Dogs and horses through Alberta’s history

Editor’s note: The banner image about was reproduced with the permission of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Sled dogs were critical for moving goods in northern Alberta, like this dog team outside a trade post in the Fort McMurray area in 1911.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Domestic dogs have likely been in Alberta for least 5,000 years and some researchers think they arrived with the first humans in North America over 13,000 years ago. What role did they play in Indigenous life? And how did that role change when horses arrived in the 1700s?

Based on archaeological records and historic accounts, people on the prairies of southern Alberta likely had about 4-6 dogs per family. These pets could transport about 90-270 kg of goods using a travois (a series of poles attached to a dog’s back) or pack saddles. Dogs helped move tipi hides and poles (up to 100 kg per tipi) as well as dried meat and tools from camp to camp. Before Europeans arrived, Plains communities packed up and moved all of their belongings about 10-40 times a year, which helped them stay in contact with moving bison herds that were the main source of food and materials. Trains of several hundred pack dogs carried goods on trading expeditions.

A comparison of horse and dog characteristics that influenced their relationships with people in Alberta. Illustration by Terra Lekach.

In the forests of northern Alberta, life was different. Dogs are thought to have been used mainly for hunting and safety (alerting people in camp of approaching animals or others). Beginning with the Fur Trade in the late 1700s, dogs assumed a much bigger role in the north for pulling sleds that delivered goods to and from trade posts. There is no archaeological evidence yet that dogs were harnessed to sleds in northern Alberta prior to the Fur Trade. A current team (2022) from the University of Alberta is tracking dog domestication and the importance of dogs and wolves in the province’s early history.     

The horse was introduced to Alberta in the 1700s and life changed for people and their dogs. Horses on the prairies could pull an estimated eight times more than dogs and a single person on a horse could ride four times farther in a day than a person on foot. A typical Indigenous family had about 8-12 horses that made it easier to move around including tracking and hunting bison. Dogs remained a back-up source of transport in southern Alberta when horses were malnourished or stolen, and canids remained a major source of winter transportation in northern Alberta into the 1900s.

A comparison of pre-contact and historic uses of horses and dogs in Alberta. Illustration by Terra Lekach.

The biological needs of dogs and horses influenced how they were used by people and, in turn, shaped how people had to adapt their lives to use these animals. Horses evolved on the hot grasslands with special traits to help them move quickly and for long distances. But horses require high quality pasture and an enormous amount of water to thermoregulate (they stay cool by sweating). Working horses need to spend about 75 per cent of their day eating and drinking. Dogs likely evolved in cooler places with diets that directly overlapped those of humans. Dogs breed quickly and produce pups that hit a prime working age in a few years. Horses breed slowly and were much more coveted. Horses were also major sources of prestige (and theft) on the prairies.

Archaeologists have even argued that both horses and dogs influenced how people moved around landscapes. In southern Alberta, the adoption of the horse meant that people needed constant access to high quality water and grass; this more commonly pulled them down from the prairies to the lower floodplains of larger rivers. In the north, dogs were crucial in the Fur Trade and were typically fed fish. Fur trade posts in northern Alberta were always built next to solid fishing grounds and often near islands where the dogs could be left on their own during summers (there are several places in Alberta now named ‘Dog Island’ for this reason, including on Lesser Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca). Domestic animals influenced human lives in Alberta in interesting ways for thousands of years.

Further reading:

Bethke, B. 2020. Revisiting the horse in Blackfoot culture: Understanding the development of nomadic pastoralism on the North American plains. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 24:44-61.

Henderson, N. 1994. Replication dog travois travel on the Northern Plains. Plains Anthropologist 39(148):145-159.

Landals, A. 2004. Horse Heaven: Change in Late Precontact to Contact Period Landscape Use in Southern Alberta. In: Archaeology on the Edge: New Perspectives from the Northern Plains, edited by B. Kooyman and J.H. Kelley, pp. 231-262

Ní Leathlobhair, M., Perri, A.R., Irving-Pease, E.K., Witt, K.E., Linderholm, A., Haile, J., Lebrasseur, O., Ameen, C., Blick, J., et al. 2019. The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas. Science 361(6397):81-85.

Sunday Eiselt, B. 2022. Dog nomads: Canid economy and Athapaskan-Pueblo exchange. Kiva 88(1):1-24.

Welker, M.H. 2021. Travois transport and field processing: The role of dogs in Intermountain and Plains food transport. Human Ecology 49:721-733.

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