Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Native American Dog Breeder Of The Past

We had a humdinger series of thunderstorms blow through last night. I do mean blow. We were off line.

The Sacred Dog 

I breed Euro Great Danes—Harlequins. I also sell them. Money received depends upon the quality of the dog in so far as bloodlines and conformation. In my case, I’m not a larger breeder. I usually keep two breeding dams and a good male. I also have access to several Euro studs from another kennel. The whole process of choosing the right stud for my dams is fascinating to me. It’s also a process of breeding a better Dane, which involves looking first at the past—analyzing pedigrees and bloodlines—to create a future.

Why do I mention this? In the process of some reading (I’m on a historical/anthropology non-fiction kick right now), I came across a breeding program of sorts, utilized by a Native American breeder who lived in the 1800’s. She bred work dogs for the tribe. Bird Woman said, “We had but one breed of dog in the village in old times, but the colors varied greatly…” 

Before the Spaniards brought their horses and war dogs to North America (its thought that the original indigenous horse died out in North America), dogs were highly prized work animals. They were used as beasts of burden—they pulled sleds, travois, hauled wood (a good dog could bring in nearly 100lbs of wood).

Indian traders traveled great distances and used a pack of dogs to haul their goods. Some traders had anywhere between 5 to 20 dogs. They also were used in hunting and war. So breeding up strong dogs was important and different tribes had different looking dogs. There was considerable amount of trading between tribes for dogs. Good practice because it kept the dogs from being inbred because of the infusion of other bloodlines. By the way, there were no purebred dogs but there was a marked similarity in dogs in certain regions.

Buffalo Bird Woman, was born in 1840, a daughter of the Chief of the Hidatsa tribe (once part of the Crow) and was considered an extraordinary dog breeder and trainer. You can read more about her in THE HORSE AND DOG IN HIDATSA CULTURE by Gilbert I. Wilson.

Hidatsa dogs were strong, well trained and personable and were a variety of colors, black, white, blue, yellow or tan spotted, black and white spotting, white with black spots, or red or gray spots on a white background. Their voices were not the normal European dog bark, but a howl like that of the wolf. “The mournful howl of a dog, mounted on the top of one of the lodges, breaks the almost deathlike stillness.  The notes are instantly caught up by others, and directly every cur in the village is taking his part with commendable energy.  Commencing soft and low, the noise grows louder and deeper until it finally dies away in a prolonged wail; modulated by distance, the sound is not unmusical.”

What fascinated me was how Bird Woman approached breeding and choosing strong dogs for training:
“Dogs are bred at any time during the year, but wolves only in the winter. As soon as we learned that a bitch was gravid (pregnant) we were careful not to harness her and make her pull a travois.  We were also careful not to kick a gravid female in the abdomen.   Some bitches were very surly and cross when gravid, others were always gentle whether gravid or not. There was usually born from 7 to 10 pups.

A kennel was built for the pregnant bitch.  A pit 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 11/2 to 2ft. deep was dug.  The pit was dug deep enough so that the small pups could not climb out.  In rain or cold weather the door was covered with an old skin or buffalo hide.
As we wanted only big dogs and all the pups from a bitch’s first litter never grew large, we always killed them, sparing not one. From the second litter we kept 3 to 4 of the pups, with larger heads, wide faces and big legs, for we knew they would be big, strong dogs. The rest we killed…

Strong pup big legs and head.
In order that the mother might stay in good condition, we never saved more than 3 to 4 pups out of any litter. Out of the 3 to 4 pups saved, we would choose one bitch for future breeding and the rest males for work.

After the pups were 10 days old and ate the food we gave them…we smoked them. We burned some of the large kind of sage on some coals and we held the puppy with its head in the sage smoke, until white saliva like soapsuds dribbled from its mouth.  If the pup fell over while he was held a few inches from the ground and dropped, I knew he wouldn’t grow up to be strong.  But if he hold his place and did not fall over I would say, “ Hey! Hey! This dog will carry my tent!”

Smoking the puppies was good for them.  It gave them a good appetite so that they would eat anything and everything, with no worms in their intestines. Male dogs were castrated at one year to keep them gentle and keep them fat.

