Precolumbian Tribal Dogs In The Americas

The dog who first entered North America with paleoindians was a well established inhabitant along with his human counterpart as early as fourteen thousand years ago. DNA studies on the genetic structure of paleoamerican dogs show that this was a fully domesticated animal at the time of entry into the North American continant, suggesting that the domestication of dogs occurred at an earlier time than has been previously suggested, (the archaeological record also suggests the origin of domestication of dogs around fourteen thousand years ago)- about the same time that humans walked over from Eurasia to the new world. This would indicate that the dog was actually domesticated at an earlier time than that.

The DNA Factor

Indeed, the Mtdna (mitochondrial) studies strongly support the hypothesis that paleoamerican and Eurasian domestic dogs share a common origin, both evolving from the Eurasian gray Wolf. No evidence of a separate domestication of dogs from North American Grey Wolves was discovered. Although the haplotypes found in paleoamerican dogs were closely related to Eurasian dogs, some of them formed a unique clade within the main genetic group, (clad 1), which is found only in paleoamerican dogs. This indicates that dogs were present and isolated in the new world for a considerable amount of time. This long period of isolation led to the appearance of a group of genetic sequences (haplotypes) that are similar but very easily distinguishable from dogs from other parts of the world, or from any modern dog population in America today. Indeed, no surveyed modern population of dogs in the united states carries these unique genetic markers in their DNA. American Indian Dogs were extinct early on by inbreeding and replacing by European dogs. Only the Eskimo dog has survived. Dna evidence links the Eskimo Dog with the Australian Dingo, the New Guinea Singing dog, and the Shiba Inu. The Mexican Hairless or Xoloitzcuintle was present in the Americas long before Europeans arrived, but the genetic lineage shows extreme mixing with European dogs and may not genetically resemble its precolumbian ancestors anymore, although reduced dentition and hairlessness are extremely dominant traits, so the dogs strongly resemble their forbears in appearance.

Dogs, Wolves, and Coyotes

At the time of European contact, American Indians were groups of diverse and widely dispersed nations. It is common yet inaccurate these days for them to be discussed as one single population, and their dogs do not escape this inaccuracy. In fact, there were many different types of Indian dogs and they were used for a variety of reasons that were as diverse and unique as the people they inhabited the land with. It is also common for modern researchers to site early explorers from the late 1600's to the late 1800's and their anecdotal interpretations of Indian dogs as being almost impossible to distinguish from the wolf. This is also a common mistake and misinterpretation today. Countless times I have heard children, and adults refer to my Alaskan Village dogs as wolves. In fact, Eskimo dogs, huskies and other sled dogs may have fur and vocalizations that resemble their wolf ancestors, but that is about it. Dogs have a shorter stockier build, wider chests and shorter faces and muzzles, with short steep "stops" or angle from forehead to the bridge of the nose. In all, many dogs filled rolls within Indian cultures. Some tribes had rather loose associations with their dogs, some were extremely attached and involved with dogs as pets and or using them for various tasks. Dogs probably tracked game, and packed meat after a hunt. Dogs were eaten by some groups as a food source and some were only consumed ceremonially. Dogs were the playmates of young children and companions to the elders.

Four distinct types of tribal dog are presented here, although many more existed at one time. I encourage one to carefully review the list of resources presented at the end of this article.

Great Plains Dogs

Dogs were an intregal and important aspect of the tribes they were a part of. It is logical to discuss "dog culture" as the time period before the acquisition of the horse, and the time after this acquisition as "horse culture" by nations of the great plains. Some dogs were used for hauling and packing, pulling the famous travious across the plains. They packed meat or belongings, children and the elderly. They were pets, a food source, and possible trackers of game. They were numerous, partly fended for themselves, and bred freely with little input or selectiveness from tribal people. Selective breeding most likely did not occur among plains tribes, the only intervention in this respect was the culling of small or sickly pups or those that were snappish or surly with small children. Culling was also practiced to reduce the load of pups on the mother so she retained her health during the nursing period, and to select for large heavily boned individuals. Dogs served the important function of barking to alarm the tribe of the approach of enemies or visitors. Large and medium sized dogs coexisted and are sometimes vicariously referred to as Plains Indian Dogs and Sioux Dogs. These dogs according to some descriptions were either Dingo tawny colored and short or smooth coated, or grayish and somewhat longer coated. Many other color combinations existed, however, such as white, black, spotted and mottled. In reading many of the descriptions, what comes across is an animal somewhat like a dingo and somewhat like a husky. Tails were either short, broom or half tails, or sickle shaped with the typical curve of many a pariah dog throughout the world today. Photographs that exist of plains Indians and dogs show extremely mixed individuals, in recreated scenes that tried to depict a lifestyle well after cultural demise. The dogs bear the mark of European breeds, in color, coat texture, many possessing the typical heavier flopped over ears.

