The History of Dogs and Native Americans

According to a Native American legend, the dog freely chose to become a companion to man. This legend has the virtue of being romantic – and, in a way, true, at least according to some scientific theories.

No one can determine exactly when the Native Americans welcomed the wolf into their homes and slowly developed the domesticated dog, but every dog loving person in the world owes them a debt of gratitude.

The little information that is available comes from archeology and anthropology. By studying ancient canid bones along with Native American pottery, ceramic, jewelry and cave art, some theories on the role of the dog have emerged.

Most researchers agree that about 12,000 years ago, a change slowly began to occur in the wolf populations. Some continued to thrive but others began to spend more time with people. It is possible that some wolves tended to be a little more playful than others. These wolves were not tolerated in the structured wolf pack; but this type of personality went well with people.

Perhaps shunned by their peers, these more friendly dogs entered the camps of the Native American. These dogs still looked to a leader for guidance and felt more comfortable knowing their place within a hierarchy. For this reason, the dog readily became an intricate part of the life of Native Americans.

It seems logical that the Native American would welcome the dog into his home and community. Over time, the dog was bred for qualities the Native Americans needed. These dogs were considered part of the family and were even given names based on their appearance, personality or characteristics. Some excelled at hunting while others were excellent protectors.

Before Europeans introduced the horse to North America, the dog was used as a method of transportation, pulling carts and carrying heavy loads. When Native Americans left their homes to hunt, they departed knowing that the dogs would protect their wives, mothers, children and even livestock. If someone was lost, the dog's keen sense of smell was use to search and find the missing person. The dog's bravery, courage and loyalty sealed a place for him in the annals of American tribal life.

The importance of the dog in tribal life can be found in the various myths and legends passed on from generation to generation. The legend of the dog's decision to join man is one example. Explained in beautiful prose in the book, Dog People: Native Dog Stories, by Joseph Bruchac (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995), the dog offered to be man's companion.

A spirit had assembled all of earth's creatures. His task was to find the right animal to become a companion to human beings, who had not yet been created. He asked the animals how they would treat people. Some said they would tear human beings apart; others said they would live near people to steal their food.

The dog said his only wish was to live with people, share their food, help them hunt, guard their children and possessions, even at risk to his own life. Another legend states that a dog's life originally spanned 20 years, but that the dog willingly gave up 10 of his own years so people could live longer.

For the most part, tribes revered the dog and included them in religious ceremonies, believing the dog helped people navigate the journey to the afterlife. A few tribes, however, considered the dog to be the symbol of promiscuity and filth.

Today, the Native American dog is a distant cousin to the original. Many people feel that the true Indian dog was likely driven to extinction due to interbreeding with wolves and various imported European breeds. As the early settlers migrated across the country, Indians were forced onto reservations and the dog's popularity and population suffered.

Whether the true Native American dog (also called the Plains Indian dog or Navajo dog) still exists is in dispute. Many Native Americans contend that the breed has wholly ceased to exist, in spite of attempts to re-establish the breed.