Primitives as Partners: Why I Work a Primitive Dog

Think back. Way back to when you were in school, and the teacher gave you some crayons on career day. The teacher asks you to make a picture of the working animals you met in the day’s lesson, and you imagine a police dog. Did you draw a German Shepherd? What breed rides in the fire truck? Dalmatians, duh. Guide dogs? Goldens. We learn about dogs with jobs starting at a young age. But where are our primitives in this picture?

Growing up, I loved dogs. Every breed, from everywhere, but I noticed that there were a select few with which I shared a magic connection. The first dog I ever met was a Siberian Husky. Aha! A primitive.

My first experience with a working primitive was when I was nine, when my aunt & uncle got a husky named Blizzard. He wasn’t a K9 cop, but he competed in obedience trials. Blizzard was a fast learner, eager to work, and I felt like we could talk to each other. Blizzard seemed to know how I felt, and what I was thinking. If I cried, he rushed to my side. When I had something to celebrate, he was the first one I wanted to party with, and if I needed some time to think, taking Blizz for a walk was a sort of shared meditation.

But not everyone saw Blizzard as the intelligent boy my family and I knew. When we were at competitions, other handlers would look down their noses at a husky in obedience. They even told us to our faces how we shouldn’t expect so much from his breed. But they were wrong. Blizzard the Wonder Dog earned a Companion Dog Excellent title!

 (Blizzard the Wonder Dog, R.I.P. sweet boy.)

(Blizzard the Wonder Dog, R.I.P. sweet boy.)

Fast forward twenty years, and I was finally able to get a dog for my very own. And of course, it was a primitive. A three pound, eight week old, red shiba inu puppy that I hoped to train to aid me in living with a spinal injury. Again, I was met with backlash. “Impossible”, said some. “Foolish!”, said others, who tried to warn me that choosing this breed for my first dog was basically suicide, let alone to train as a service animal. But I had a stronger inner feeling, just like the intuition that Blizzard and I shared, that my new baby shiba was actually the perfect choice.

Its not like I picked the breed on a whim, however. For months I researched first, and I read that they were brainy, independent thinkers. But for every good trait, there seemed to be ten more negative ones listed by owners who were at their wits end with unruly shiba puppies who “just won’t listen.” I took those with a grain of salt, remembering the unfounded criticism on Blizzard from the ringside peanut gallery. And so I accepted the challenge of training the supposedly untrainable breed. 

Chiyo not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. He learned faster, and was more motivated than his traditional breed peers. Where others saw “stubbornness”, I saw determination. For Chiyo, digging his heels in meant he never gave up on me, or his training, no matter what tasks I threw at him. He always wanted MORE, and it was the way he learned that kept ME wanting more, too. Watching the gears turn as he excelled with free shaping techniques fascinated me, and I soon found that Chiyo’s independent thinking meant once he understood a behavior, he didn’t need any cues from me to know when to apply it. He excelled with positive reinforcement methods that made him want to repeat what he learned to the point that I would get tired before he would. And he learned at an exponential rate. At thirteen weeks old, he could pick up something that I dropped and hand it back to me. By four months old, he was doing my laundry from start to finish, and was thrilled to do it. All he needed to hear were sounds the machine would make indicating the wash cycle had ended and it was time to put the clothes in the dryer, and you never saw a dog run so fast. He sprung into action for it, and for any other chances, to earn more rewards. By the time he reached a year, he had flown on an airplane seven times, without so much as a peep. The flight teams would all comment each time we got off a plane that they never even knew a dog had been on board. 

 (Chiyo at 9 weeks old, wearing his very first puppy sized vest)

(Chiyo at 9 weeks old, wearing his very first puppy sized vest)

As our relationship grew and he gained experience, training with him became almost telepathic. He now seems to know exactly what I’m going to ask of him, even if I’m teaching him a behavior he has never done before. Just as Blizzard the husky knew my real thoughts and feelings I kept hidden from the world, Chiyo the shiba inu knows exactly what I’m going to do next— and any primitive dog owner will tell you the same: they get inside your head. And your heart. 

Sure, many dogs are empathetic, and so many are motivated learners as well, but Its the combination of Chiyo’s seemingly psychic sensitivity, tenacity, and independent intelligence that make him the best worker for me. Those characteristics wrapped up in one furry four legged package are not only the hallmark of a primitive dog, but also the key ingredients for successful working animals. Aside from acting as my legs and spine, he’s still got the gumption to have a private life outside of his role as full time caregiver. At the time of this writing, Chiyo has earned his TKE elite performer dog title, as well as dabbled in conformation, begun rally obedience, and is signed up for lure coursing and scent work next. His future is bright with capacity for continued education. He’s a nurse, a clean up crew, a blood oxygen level reader, a masseuse, and a psychotherapist, yet still a dog, all in one.

 (All grown up, on duty in present day)

(All grown up, on duty in present day)

But I’m not writing this article to brag on my baby (well, he IS pretty cute). What I hope to convey, and what Chiyo and I work for every day, is breaking down the barriers of the negative stereotype associated with primitive dogs as working dogs, and instead encourage more people to choose a primitive for their partner. It’s because of the stigma surrounding shibas, sibes, and all their pre-modern siblings, that we don’t get the proper PR. These dogs have untapped talents, ones that are highly valuable in the workplace. Who better than a saluki to give high speed chase in hot pursuit on your police force? Or try a finnish spitz to lend his voice to sound the fire alarm? We already know that it was a team of huskies that saved the day when diphtheria struck Nome, Alaska. Its time we go back to our roots, and remember that the first working dogs were the first dogs, period. Keep an open mind, and let primitive dogs, the original gangsters, surprise you.