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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Indian Dogs

Updated: May 8, 2023

Wolf Dogs & Their Surprising Origin

The first North Americans were Paleo Indians who immigrated from Asia over the Bering Strait. Early archeological studies seemed to indicate that the immigration took place between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, but more recent discoveries continue to put that date progressively earlier, perhaps as early as 40,000 years ago! Anthropological and DNA studies indicate that humans domesticated the European Gray wolf first, then brought the canines with them to North America. North America and European gray wolves are very closely related genetically.

Before whites came to North America and native tribes integrated horses into their culture, dogs were common across the entire continent. Explorers from the 1600s to the 1800s described Indian dogs as being indistinguishable from wolves, but there were fundamental differences. Dogs were smaller and stockier, had wider chests and shorter muzzles. The greatest differences were, however, in the superior strength, intelligence, and stamina of the wolf. A wolf's jaw has tremendous crushing strength and can exert 1,500 PSI (pounds per square inch). The jaw of even the strongest domesticated dog is less than half that. A pit bull's jaw, for example, can exert a maximum 235 PSI.

Dogs were used not only as companions, but had important functions in tribal communities. They were watch and guard dogs, pack animals, and pulled travois and sleds loaded with meat, home goods, children and the elderly. They tracked game, hunted bear, and even fished! Some tribes ate dogs, or consumed them ceremonially, their meat considered an honored source of restoring strength and healing. Archeologists have discovered that dogs were often buried with their owners, or given their own elaborate burials.

Although the wolf-like dogs of the eastern and Great Plains tribes were extremely common before whites settlement, the breed was eventually lost to European dog diseases, much like their owners were decimated in monstrous numbers by European diseases. The breed was also diluted by interbreeding with European breeds. And, finally, the original eastern colonies outlawed the dogs and killed them in large numbers.

Efforts began in the 1980s to recreate the Native American Indian Dog (known as NAID) by crossbreeding Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and root wolf stock. The resulting breed—regal, very intelligent, and loyal---is still quite rare but gaining popularity, especially among Native Americans.

The original wolf-like dog of much of the nation's indigenous population was the most common, but there were three other dog types in far north-western reaches of the continent. The most well-known is the Eskimo Dog or Malamute, which also looks very wolf-like. In fact, this breed was the only distinct Indian dog to survive to modern day. These dogs are still used today as sled dogs. They are extremely strong and known for tremendous pulling ability. In fact, Malamutes consistently hold the world record for weight-pulling. The record is held by a 150-lb. Malamute that pulled 5,400 pounds—the equivalent of pulling a large 4x4 truck or SUV—more than 16 feet.

The two other Indian dog types were very small and developed in British Columbia. The Tahl Tan Bear Dog was about a foot tall and 10-18 pounds, with black and white spots. They were used to track bear because they could run atop the crusty snow. They went extinct in the 1970s. The Little Woolly Dog of the west coast Salish tribes was slightly larger than a Pomeranian, but with copious long thick fur that was shorn for blanket and clothing wool.

PHOTOS: (Top left) Plains Indian with his dog pulling a travois. About 1905. North Dakota Historical Society. (Top right) Painting by American frontier artist, Peter Rindisbacher, of a Plains Indian hunting buffalo with dogs. About 1830. (Second row) Malamute dog team in Nome, Alaska, 1910 Lomen Bros. photograph. (Third row) Sioux Indian dogs pulling a sled in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, 1889. (Bottom row) A modern Native American Indian Dog (NAID), developed in the 1980s to revive the extinct, original Indian dog.

You may enjoy these related posts:

-Prairie Pets

-Custer's Dogs

"Native American Wolf Dogs" was originally posted May 31, 2019 on Facebook and

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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