Wild Not Wild - Man's First Friend
Many populations of primitive dogs across the globe straddle the line of wild, feral, or semi-feral classifications. This wreaks havoc on the way we observe these dogs, house them, treat them, make excuses for them, and even create laws around them. Generally, we classify “domesticated” as the defining boundary for what is wild and what is not. The only problem is, “domesticated” is a term broad enough to drive a truck through.
Depending on the researcher, scientist, philosopher, biologist, social scientist, and the information they have been exposed to, you can get a different definition and set of parameters for domestication. And due to local and governmental laws, this can affect where a dog can live and under what conditions. Since primitive dogs slip in and out of the definition of domesticated, this can affect their welfare and even their lives.
For some “domesticated” means the removal of “wild” traits such as predation, or aggression. Primitive dogs do not fit this definition (nor do many modern breeds). Primitive dogs will easily hunt for small and medium animals including wildlife and pets. Primitive dogs will also react in an aggressive fashion when teased, tormented, threatened, or challenged, by humans or other animals. And yes, so will many modern dog breeds. There is no clear line between what predation or aggression is considered appropriate for a “domestic” animal.
Another definition of domestic refers to the human manipulation of a population to change an animals’ biddableness and flight response to humans. Modern breeds certainly fit this description. However so do all primitive dogs when comparing them to their cousin the wolf. Wolves bred in captivity are not significantly more biddable or affectionate with humans. However primitive dogs, even ones with “wild” populations, are. During the Russian fox experiment at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, it was demonstrated that wild foxes could be “domesticated” through selective breeding for biddable and affectionate characteristics. It has also been shown that village dog populations that are not intentionally bred, end up with more affectionate and biddable animals, usually through culling of aggressive animals. Either way under this framed definition of domestication, primitive dogs still fit because their proximity to human populations has affected their survival and made them more biddable and affectionate.
Fast forward to today and our modern households (I assume are modern since you are reading this online). Primitive dogs who are housed indoors, and raised using modern socialization and training techniques, thrive. Each generation is more biddable and engaged than the last. Some voice concern that we are breeding the “wild” out of our dogs. I argue our dogs are simply doing what they do best - they are adapting to our world and expectations. Even the most primitive of dogs - the New Guinea Singing Dog, whose “wild” status is a perfect example of this topic - can thrive in a modern household without making any different considerations than you would a Shiba, Basenji, or Husky. And they can rise to the level of a highly trained dog as well. If this is possible with the “most primitive dog” what does that say for what is “wild” and what is “domestic”.
It may seem like splitting hairs, but these terms matter. “Wild” makes states require permits and euthanization of animals that bite (or all animals on a property depending on the state). It forces animals out of homes and into cages and kennels. And it creates excuses for limited training and relationship. This is a tragedy for an animal who came out of the forest to connect with us tens of thousands of years ago. With each generation of more gregarious primitive dogs, it is depressing to see them destined to live a life in a pen with limited human contact.
Perhaps primitive dogs are a form of Rorschach test. If we want to connect to the “wild” and feel special or elite, we will place these dogs into the “wild” category. If we instead see a connection with something that enjoys being with humans, we see a domestic animal. I think for the welfare of these animals it is our responsibility to step out of the wild and celebrate what makes these dogs connect with us.
Rudyard Kipling called the dog “First Friend”. Friends are family. They are extensions of ourselves. Let us see them for that, celebrate it, and widen the door for greater relationships with them instead of leaving them out in the cold. Friends deserve empathy, hospitality, and connection. Let’s invite them in and enhance our relationship.
For the skeptics out there who still think their primitive dog is a “wild animal”, here are examples of normal behaviors performed by both primitive and modern dogs. While primitive dogs exhibit many of these in combination, so do many modern breeds. These behaviors do not make dogs anymore “wild”.
- Climbing - Catahoula Leopard, Tree Walker Coonhound, Jack Russell Terrier, Belgian Malinois, New Guinea Singing Dog, Dingo, and Basenji.
- Digging - Shiba Inu, Siberian Husky, Carolina Dog, Labrador Retriever, Dachshund, Westie, Border Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, and Australian Shepherd.
- Predation of other animals - Greyhound, Shiba Inu, New Guinea Singing Dog, Basenji, Akita, Jindo, Chow, Jack Russell Terrier, Australian Kelpie, Samoyed, and Black Mouth Cur.
- Struggles with biddability/training - Carolina Dog, Central Asian Shepherd, Anatolian Shepherd, Great Pyrenees, New Guinea Singing Dog, Akita, Jindo, Chow, Shar-Pei, Siberian Husky, English Bulldog, Bull Mastiff, Afghan, and Basset Hound.
- Limited off-leash control - Saluki, Greyhound, Tibetan Mastiff, Ovcharka, Shiba Inu, Basenji, Shar-Pei, Chow, Siberian Husky, New Guinea, Singing Dog, Boston Terrier, Dachshund, English Bulldog, Beagle, Weimaraner, and Toy Fox Terrier.
The list above is a quick example and not an exhaustive list of all breeds that tend to exhibit these behaviors. Many modern breeds check all the boxes just as primitive dogs do. Though interestingly primitive breeds tend to exhibit less aggressive behaviors towards humans and less of a threat to public safety. They're not so “wild” after all.
Let’s take the primitive dog off it’s pedestal and out of its cage and go celebrate our co-domestication by doing something - together!