Working Dogs: Domestic Canids in Indigenous Societies

Peigan women with dog travois (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5463).

Without question, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are humankind’s oldest animal ally. By at least 20,000 years ago–but possibly many thousands more–humans began interacting with the Eurasian grey wolf (Canis lupus) in significantly different ways than they had before. It’s possible wolves began scavenging wastes at or near encampments and became accustomed to the presence of humans over time. Equally plausible are scenarios in which hunters habitually took in orphaned wolf pups to be raised by new, human families. As tame wolves interbred with other tame wolves, their species experienced genetic changes that had implications for the behaviour and appearance of their offspring. Over many more thousands of years, gone was the fearsome wolf. In its place was a friendlier, smaller creature that barked and wagged its tail, and when permitted access, could form viable offspring with wolves to create tough but tractable canid hybrids. Though the timing and location of their domestication remains shrouded in mystery, one thing is almost certain: when the first humans came to inhabit the North American continent, they had with them a very important companion – the dog.

While present-day Westerners generally have a positive opinion of dogs, their reception varies enormously among different cultural groups worldwide. In spite of cross-cultural differences in how they are perceived, dogs have been afforded greater access to human-dominated spaces than any other domesticated animals, and sometimes have been included in human social hierarchies. Historically, among the Indigenous peoples and settlers of what is now Alberta, dogs typically were incorporated into social structures as working animals.

In North America, before the European introduction of the domestic horse in the 1500s, dogs were the only animal on the entire continent capable of performing labour in support of human activities. Before the widespread destruction of Indigenous ways of life by settler populations in the 1800s and 1900s, dogs were traditionally highly valued for this characteristic. The Indigenous groups of the Alberta prairies were particularly reliant on dog transport to move their tipis and belongings across the landscape; they even refer to the period before horse traction as the Dog Days. Typically, dogs were harnessed with leather straps at the shoulder and chest to a travois consisting of two crossed poles, over which a bundle of items, including tipi poles, could be placed.

Woman with a dog travois at the Macleod Jubilee, Alberta, 1924 (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A19008).

Further north in the province, dogs were routinely used to haul sleds and humans across the frozen winter landscape. While the use of dogsled teams is an ancient and well-known Inuit practice, in the boreal forest and areas south of it, it is thought to have been adopted in historic times by Sakawithiniwak (Woodland Cree) and Nehiywak (Plains Cree) groups after trapping became an important economic activity (though they likely had used a winter-adapted form of the travois for single dogs). Panniers, packs that hung on either side of a dog’s back, were used by Denesoline (Chipewyan) people travelling through muskeg, where use of a travois in snowless months would have been impossible2. Settlers, too, are documented to have used dog labour for specific tasks, particularly in winter, or in locations that were difficult to access with horses (and later, motorized vehicles).

RCMP Constable Perks on patrol with sled and dog team (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1516).
Dogs with packs (tar sands) (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5560).

Though the human consumption of dog flesh has been documented worldwide, among Indigenous groups in North America, the practice is linked to ceremonial activities, rather than daily subsistence. In a 1934 interview, Nehiyawak war chief Kamiokisihkwew (Fine-Day) detailed how the Dog Feast was carried out, noting that dog flesh was used as a substitute when bear meat was unavailable, and was intended as medicine or to be used in support of healing activities3.

One of the most fascinating aspects of historic human-dog interactions among Alberta’s Indigenous groups is the gendered nature of such relationships. Dogs were responsible for lessening the workload of Indigenous women, be it moving the entire camp, or quotidian tasks like collecting firewood or bringing in the spoils of the men’s hunt. Among the Nehiyawak, dogs belonged to women4. Dogs were thought to be useless for hunting, therefore of little routine use to men. Because women carried out domestic tasks that involved the use of dogs, including transport of the tipi and other parts of the household, they were responsible for training their pups to wear harnesses and to eventually pull travois. To keep fighting to a minimum, they castrated their male pups, leaving the larger ones intact for breeding purposes. Though a man might be said to be “rich in dogs,” he was required to ask his wife before selling or gifting any of her dogs. Kanai women crafted their own travois, which were so central to historic women’s life on the Plains that when a Kanai woman died, it was said she had “gone to make her travois.”5

Recorded and/or transcribed interviews provide fascinating insights into historic Indigenous dog-human relationships, but how do archaeologists look for hints that such interactions extend even further back in time? Increasingly, zooarchaeologists focus on the lives of individual dogs to make inferences about their relationships with humans. Assessment of the archaeological contexts from which dog skeletal remains are recovered provides an incredible amount of information about animals in life. For example, a fully articulated, formal burial could suggest a dog was held in high esteem. A dog deposited in a different context, such as in a pit filled with human-generated refuse, may point to an animal being held in lower regard. Disarticulated dog bones, or those exhibiting cut marks, can suggest butchery—thus, consumption–of individual animals. Dog bones, like that of humans, undergo changes over the course of a lifetime and may show signs of degenerative conditions such as arthritis. Additionally, quadrupeds that regularly carry or haul objects may develop misshapen vertebrae in response to the extra weight (though this in itself is usually not harmful to an animal).

Despite their documented historical importance in Alberta, both prehistoric and historic dog remains are rare and recorded in only a handful of sites across the province. Such infrequent occurrences of dog skeletal remains are likely related to past human mortuary practices and the ceremonial, irregular consumption of dog flesh. In traditional Kanai mortuary rites, corpses typically were not interred in the ground, but rather, raised skyward on scaffolds6. Among the Nehiyawak, humans were variously interred in the ground or placed on raised platforms between two trees7.  If special dogs were indeed treated as humans were in death, we would expect to find relatively few of them, having been long ago taken apart and scattered by scavenging animals and birds. It is rare to find specific historic accounts of the disposal of dog remains, but modern sources suggest dogs were placed in rivers at death8. The relative paucity of dog remains in Alberta could be used to argue that dogs were laid to rest in culturally meaningful ways and were indeed beloved members of the Indigenous societies of which they were an indispensable part.

Written By: Lacey Fleming (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Alberta)


  1. George First Rider, 1968.
  2. Andre Montgrand, 1980.
  3. Fine-Day, 1934.
  4. Fine-Day, 1934.
  5. George First Rider, 1969.
  6. George First Rider, 1968.
  7. Fine-Day, 1934.
  8. Schwartz, Marion, 1997. A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. Yale University Press.

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