The Tahl Tan Bear Dog

This little bear dog was from 12 to 18 inches tall and weighed from 10- to 18lbs. Amazingly, It survived into the late 1960's or early 70's. This dog of the Tlingits, Tahltans, Kaska, and Sekani was used for hunting bears in British Columbia, Canada. The hunters carried the dog inside a pouch until bear tracks were discovered, wear upon the dogs tracked the bear. These small dogs could run on top of crusty snow and bark and worry the bear until hunters arrived. These little dogs were black with white markings, or white with black markings, not much bigger that today's Schipperke. On examining a photograph from Atlin, B.C., of a bear dog, I noticed its resemblance to the New Guinea Singing Dog, an extremely rare dingo type dog from Papua New Guinea. In another photograph, the dog resembled a Papillon.

The Eskimo, or Inuit Dog of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland: The Qimmiq

Today, the Eskimo dog thankfully is alive and well. It originally occupied the coastal and archipelago areas of Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. Once upon a time, today's Malamute fell into the Eskimo dog category, the indigenous dog of the Mahlemuit Eskimos from the Kotzebue sound area in Alaska. The Eskimo Dog was a puller of sleds, used for hauling heaving loads of fish, whale, and seal or walrus from the hunt to the village or camp. In the summer, backpacking was the traditional use of the dog. The dogs are bigger and more heavily boned than Siberian Huskies, which are not native to North America. They could and can work in the most hostile of environments with little food or care. They are friendly for the most part but fight with each other to establish the ritual pecking order. They are primitive compared to most modern breeds, as they don't bark as much and howl often. They have heavy winter coats and range from as small as 45 lbs for females to as large as 85lbs for males, sexual dimorphism being related to more primitive qualities. An Eskimo dog's fur or pelage takes many colors, but the eyes should not be blue and there is some controversy here. These dogs are challenging to work with and are strong beyond belief with incredible stamina. They are known in modern times as The Canadian Inuit Dog, The Inuit sled dog, and the Greelander or Greenland dog. Clubs and organizations today are strong enthusiasts for the Eskimo dog, getting together and employing the old style fan hitch to go dog sledding or the modern tandem hitch for those of us who have narrow forest trails.

The West Coast Salish, Little woolly Dog or Clallam Indian Dog

These dogs were restricted to a fairly distinct area of northern British Columbia, where they were kept on islands to keep them from breeding with other types of dogs. The responsibility of woman, they were small, somewhat larger than todays Pomeranian. They had had a long thick mostly white pelage which was harvested by the Salish Indians to make clothing and blankets from. The dogs were numerous and highly utilized. Vancouver recorded that the dogs were shorn to the skin like sheep, and that the shorn wool of the dogs was so thick, that large mats of it could be lifted without being pulled apart. The wool of these dogs was dyed red or blue and striped blankets of cedar strips and dog wool were hardy and warm. The Artist Paul Kane gives us a wonderful and lengthy description of how the dog wool was made into blankets using cedar and white earth, apparently twisted together a beaten mixture of these, then rolling them down the leg as if twisting twine or yarn, then sewing the strips together.

There were many other dogs of North and South America. The Peruvian Pug-nosed dog, the Fuegian dog, the Inca dogs, the Xoloytzecuintli, or Mexican hairless dog, the Hare Indian dog of the north, the Short Nosed dogs of the southwest, to name just a few. It is sad that these dogs are gone, with the exception of the Xolo. The Archaeological record tells us that these dogs were often buried with their owners, and at other times, given their own intricate burials. They disappeared rapidly, and with good cause, unable as their owners were to withstand European dog diseases, and probably shot as a matter of course for their attention to European livestock. On the east coast among the original colonies of America, Indian dogs were outlawed and it was a crime for villages to possess them, as it was firearms. One needs only compare the demise of the pure Australian Dingo as a model for how fast naive dogs disappeared form the scene. In Australia, only small pockets of genetically pure Dingoes remain, and they are threatened. One can openly imagine how fast North American dogs became amalgamated from their pure form, then disappeared entirely from the lives of a people whose own lives became increasingly all they could do to manage in the face of rapid decimation. Unlike the Dingo, dogs of the Americas had no wild populations from which to replenish their numbers. In their absence, we must turn to scientific research and learn what we can about this fascinating subject.

Following, is a list of resources which reveals a wonderful topic of study. In addition to these sources, I encourage one to study the works of R.K. Wayne, Jenifer Leonard, Susan Crockford, I. Lehr Brisbin, Janice Koler -Matznik, and Bulu Imam. The study of the New Guinea Singing dog, the Australian Dingo, and the Santal Hunting dogs provide one with some kind of idea of the tribal dog and perhaps the relationship between tribal people and their dogs.


1) Dogs of the American Aborigines- Allen, Glover
Bulletin of the Museum pf Comparative Zoology, Harvard College
Vol. 43, #9
Cambridge, Mass, 1920

2) Dogs of the Northeastern Indians, Butler and Hancock
Mass. Archaeological Society Bulletin
vol. 10, #2
pages 17-35, 1949

3) From Dogs to Horses among the Western Indian Tribes, F. G. Roe,
Transactions, royal Society of Canada, third series, Volume xxx111

4) A History of Dogs of the Early Americas,
By M.schwartz Yale University Press

5) Lost History of the Canine Race
M.E. Thurston, chapter 7
"the other Americans"
(page 146)
Andrews and McMeel, 1996

6) First Nations, First Dogs
B.D. Cummins, Canadian Ethnocynolgy
Destilig Enterprises, Alberta Canada, 2002.