Dogs ate meat and were fed a boiled corn mush.  The meat that spoiled was fed to the dogs.  If an animal killed during a hunt was lean and poor in flesh, it was given to the dogs.”

The women owned the dogs but the men in the family got to name them. Hidatsa dogs were work animals and trained to carry/pull substantial weight and because of that they were not required to work until they reached 2 years old. This gave them time for their bones and muscle to develop. The dogs were good tempered and well trained.

Yes, some tribes, like the Sioux, ate dog meat. The Hidatsa did not. Why? In the words of Bird Woman, “Hidatsa dogs were considered to be sacred and weren’t eaten because the flesh was not good [because] the dogs fed on carrion and human excrement.”

Native American Indian Dogs today 


Johanna Garth said...

So interesting how the past can give rise to traits in the future.

Anonymous said...

Sia, fascinating history. Another example of how Indian tribes took a sustainable approach to life, even in dog breeding.

Food Freak Frank said...

Wow, thanks for this very interesting post! I had no idea that the Native Americans of the past took such an active role in the breeding of their dogs. It sounds like they bred exactly what they needed at that time in their history. Fascinating stuff!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

This was so interesting to read, Thanks for sharing.


Shelley Sly said...

Interesting. I love big dogs. Also, those last two pictures are adorable.

Ciara said...

This was so interesting. I've always been fascinated with native american culture. Oh, and such cute pics. :)

VA said...

Excellent, Sia. Informative and while harsh by our standards very practical. I've seen dogs similar but with shorter coats--reminded me of a partially tamed wolf. Incredibly intelligent.

Mason Canyon said...

Sia, an interesting post. While I can understand why they killed some of the pups, I can't image doing that. Love the photo of the Indian dog of today.

Thoughts in Progress

Jo said...

Fascinating Sia, I was very involved in the training of German Shepherds when I lived in the UK and had three of my own. I read a book by the German woman who was the daughter of the man who "invented" the breed, von Stefaniz (sp) and he did much the same thing with puppies. He tried crossing wolves and dogs and sheep dogs with other breeds of sheep dogs and so on until he arrived at what he considered to be the ideal animal for guarding sheep against wolves. The book is absolutely fascinating and sounds very much like you excerpts in this article. I used to own the book but lent it to someone and never got it back.

~Sia McKye~ said...

It does seem harsh to us. Because I am a breeder,I do understand the why of it. It's about breeding strong and healthy dogs and improving the breed. There was no place for sentimentality in those times.

But, speaking as a breeder who spends an enormous amount of time with my baby pups, helping them in the world and keeping them there, it would be very hard for me to do personally.

There are places in Europe, today that have strict breed standards and wardens to inspect and enforce them with euthanasia of those pups that don't make the grade.

Here, strict breeders have to analyze the litter. If there is something defective and can't be fixed and will cause a serious impact on the quality of life for the pup, we might choose to have them euthanized and that is a hard call. If it's something we don't want to see introduced into the gene pool we have them spayed or neutered so they can't pass on a defect.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jo, when you're doing selective breeding for a purpose you have to be strict. Many of the working dog breeds we have today are a result of that sort of attention to detail and where you want the breed to become.

My great uncle Frank and his brother got into raising German Shepherds. They raised them for K-9 units for the military and security. Our family also had Shepherds. They came from Germany and even had the fancy von as part of their names, lol! My favorite was Bruno von Hess and I'm probably spelling the latter incorrectly.

I love the Shiloh German Shepherds. They've removed the "German" and call them Shiloh shepherds now, but remind me more of Bruno. With the American Kennel Club, Shiloh's have always been registered as AKC German Shepherds but now have their own category.

They hark back to the original breed in Germany. Big, less streamline, intelligent and excellent working ability, calm and stable like their flock guardian ancestors. Fabulous Dogs.

I have, in the past, considered breeding them. But I love my gentle (but protective)giants.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia .. what an amazingly interesting post - very wise people lived in those days .. they earned their life didn't they - let alone the dogs .. such an informative read .. thanks - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia .. I read this post out to the oldies up at the Nursing Centre - the ones who enjoy animals .. and they were so interested in it ..

Cheers Hilary

Jennifer said...

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