What Happened to the Native Dogs of North America?

May 21, 2014

By Linda Cole

It’s only been within the last 40 years that one of North America’s native dogs was found living in the wild in South Carolina and Georgia. According to DNA evidence released last year, the Carolina Dog is a descendant from the first dogs that lived with humans on the North American continent.

Domesticated dogs crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America with the first humans in several migration waves 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. At least one was with Native American Indian ancestors and one was with Inuit ancestors. Some of these early native dog breeds have survived and are still here.

The pre-Columbia era is the history of North America before European people arrived on the continent, and relates to Native Americans who are the original people to settle in the Americas. After crossing the land bridge into Alaska from Asia and Siberia, early humans spread out into Alaska and North and South America where they lived for centuries isolated from European influences. The dogs they brought with them were breeds developed by these early inhabitants. This is important because it indicates dogs were domesticated in Asia and Siberia much earlier than scientists originally thought.

Human and canine inhabitants of the Americas remained isolated from the rest of the world until the 11th century when the Vikings established a settlement in Greenland. Europeans began to arrive in North and South America in the 1500s. Unfortunately, they brought with them small pox and other diseases unknown to the native population, and many people and dogs died. Native dogs that survived were believed to have interbred with canines brought from Europe. As a result, it was assumed that today’s dogs would have little of their ancient past left in their DNA. However, it turns out this assumption was wrong.

Mitochondrial DNA is how scientists can trace DNA sequence back tens of thousands of years. It’s inherited from the mother and remains relatively pure through generations. Researchers studied the maternal line of Inuit sled dogs, the Greenland Dog, Alaskan Malamute, Chihuahua, Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican Hairless), Peruvian Hairless Dog (Perro Sin Pelo del Peru), and stray dogs from North and South America, comparing their mitochondrial DNA with hundreds of dog breeds from Europe and Asia.

They expected to find a solid European influence in these native breeds, but they found the opposite was true. Other than the Alaskan Malamute and some of the stray dogs, the rest of the breeds had very little evidence of European influence, which means some of the native dogs of North America have not only survived, they have remained almost pure over the years. Most of the breeds in the study shared DNA with modern dogs from East Asia and Siberia. The most surprising revelation the research team found was that the Chihuahua has a portion of DNA that is an exact match to an ancient breed, establishing the Chihuahua’s genetic roots in pre-Columbia Mexico.

Native American dogs that have vanished include the Tahltan Bear Dog, Hare Indian Dog, Salish Wool Dog, and Rez (reservation) Dog. The Inuit Sled Dog (Canadian Eskimo dog), Greenland Dog and Alaskan Malamute are believed to share the same origin. North America’s only free range dingo dog, the Carolina Dog, is most likely a descendant from Native American dogs that were here before Europeans migrated to the New World.

Dogs played an important role in the survival of early North American inhabitants. Horses aren’t native to North America, and early residents used their dogs for hauling sleds, packing, hunting, retrieving, protection, guarding the home and family, companionship and in religious ceremonies. Canines were often left to fend for themselves and developed naturally rather than being selectively bred. At one time there was a wide variety of native North American dogs that varied in looks, types and sizes.

Innu Canoe Hunting Dogs were small dogs that sat quietly in a canoe waiting for a hunter to knock water fowl down with a club or paddle. When a bird was hit, he jumped out of the canoe and retrieved it. The Tahltan Bear Dog was a small dog, 10-18 pounds, that was carried in a pouch during bear hunts. When tracks were found, the dog tracked the critter and worried the bear until hunters came. Salish Wool Dogs lived in northern British Columbia and were about the size of a Pomeranian. They were sheared like sheep and their woolly coats used to make clothing and blankets. Hare Indian Dogs were hunters about the size of a whippet, and used by the Hare Indians in northern Canada.

Of the many native breeds that once roamed the lands of North and South America, the Chihuahua, Xoloitzcintli, Peruvian Perro Sin Pelo, Greenland Dog, Canadian Eskimo Dog, Alaskan Malamute and the Carolina Dog are the ones that remain. The Native American Indian Dog is not an indigenous breed and was created using European breeds, Huskies and Chinooks crossed with reservation dogs that have no genetic link to pre-Columbia North American dogs.

Top photo: Carolina Dogs book jacket
Middle photo: Xoloitzcuintli by Weexolo
Bottom photo: Chihuahua by Chris Besett

Read more articles by Linda Cole

Share this: