Pre-Colombian Canines

From the November 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click To Subscribe. Illustrations courtesy A History of Dogs in the Early Americas by Marion Schwartz.  (Pictured above – The Dene people of the northern boreal forest shared a special bond with their parti-colored Hare Indian Dogs.)

America’s First Dogs Were Working Partners

Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Americas were populated with ancient civilizations that made great use of the domesticated dog. When Europeans first made contact with the “Indians,” dogs had already been living in and around human settlements in the Western Hemisphere for roughly 25,000 years.

From the Arctic Circle to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, dogs were assisting human communities in ways that seem perfectly suited to the modern idea of Working and Utility dogs. Domestic canines were used by some nations to pull heavy loads and by others to act as guards. Many were natural playmates and protectors of children. Others were natural retrievers. Because dogs were understood to share a kinship with wolves and other wild canids, they were frequently viewed as a living connection between wild nature and human culture. Unfortunately, a written record of Native American dogs is largely absent from the history books. What does survive is a collection of 
stories told to European explorers that represents a rich oral  history that mythologized the relationship that existed between people and dogs in the New World.

The tales below are part of a collection assembled by Marion Schwartz in her book, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas, published in 1997 by Yale University Press.

(below – Hauling seals in winter was one of the duties of the Inuit dogs in the Arctic North.)

Arctic Originals

Few of the indigenous peoples’ dogs survive to this day. Of those that do, most originated in the Far North (Alaskan Malamute, Canadian Eskimo Dog) or in Central and South America (Xoloitzcuintli, Peruvian Inca Orchid.) The dogs of the Arctic were considerably larger and stronger than those in subarctic regions. Their size and grit served the people of the North well through the ability to haul personal possessions and prey animals. “In pre-contact America, dogs carried loads by pulling a sledge or sled, wearing packs on their backs, or pulling a travois,” writes Schwartz. During winter months, the sledge was employed over much of the arctic. However, the author notes that throughout the summer season, the peoples of the Arctic used their dogs strictly as pack animals, carrying items such as tents, lumber and kettles. Schwartz quotes early explorer Samuel Hearne who recorded the following observations during his 1772 expedition. “Dogs, in doing so, lessened the women’s load by carrying ‘these articles only,’ which are always lashed onto their [the dogs’] backs, much after the same manner as packs are, or used formerly to be, on pack horses.” Earlier French explorers, including Pierre La Vérendrye and Etienne de Bourgmont, also made note of how the work of hauling supplies was the joint responsibility of both women and dogs. “They had no horses, and all their possessions were loaded on dog travois and on the backs of women,” recorded de Bourgmont. Together, this labor force moved provisions over great distances in the harshest of climates and made life possible above the Arctic Circle.

(Below  – The dogs of the Assiniboin people pursued wounded Bison on the open prairie)

Southern Migration

“In about A.D. 800, a group of Asthapaskan speakers migrated from the western subarctic to the Southern Plains,” notes Schwartz of the peoples who brought backpacking dogs with them on their journey south. As stated by the author, the archaeological record indicates that only small dogs were present in the Southwest prior to this time period. According to Schwartz, “This evidence confirms that the northerners brought their working dogs with them.” The immigrants also brought along their cultural and linguistic traditions that helped to develop new nations such as the Navaho and the Apache. “In 1599 a Spaniard named Zaldivar witnessed the nomads, probably Apache, with medium-sized shaggy dogs,” writes Schwartz of the 17th century chronicler. “They drive great trains of them,” the European recorded of the native peoples’ penchant for using dogs to carry supplies. “Each, girt ‘round its breast and haunches, carrying a load of flour at least one hundred pounds, travels as fast as his master.” Schwartz suggests that in all likelihood, this kind of weight was typically dragged by the dogs rather than carried. Such heavy loads would have required dogs bigger and stronger than those found in central North America. “Early travelers on the Great Plains frequently remarked on the resemblance between native dogs and coyotes and wolves,” notes the author. “It appears that on the Plains, to a much greater degree than elsewhere, native dogs received frequent influxes of wolf blood—with or without the connivance of people.” These hybrid dogs were likely better suited to pursue the herds of elk and bison that were able to withstand the region’s extremely hot summers and threateningly cold winters.

Below – The dogs of the Ojibwa people pulled toboggans that were introduced by European explorers.

