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Dog Breed Deep Dive: Woolly Dogs

Art by Liz Herrmann
Art by Liz Herrmann

Long ago, before the colonizers were a variable, the Salish tribes could live without their animals, lifestyles, and land being messed up by outside interference. One of the things that could be taken care of more easily was the breeding of dogs. Thus came the birth of a very special dog – one that could be sheared like a sheep!

BREED PROFILE

Salish Woolly Dogs were small, white, fluffy dogs with sheep-like hair. They had been carefully bred to possess this strange fur, which could be sheared to make prized blankets. Blankets with this hair have been discovered, and it seems as though it was mixed with the hair of some mountain goats. After colonizers came to the “New World” (what they called the Americas), we get a bit more detailed description of these dogs – they are described by these folks to somewhat resemble a pomeranian! According to the Hakai Magazine, these dogs would be kept on islands away from the village to prevent interbreeding with village or hunting dogs. People would occasionally travel to the island to pamper the dogs with assortments of food and brush or cut their coats. These dogs were loved like family, and prized culturally and spiritually.

SPECIAL INTERVIEW!

I got the incredible opportunity to interview Audrey Lin, one of the researchers who studied the pelt of Mutton, a real-life deceased woolly dog! Here is what she said:

Q: Would it be possible to recreate a dog with a similar function as the Salish Wool Dogs through selective breeding? How long would this process take?

A: Yes, it definitely would be possible to selectively breed existing dogs today to create a dog with a similar function to a woolly dog, however it is up to the Coast Salish what kind of specific traits they would like in this modern ‘woolly dog’. Because of that, I can’t answer how long it will take. In the case of Mutton, we have an age range of how old his maternal lineage is (between ~1850 and 4800 years old) but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the woolly dogs are that old, only that his most recent common ancestor (MRCA) may be that old. His MRCA might not even be woolly!

Q: Are there any breeds of dog thought to be the descendants of this breed? Which ones?

A: No, woolly dogs are extinct. There might be strays with some woolly dog ancestry still around remote areas in British Columbia, for example, but woolly dogs as we know them do not exist anymore, nor are there any modern breeds that have any woolly dog ancestry. There are some dog breeds that look similar to woolly dogs in that they are spitz dogs, like Samoyeds and American Eskimo dogs but that is due to convergence. (In fact Samoyeds have Arctic Dog ancestry and American Eskimo dogs have European ancestry!)

Q: What is the most likely cause of Mutton’s death?

A: From his isotopic signatures and the fact that we don’t see anything that resembles a long-term illness, we think that he must have died suddenly. His owner, George Gibbs, had written in his journal in December 1859 that Mutton was sick, but that is all we know about that.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE WOOLLY DOG

Unfortunately, as time went on, colonizers arrived in the Americas. From this point, there are multiple perspectives on what may have happened to these dogs. The most commonly known idea is that as blankets became more commonly mass-produced, the need for these dogs decreased, and people stopped breeding them due to their decreased worth. However, many tribal folks discredit this idea because it’s unlikely that they would give up something so important to their culture so easily. According to these people, it’s more likely that colonization and tribal assimilation caused these forms of cultural practices to be outlawed, and the people were sadly forced to give up their special trade. As Audrey Lin told me in the interview, there are no official breeds of dogs descended from this breed. However, with the approval of Coast Salish peoples, these dogs could be recreated. But for the purpose of not invading the culture, it’s good to let these people decide whether or not they would like to do this, and the specifics of what the breed would look like.

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

Origin and disappearance of Coast Salish Woolly Dog

The Dogs That Grew Wool and the People Who Love Them

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About the Contributor
Hey there it's Clara (She/her). I'm an eighth grader and I write a lot. I am also obsessed with dogs. Feel free to approach me in the halls or at lunch if you want to talk about dogs or need help with dog-related things. I'll try my best to help. Or you could just approach me if you want to talk. I love to talk! Have a good one!

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    Liz H ¦ Mar 1, 2024 at 10:59 am Bulldog Brief Pick

    this is so cool!

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