The Twin Ontological Motives

Most wildlife biologists think dogs and wolves are members of the same species, Canis lupus. But it’s not a slam dunk.

Genetically, there are no differences; the two can hybridize; their offspring are fertile. That’s the case for considering them phylogenetically identical.

But morphologically, particularly in their skulls, there are significant or at least puzzling differences to some observers. And wolves and dogs tend not to voluntarily seek each other out to reproduce. That’s the case for considering our pets to be a separate subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris.

Either way, the Gray Wolf is the progenitor of the domestic dog, and there are some fascinating similarities.

wolf pelt

The pack drive, for instance. Which is more than just a tendency to coalesce into social units with a clearly defined hierarchy.

Imagine walking a narrow tightrope with a balancing pole swaying from side to side. On one end of the continuum (pole) is the insistent urge to join a social group, and yet the other end simultaneously lures you in the opposite direction, toward your own independence. It’s two extremes of the same drive; like wolves, dogs will likely have more of one, less of the other.

Tzuri, so far, is a bit of an enigma. On the social scale she is not what you would call “cuddly”; she is stingy with tail-wags and face-licks, and likely as not when I call her she just stares back at me with a “what do you want” look until I reach into my pocket for a treat.


Yes, we are a pair; Tzuri has accepted me as her alpha. At least once a day I engage in that centuries-old routine Canis lupus anticipates and understands: immobilize her, stare into her eyes, growl until she submissively looks away. And we have closely bonded in the sense that she constantly monitors my whereabouts and insists on shadowing my every move. Even if she is busy gnawing on a bone and I dart off to the bathroom, she will come trotting in and plop down at my feet.

But on the other end of the scale she has the kind of self-confidence – what the Vet called “a mind of her own” – that makes me wonder about her “family” values. She delights in entertaining herself: loves playing in the rain, digging in the dirt, tilting at windmills. Thunder and sudden loud noises – vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, motorcycles, etc. – do not send her scurrying back to me for ‘comfort’. Her remarkable composure, at times almost an aloofness, hints at a desire to negotiate the world all by herself.


[Evidence has confirmed that in the wild wolf pups can and sometimes do survive on their own when abandoned as early as 4 months. Tzuri might have some of that same rugged independence.]

There’s so much intricacies in relationships with animals, anyone. Tzuri wants to be sure you both survive anything, and she has less information on the subject than an old hand at living like her dad.

It’s in her blood, too, I’d guess, to keep a professional demeanor and alert to attending to your commands. She’s a very special piece of work and except for that wonderful abandon (“mc2”) where she knocks herself out, not a silly pup.

Those incredibly astute observations are from my writer/painter friend, Barbara Sparhawk.  And surely she’s right.  Even since starting this blog a day or two ago Tzuri has exhibited subtle changes.  Like many of us she’s a work in progress, still swaying back and forth with that balancing pole.

🙂 🙂 🙂

We’re no different, it should be noted, Homo sapiens, in that we walk the same tightrope balancing that same pole.

[Modern humans are actually the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.]

We, too, struggle with opposing urges: submission vs. individuation. Should we give ourselves over to socially approved heroics (Career, Religion) and derive our self-worth from a second-hand, ready-made context? Or, like the Maverick, strike out into the lonely unknown toward our own uniqueness?

I mention all this about instincts and drives and motives because it leads directly to a vexing moral question that many barely acknowledge.

What should I teach my dog, and how?


Lawdy, Lawdy! I can see my followers now, droppin’ like flies already. And I’m gonna lose even more next time, methinks, ‘cuz I need to bring Aristotle and maybe even Immanuel Kant into the discussion.

😦 😦 😦

[To Be Continued…]

12 Replies to “The Twin Ontological Motives”

  1. I suspect the dog lovers in the bunch will hang on even if you DO bring in the Greek and the German. My own pup has a touch of that aloofness, yet has come to insist on a cuddle before we tuck in for the night. It also helps that she’s particularly treat motivated. But she remains an enigma even after five years of togetherness.

    I do love the photos you’re getting of Tzuri. That last one is so alert and playful. It’s a joy to behold.


    1. Thanks, Gunta. I’ve noticed a change in just the past couple of days in that now she licks more, and likes to stay close enough underfoot to keep in physical contact with me. She’s (thankfully) big with food rewards too, although because I employ them so often I have to give her tiny little three calorie “training” rewards rather than the thicker treats.


