Coast Salish “Woolly Dogs,” ca. 1946

Side view of a 14 year old dog which was shorn each year for its hair. Source: Ian McTaggart-Cowan fonds, UVIC.

Side view of a 14 year old dog which was shorn each year for its hair. Source: Ian McTaggart-Cowan fonds, UVIC.

The Coast Salish “wool dog” is an interesting example of selective breeding of dogs for a useful trait, in this case, their long, fair hair which could be cut or plucked for weaving. Susan Crockford, in her comprehensive account of Wool Dogs (downloadable!) quotes Captain Vancouver:

The dogs belonging to this tribe of Indians were numerous, and much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger. They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England; and so compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation”

While Crockford writes that the wool dog was extinct as a separate breed by 1858 (it’s raison d’etre replaced by Hudson Bay blankets), it is still interesting to see a couple of pictures dating to ca. World War 2 showing two dogs on the Saanich Peninsula with strong echoes of the Spitz-genre wool dog phenotype – indeed, caption above explicitly notes this dog was “shorn each year.”  (See also this poster (PDF) summarizing some wool dog research)

Mongrel pup of ""wooly -haired""dog looking towards camera. Saanichton - East Saanich Reserve #2, 1946. Source: Ian McTaggart Cowan Fonds.

“Mongrel pup of ” woolly -haired” dog looking towards camera. Saanichton – East Saanich Reserve #2, 1946.” Source: Ian McTaggart Cowan Fonds.

The second picture (above) is of interest as it shows a “mongrel pup”, showing the retention of many of the wool dog traits even through at least one mixed breeding event. (Also, archaeology students’ note: the 1935 licence plate provides a terminus post quem).

The antiquity of the practice of selective dog breeding is an interesting and unresolved point. Crockford suggests it may be as long ago as 4,000 years but more cautiously proposes 1400 years as the time period with decent evidence (preponderance of females, mandible morphology, in addition to smaller size).  A 2018 genetic study suggests that Native North American  dogs were wiped out and virtually completely replaced by dogs of European origin – so even early historical Indigenous dogs were already genetically replaced, and  apparently uniquely Americanist breeds such as chihuaha are developed in the historic era (though a recent paper lends strong support to the idea that the Mexican hairless dogs derive from deep time mutations).

(I have to say, there are reasonable questions about the genetic study, partially revealed in the quote from a senior author ““This study demonstrates that the history of humans is mirrored in our domestic animals,” senior author Greger Larson, who studies evolutionary genomics at Oxford University, said in a statement. “Just as indigenous people in the Americas were replaced by European colonists, the same is true for their dogs.” (emphasis added, but you see the problem).  And wouldn’t it be interesting if, for example, there was a >13,000 year old dog from Haida Gwaii? Also the “European” dogs doing the replacing are allegedly Siberian Huskies, with one prime mover being the Alaska gold rush, so there is sort of a genetic blitzkrieg implied).

Anyway it seems like dog origins generally are still debated and debatable and while the genetic studies are beyond my pea brain (chip in if I am reading them wrong), looking at cool pictures is definitely within my limits.  I’m not sure how widely known these photos are, I don’t think I have seen them reproduced before now. They are from the Ian McTaggart-Cowan Fonds held at the University of Victoria.

Cover of Crockford 1997: forensic reconstruction of "village dog" (left) and "wool dog" (right) based on osteological samples. Source: SFU.

Cover of Crockford 1997: forensic reconstruction of “village dog” (left) and “wool dog” (right) based on osteological samples. Source: SFU.


21 responses to “Coast Salish “Woolly Dogs,” ca. 1946

  1. I was very interested in the wool dogs as they were referred to in an archeological study done in Deep Bay (Bowser, BC) some years ago. I have read many of the archalogical reports (available from a Russian site because they are not available for reference here! Pity!) on this area.


  2. Interesting find of possible cross-breed pic. Yup, a 13,000 year old dog from Haida Gwaii would be fantastic. This pre-print 2018 paper presents dogs at Koster and another Illinois site as earliest North American domestic dogs at 10,190-9630 Cal BP, and suggests that the approx 4500 yr discrepancy between those dates and earliest humans in North America is due to later dog arrival or missed identifications (or unpreserved) in the record (so far).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating topic! and great photos from Ian McTaggart Cowan.
    Crockford says (on p101 of her book) that the wool dogs were no longer kept separate from the village dogs “[b]y the mid-eighteen hundreds, when the distinctive fur of the wool dog had lost it’s economic value, the incentive for keeping the two breeds apart vanished and both types were apparently left to interbreed freely.” Without contradicting her, I’ll add that the reading I did for my master’s essay on published works about Coast Salish woolworking suggested the smallpox epidemics of 1862 eliminated most of the people responsible for maintaining wool dogs in isolation.