Increased Crossbreeding

Among the first Europeans to set foot in the New World, fur trappers and market hunters provided raw material for the domestic and overseas markets. These men worked the waterways of the Great Lakes and their tributaries where they became familiar with the dogs entrusted to the care of local women. In her book, Schwartz shares a story told to ethnographer Gilbert Wilson by a Hidatsa woman. “From her story a picture emerges of a well-trained work animal highly valued by society as a whole and by women in particular,” the author shares. Through the telling of her story, Buffalo-Bird-Woman reveals that it was the job of women to see that their dogs were trained, fed and relieved. As retold in Schwartz’s book, “To produce good working dogs, Hidatsa women would select from a given litter three or four of the largest puppies. The rest would be killed to keep the bitch in good condition. Most male dogs were castrated.” The author notes that the women spent roughly four days training a dog to pull a travois by gradually increasing the load. “Four dogs were enough for 
the work required, and animals too old or too young to work were also kept in the lodge,” she writes. Various 19th-century reports describe these dogs as 
possessing “straight wide faces, heavy, but not short legs and ears that stood erect like those of a coyote… and their tails curved upward somewhat at the end, not like a coyote’s which lies straight.” By the time this particular account was written, dogs imported from Europe had further hybridized the local dogs and wolf-dog hybrids. This interbreeding of Old and New World canines provided new uses for the domesticated dogs of North America.

Diversity in California

“At the time of contact, California was inhabited by people of diverse cultural and linguistic origin living side-by-side but maintaining separate ways of life,” Schwartz writes of the distinct cultures of the West Coast’s original human inhabitants. Perhaps not surprisingly, the role of the dog varied considerably among local communities. “Apparently, dogs were rare or absent in the area around San Francisco Bay,” the author notes. “Where present, dogs often received special treatment, being buried ‘like persons,’ given dog houses, and allowed to reside with owners.” Many of the dogs discovered in California were described by one Yurok source as “collie-sized, spotted black and white, with erect ears and no bark.” As noted by Schwartz, “They were imported from the North in small numbers before European settlement.” Small dogs were also common in California. These are recorded as having been useful for catching squirrels and tracking rabbits to their burrow. The larger dogs were used to hunt fox. According to the author, not every group of people used dogs for hunting. In fact, a few communities used them as a source of food. “The southern Yokut raised dogs primarily for that purpose, considering dog meat a ‘special dainty.’” However, this was not at all a common practice among the area’s people. According to the author, “The northern Yokut, who felt that dogs possessed immortal souls, viewed the southern Yokut dog-eating habit with distaste.”

Below – The coat of the Salish Wool Dog of the Pacific Northwest was interwoven with mountain goat hair to create blankets.

A Genuine Purebred

A dog from the coastal Pacific Northwest may likely have been the only genuine “purebred” dog bred in pre-contact North America. The extinct Salish Wool Dog was intentionally bred for its fur that was spun into yarn and woven into blankets. This dog’s unique role in society —that of a genuine “pet” —was a precursor of things to come. As Schwartz explains, “The Pacific Northwest, with its plentiful supply of salmon and timber, provided its residents with riches unparalleled in other hunter-gatherer societies. Wealth, warfare, and elaborate rituals characterized the cultures of this area.” Among these rituals was a practice among the Salish people to segregate their small wool dogs from the common “village” dogs in order to prevent the kind of cross-breeding that was inevitable everywhere else on the continent. “These special dogs, with either thick white woolly hair or a long brownish-black coat, were sheared twice a year and kept on islands to prevent interbreeding with hunting dogs,” writes Schwartz. “Each day women would paddle out to the dogs’ islands with food and water.” During the winter months, the small dogs were brought into the communities’ large plank houses where they became companions to the women who spun their coats into yarn. “To produce the blankets, women combined sheared dog hair with mountain goat wool, adding goose down and the fluff of the fireweed plant, and then rubbed the fibers with white clay,” according to Schwartz who indicates that a woman’s wealth was counted in the number of dogs she owned. When Captain George Vancouver charted the region in 1792 for the British Crown, he made an entry in his journal that makes mention of North America’s first purebred. “The dogs belonging to this tribe of Indians were numerous, and much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger. They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England,” he noted. Ironically, it was the introduction of sheep from Great Britain that made the Salish Wool Dog obsolete in its native land. Ultimately, its unique role within its wealthy community of traders could not save this purebred dog from extinction. 

 Below – Commonly used to hunt rabbit and chase deer, the native dogs of California were said to be barkless.








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