The Fan Hitch Volume 7, Number 2, March 2005

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Editorial: Sirius Patrol, Canadian Style
F.I.D.O.: Allen Gordon
Nunavik Dog Slaughters, Part I
Pregnancy, Whelping and Pup Development in the ISD, Part II
Fan Mail
Tip for the Trail: Building a Dog Ramp
In the News
Behavior Notebook
Janice Howls: Transition to Primitive
 IMHO: Change

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Transition to Primitive

by Janice Dougherty

A person who has had dogs as a child or young adult more often than not will have serious problems when he or she decides to acquire or switch to a non-European breed of dog. This has come up repeatedly at least since 1969 when I started reading about northern dogs. Most of us are clueless unless we were raised in a dog savvy household. Oh, rare gems that they are!  The assumptions that we make in modern culture regarding the nature of dogs, the motivation of dogs, the requirements of managing dogs comes largely from Walt Disney-like media fiction, Hollywood drama, political pandering, and urban and suburban mythology, compounded by presumptuous dismissal that there could be anything else to know. We are preposterous (from the Latin, meaning "ass backwards"). 

By definition, the primitive dogs are closer in the scope of their behavioral displays to the original domestic dog just over the threshold from their wild cousins. To gain a foundation and perspective that can be built upon solidly, it is more useful to review canine basics. If your point of reference is diametrically opposed to accepting primitive dog behavior as legitimate, there is no point in forcing the issue. The primitives are just not for you.  If their hard-wired behaviors are intolerable and unmanageable, and you are constitutionally appalled - move on!  There is no shame in finding the right dog for your lifestyle. Jack London was dramatic fiction - and a pole apart from reality when it comes to dog behavior.

The biggest behavior problem that people have with their dogs, whether they are house pets or expedition dogs, is aggression. While I would not expect new enthusiasts to spend thirty-five years of study prior to acquiring their first dog, there are some things that you can learn from books. There are some things that you must learn from dogs, and many of those must be observed when they are moving freely and posturing in a social setting, not just viewing tails and tug line tension from the runners of a sled. The dogs of the North are not defined, nor were they shaped in their genetics and behavior, solely by their function as transportation. They are hunters, survivors; they are pack-carrying dogs; they are group living, originally semi-feral and from a culture that for most of their history didn't care much if the dogs were aggressive. I have read accounts of the drivers who were proud that their dogs had enough energy to fight after a long day in harness. One must understand the culture from which each breed or type arose - what is correct for that dog is what would have been correct for that time, place, circumstance, and environment. However, one cannot expect to get the mental and physical toughness that made the Inuit Dog legendary without the high pain threshold and all the other "difficult to train" aspects hard wired in during the breed's creation.

That said, if one wants to understand and manage aggression, there is a basic work called On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz (1974, Harcourt Brace & Company,  ISBN 0-15-668741-0) which covers all the basics as to the function, triggers, and controls on aggression in many species. It gives you the big picture. To truly understand dogs, one must take a professional approach and actively inform yourself. To understand primitive breeds, Beregovoy's book, Primitive Breeds - Perfect Dogs (2001, Hoflin Publishing ISBN 0-86667-065-3) previously reviewed in The Fan Hitch, is it. 

A person absolutely needs to understand and apply basic learning theory and speak and read basic "dog" before they can manage an individual, a pair or group of northern breed dogs. Klinghammer used to refer to it as their "rule book". Plus, that which constitutes a "reward" or a "correction" has a lot to do with the breed, the individual and the source. If the owner hasn't earned respect, then the praise, etc., has no substance. If you are a stone cold novice at reading dog communication, the best book, if only for its pictures, is Dog Language by Roger Abrantes (2001, Dogwise Publishing, ISBN 0966048407). The Koehler Method of Dog Training by William Koehler (1996, Howell Books, ISBN 0876055773 ) is still most applicable. Rather than skim through a hundred years of behavioral studies, the most astonishing, balanced and complete collection on training and behavior is in the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training (2 volumes so far, waiting for #3) by Steven Lindsay (vol. 1: 2000, ISBN 0813807549; vol. 2: 2001, ISBN 0813828686; Iowa State Press). I am really looking forward to the release of Beyond a Whisper by Cesar Millan, National Geographic Channel's Dog Whisperer, (2006, Regan Books, ISBN 0060731362), a truly gifted man who so skillfully modeled the calm-assertive owner position and so diplomatically yet directly corrected all the owner errors and misconceptions. Talk about dealing with aggression, Mr. Millan and his staff keep a yard full of thirty-seven dogs together, all of whom came with "issues", most of whom are pit bull mixes, northern breeds, rottweiler, mastiff types. In the past, there were privately produced booklets, like the Sled Dog Bulletins, from Raymond Thompson, Team & Trail's Uncle Elmer volumes, etc. I have an obscure piece entitled Obedience in Harness written by a Malamute musher. Of course the most important piece of research devoted specifically to the ISD is Ken MacRury's master's thesis, The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History (1991, 3rd printing privately published by the Inuit Sled Dog International ). 

If, after reading these few books, you continue to wish there was some other answer, you will probably never "get it". Books, seminars and websites abound, trying to sell people what they want to hear, selling absolution for owner inadequacy, medicalizing all the behavioral inconveniences. Chose your experts wisely! This is a time of access to information that is unparalleled in history, therefore there are no excuses.

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