      1. My little (fully grown at 11 lbs) pup doesn’t get kibble for meals, but a small kibble bit for treats has her willing to do whatever I ask for. We also have a local outfit that does dehydrated liver treats that she gets for extra special moments.

        You’re making me wish for a puppy again… but it’s such a pity they don’t have longer lives. That’s the tough part.


        1. “Longer lives” is yes indeed the tough part. My best friend ‘Jessica’ (German Shepherd) lived to be almost 13. I left Florida with her in 1974 in a popsicle orange VW bug with 300 dollars in my pocket and no destination except somewhere on the West Coast, and we ended up spending 18 months both in LA and up in the Shasta-Trinity Nat’l Forest in a ‘commune’ type place. I had taken the back seat out of the VW and replaced it with a platform and many nights the two of us (plus my green army duffel bag with everything I owned in it) slept curled up together. When the time came to put Jessica to sleep, I purposely had it done on my birthday, so as to never forget. I suppose I am one of those pathologicals who can relate better to animals than people.

          A short video slideshow of my Jessica can be found at the bottom of the following blog:


  2. This is a delight to read. Just wonderful. You are taking a professorial, a scholarly approach (I head for the dictionary) to a baby and I suspect she will wean you out of that in no time flat. For all the glories you will incorporate brilliantly in her life instruction, your rapt attention and devotion, Tzuri will teach you even more than a thing or two you already know about instinct. What a pair. A very fine pair. (Thanks for the mention!). As for this reader, ready for more. (I can’t believe I’ve watched her left ear pop up!)


    1. She no doubt will indeed wean me from much of my scholarly approach. But not altogether, since the Schutzhund training she will undergo requires very careful planning and execution with regard to harnessing instincts and drives. Thanks, Barbara.


  3. In rearing two male Samoyeds, the single most important thing each breeder insisted I follow in training is to never tolerate the putting of the mouth onto anything at all that the dog should not be mouthing, be it a mere towel. The simple command both told me to use is : “No mouth!” replacing the taken object with “Your chew!” It worked a dream. Neither has ever “nipped” while playing, neither “snaps” to take food from your hand, you can touch or move the food bowl while they eat/ate, even remove a bone from their mouth. Both these dogs have “raised” infant kittens, holding them between their legs for warmth, keeping track of them and licking them gently. Best thing anyone ever taught me.


    1. Thanks, Martha. The wonderful thing is that different dogs require different kinds of training for different purposes. I plan to blog about that in detail, what she has been bred for and how I will train her. But a quick preview is that ALL her ancestors (including a grandfather who was WORLD champion TWICE in a row) are trained and titled in obedience, tracking, AND protection, which of course involves bite work. The most reliable indicator of her propensity for protection work is her early interest in tug-o-war with a rag or towel, a test which she passes with flying colors.

      Properly trained Schutzhund dogs are a marvel to behold in that they learn when to bite, and when not to, and a good one is absolutely reliable. And I can take a bone from her and put my fingers in her food dish, I’ve made sure of that. I made sure of that starting at a very early age.

      Having Samoyeds must have been a real treat. Imagine – reindeer herders! Santa probably had a few.



  4. Wonderful reading. Not going anywhere and I’m not even a dog lover. Just a dog liker 🙂


  5. My philosophical questions with my dog was how much autonomy could she have? When does she get to make the decisions? How much is our conversation a two way street? Given that we live in town and she joined us when the kids were in elementary school, leashes and good listening was a must. But I enjoyed the times when we weren’t in a hurry and was able to give her the chance to make a choice. When she was young and eager to “do tricks” for a treat. I’d giver some free choices – “What you gonna do?”, and she’d do what she felt like. When walking through the adjacent neighborhoods on a Saturday or Sunday – “Which way do you want to go?” And, she’d choose. Now that she is old and deaf, she does a lot of talking with her eyes. Dogs sure are interesting to hang out with. 🙂


    1. What a wonderful attitude! Maximum free choice with just enough socialization to get along with humans is my thinking, too. When I get around to my next blog I will add that a dog should be provided with meaningful activity to perform, preferably congruent with whatever work they were bred for. Thanks…


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