – they are known to be called all kinds of expletives and described with all kinds of negative adjectives. Selfish, stubborn, self-serving jerks! But the truth is, all dogs are selfish. The difference is that domestic breeds more directly connect what we want with what they want, and have no self-respect. “Okay I’ll sit pretty and hold a toy in my mouth and let you stack things on me because you have a treat and you’ll say ‘Good Dog’ right?”
Primitives, on the other hand, demand a harder bargaining chip. They, too, can be driven and trained with rewards, but if you start using rewards to lure or manipulate them, they catch on quickly and will deflect all your commands. They are perfectly capable of making fun for themselves, and if you mess with their fun or their strong instincts kick in, it’ll seem like they suddenly lost their hearing or abandoned you altogether. This switch is very volatile and in the end you will always lose if they choose it.
In order to build a healthy relationship with a primitive you have to really study them as much as they study you. They are always watching you, always learning and waiting for you to slip up to take advantage of you. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was sure Deer was sleeping, passed out cold, and a treat bag was far out of reach, and upon returning a few minutes later, she was surrounded by shredded pieces and already planning the next thievery…even at 16 years old.
Being hyperaware of your own energy, body language, and words is what makes for a consistent trainer and handler of primitive dogs. But not only do you need precision and consciousness, you need a lot of empathy to live with primitives. These dogs are very honest, and with their high sensitivity, even very vocal about it. They will be the first ones to let you know they are not happy, or if something is wrong. And they will avoid any situation they are uncomfortable in. That includes you. Even when I’m not angry at my dogs, if they feel my negative energy, they make their distance.
Included with their sensitivity and little desire to please humans is a naturally cautious and aloof personality with strangers. Some primitives are outgoing and friendly, but most are mistrusting and need time to warm up. Furthermore, you can expertly socialize a primitive dog and still end up with behavioral issues such as reactivity because they are just so impressionable. Take the average primitive off the streets as a stray and you will find that they really struggle to adjust to companion life compared to the average domestic breed.
Jasper, unapologetically himself.
So all those differences pointed out, the question remains – why primitives?
It may seem that most of the traits described above make the primitive dog seem unmanageable and far from a dog most people desire. This is only partially true.
Yes, most people – especially first-timers – should not have primitive breeds. They have extremely high emotional, mental, and physical needs, but with an open heart and a willingness to negotiate, you will find that you get exactly what you put in. As with any dog, learning to work with them and think on their level is highly rewarding, but because primitive breeds require far more work, the bond is even stronger when built.
When a primitive trusts and loves you, you know it is real. They are constantly working out a system and are finicky with what they want, but if they choose you, they really choose you. This kind of loyalty and respect can never be bought – only earned.
Jasper meeting Journey, a New Guinea Singing Dog.
As for me, you can call me crazy, but the truth is, I love THEIR crazy. First and foremost, I am never, ever bored. Each day has its challenges and puzzles, but even when I’m upset, annoyed, and frustrated, I am secretly impressed by my dogs. They have a zeal and a determination for life that is unquenchable. And more than anything, primitives come as they are. You can only do so much work on them before they force you to wonder why you’re trying to change them in the first place.
Primitives are not only the bridge between wolf and dog, they are also the bridge between human and nature. They are not quite wild, but they are not quite ours either. They force us to be humble and I think we could use a little more of that as a species.
Primitives on the job, doing what they do best in the arctic!