  4. Great images, and food for thought regarding an ongoing genetic presence for such dogs in living populations.
    As to a 13,000 year old dog on Haida Gwaii, that would be very fitting as archaeological work in Gwaii Haanas has already been memorialised by way of a dog carved into the Legacy Pole that was raised a few years ago in Hlk’yah G̱awG̱a (Windy Bay). This link is to a picture of it that I took in 2017:


  5. Very interesting post. The link below is an image of a fragmented upper maxilla of a wool dog that I found during a geological field trip to Finlayson Point off Dallas rd. Dr. Crawford helped me identify the piece.

    [QM edit: fixed link: ]


  6. Good afternoon Prof. Mackie. Regarding the post I added recently, Im not sure if the link will send those to the photo of the upper maxilla of the wool dog. With the help of a number of professors, I was able to research the piece and with the help of Dr.Hamilton, we were able to present the finding at the 2015 Geoscience conference at Uvic. Here is a link to the abstract. Best regards, Julio

    (2015) Flores, Julio, Hamilton, T.S., Crockford, Susan & Keddie, Grant.

    Upper Right *Maxilla of Extinct Wool Dog from Finlayson Point, *

    Victoria, B.C. 17th Annual Pacific Northwest Section of the National

    Association of Geoscience Teachers. (p10).


    • Hi — I think the site did something weird and posted an email as a comment? In any case, I can’t get that link to work. If you like, send me the PDF to qmackie@gmail and I can post it up here.


  7. Mad Dog (apt name): hard to believe people arrived without dogs especially considering the N and S American dogs are all domesticated from Asian sources and not local wolves or coyotes or whatever.

    Paula: I would imagine that many factors came into play for the loss of the woolly dog including competition with manufactured blankets and disease epidemics, and yet it is surprising to see such a woolly dog from the 1940s — maybe they didn’t actually need such careful breeding after all?

    ehpem: great picture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a NWC formline dog before. I had a few questions from the carver of that pole about the archaeological finds, can’t wait to see it in person sometime.

    Julio: thanks for your comment. I fixed the link. Finlayson Point is a defensive site and so on first principles would be expected to be less than about 1500 years old though there may have been use before then, all the same, it fits with the general chronology. Also, a walled/stockaded village could be a good place to keep dogs away from dogs, so to speak.


  8. Q, I agree, they must have come with the initial peopling, but they might not have been domesticated much before that time. The initial domestication part of the dog story remains cloudy. Just as with the human DNA research into the peopling of the Americas, additional sampling always seems to tilt the landscape, so to speak.

    J Flores, I just tried, and your link to the abstract points to Nags’ Head hotel, not to the conference program.

    Ehpem, I remember wondering when it was raised, what caused the carver to put that dog on the pole. That would be an interesting conversation I’m sure.


  9. Quentin: I e-mailed you a PDF I compiled titled “Coast Salish [and Makah] ‘Woolly Dogs,’ ca. 1972 [not 1792….] “. Hope you can post it in this section. It may be too wild….
    Best to all

    Here is a link to Dale’s PDF – fun!


  10. The pre-print paper I noted is now available online from American Antiquity in the “First View” section of the journal: Perri, A., Widga, C., Lawler, D., Martin, T., Loebel, T., Farnsworth, K., . . . Buenger, B. (n.d.). NEW EVIDENCE OF THE EARLIEST DOMESTIC DOGS IN THE AMERICAS. American Antiquity, 1-20. doi:10.1017/aaq.2018.74
    Wow, very cool submission by Dale Croes.


  11. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Weeks of December 16, 23, and 30, 2018 and January 6, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

  12. Pingback: Behind the Breed: Salish Wool Dog – Animals of the Pacific Northwest

  13. A friendly future Woolly Dog Owner

    Find some Salish Wool Dog DNA — and then someone should find a way to clone it!


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