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|