Woolly Dogs: Bred for Their Fur

Salish wool dogs, also known as woolly dogs, became famous in history for their fur which was spun into yarn. As times changed, the breed became extinct.

The Coast Salish peoples are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest coastal areas of northern Washington State and southern British Columbia, and are particularly notable for their finely woven blankets. Before the Europeans arrived, the blankets were important items and were high in trade value. As well as having a functional use, the blankets were important in ceremonies such as marriages and funerals.

Two distinct types of native dogs found on those parts included one resembling a coyote and the other, the Salish wool dog, resembling a cross between a small dog and a version of a northern spitz. The coyote-resembling dog was used mostly for hunting and the woolly dog was bred and kept for the production of wool from its thick soft inner coat. The woolly dogs were sheared once a year and the fur was mixed with different materials for weaving blankets and other textiles.

The first observations of Salish wool dogs appear in 1792 by explorer Captain George Vancouver. He described the numerous dogs "...much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger. ...were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep...and so compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation. ...composed of a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine long hair, capable of being spun into yarn."

The dogs were reported to be corralled on small islands off the coast to prevent interbreeding with the short-haired village dogs, and the women of the village were responsible for them. They would feed the dogs a diet consisting mainly of raw and cooked salmon, an excellent source of food for the dog's coat, and they would shear their thick fleeces during the spring months.

In recent years, scientists debated whether textiles made by the Salish weavers were made of dog hair as oral histories have claimed. Now, DNA analysis prove they were. Dr. Caroline Solazzo, who led the research, said evidence of dog hair was found in textiles produced before 1862 and none of the textiles were made entirely of dog hair. The dog hair appeared to have been used to supplement mountain goat hair, possibly as a bulking material. It is believed that dog hair mixed with goat wool was used in every day textiles and only goat hair was used in ceremonial textiles. According to Dr. Solazzo "It may have been the case that pure dog hair blankets were once more common, but considered of lower value and consumed in use and lost."

When the Europeans arrived in North America the Salish wool dog was edged into extinction due to the introduction of sheep and large scale machinery brought by European settlers. When the dog's wool was no longer required, they began to interbreed with imported European dogs and their unique individuality was lost. The breed is believed to have been extinct since the mid 19th century.

Peter Simpson, in his chapter in Shadows of Our Ancestors: Readings in the History of Klallam-White Relations, reports "With the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company and their even-then-famous blankets, the tribes neglected their isolated breeding of wool dogs which soon became mongrelized and their fur unworkable."