What was the working dog of the Native Americans on the Great Plains?
March 2, 2017 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Before the introduction of the horse, some tribes in what is now the central and western United States used dogs as beasts of burden. For example, dogs hauled the travois, a type of sled used by North American Indians to carry goods. What breed was the dog, and is it still in existence?
posted by A. Davey to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia has a list of extinct breeds, modern breeds falsely associated with natives, modern breeds highly mixed with tiny amounts of American genetics, and extant ancient breeds from the Americas.

"The dogs of native Americans were described as looking and sounding like wolves"

At a quick skim, I do not see any breeds that are extant, clearly delineated, ancient, and associated with the Great Plains. But that list is definitely worth some time. Interesting question, I'll be following and reading along :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:55 AM on March 2, 2017

The pictures I have seen show a dog that looks a fair bit like a husky. I'm going by water colour paintings done by Europeans that went out west before the plains were hugely settled by colonists. My guess is that the dogs would have been related to the husky, because similar demands were placed on them of having a strong bone structure and muscles and stamina, and also the ability to thrive in very cold conditions, as the plains where the dogs were used have near arctic winters, especially in their upper ranges, and of course the first nations would cross into Canada all the time.

However I would be surprised if an effort had been made to preserve the breed. Un-needed dogs would have been dispensed with as a luxury as the Native Americans moved into using larger animals to pull wheeled vehicles. Many First Nations suffered through severe famines as their territory was settled and they lost their seasonal food sources. Dogs brought by the Europeans would have interbred with the survivors. One reason the husky and the malamute survived is because they had no competition up north, as dogsleds remained the only practical way to get around until the skidoo or snowmobile became available.

Also the Europeans went on dog killing sprees on several occasions as when the dogs were loose to forage for their own food they formed extremely dangerous packs. In Canada, the children were rounded up and made to attend schools, so their nomadic families stopped traveling and settled down wherever the school was. They weren't going to abandon the kids and keep traveling. At first many of these schools were only day schools, or schools where the children got to go back to their families on the weekend. During this period the RCMP shot hundreds or thousands of dogs. This meant that when the children were released from compulsory school attendance - say at the age of sixteen or fourteen, their families could no longer go back to a self-sufficient nomadic lifestyle because they needed the dogs, and they ended up having to live permanently on the funds given to them by the government - in effect they ended up forced onto welfare.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:56 AM on March 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

This story mentions a dog with white markings, and gives some indication of how important the dogs were to the Blackfeet tribe.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:00 PM on March 2, 2017

The discussion here about landraces, breed transformation and speculative breed "recreation" (and this linked article by Mark Derr) expands on what I was going to put in a comment.

Even "sport" breeding has transformed common dog breeds over the period of time for which we have photographic records. The records get messy when you're trying to identify centuries of pragmatic, casual selective breeding for purpose, not conformity, and looking for persistent American landraces through DNA research heads into the domain of the Carolina dog. So if there was a "Plains Husky" at some point, its fortunes rose and fell with human needs.
posted by holgate at 12:02 PM on March 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

For general context, you may like to read up on the hypothesis of the self-domestication of dogs, meaning that we didn't trap and train wolves, but rather those with less fear of humans ate better scraps, and eventually became reproductively isolated, until we got smart friendly pals to help us do stuff in exchange for better food and shelter. This is the so-called "commensal pathway". Though we can't say for sure exactly how the domestic dog originated, this is the explanation that I and many of my biologist peers lean towards, and I think it is especially relevant to the dogs used by Native Americans.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:04 PM on March 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

This site has a painting by Audubon who died in 1851 so it is an early picture and might be a dog without much out-breeding. The rest of the page has more information on First Nations dog breeds.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:06 PM on March 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

This article includes what is not a bad overview, including some images of various Native American dogs.
posted by gudrun at 4:16 PM on March 2, 2017

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