There are only scraps now. Bits of fabric and snatches of story. But for thousands of years the woolly dog was both a companion and a source of yarn.
PoCo Heritage is currently paying tribute to the best friends of yesteryear with The Salish Woolly Dog, an exhibit that examines the approximately 4,000-year-old relationship between the Coast Salish peoples and the fluffy pups.
Slightly bigger than Pomeranians, the woolly dogs tended to have fox-like faces and ears that stood at attention as though they could always hear the can opener cranking.
Local news that matters to you
No one covers the Tri-Cities like we do. But we need your help to keep our community journalism sustainable.
Living in packs of 20 to 30 dogs, the pups ranged from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Strait of Georgia and from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to the Lower Fraser River, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Shorn like sheep with a miserable howl
Writing in his journal, Captain George Vancouver described the dogs as being: “all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England.”
Rather than barking, the dogs emitted “a miserable howl,” according to Spanish naval officers Cayetano Valdés y Flores and Dionisio Alacalá Galiano
While one pack of woolly dogs had the run of a small island off the coast, most of the pups slept in plank houses and away from hunting dogs.
“Since the woolly dog hair was a recessive trait, they were kept isolated from other dogs to prevent interbreeding,” according to the PoCo Heritage exhibit.
In order to maintain their thick-as-shag-carpet coats, the dogs were fed fish and likely elk tallow in some cases.
After being sheared with mussel shell knives, the dog hair was stored with dried clay to extract oil and kill parasites, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. The hair was spun into yarn and blended with goat hair that weavers turned into blankets.
The practice was likely unique to the Coast Salish peoples, according to the exhibit.
The blankets, which were a sign of great wealth, were often given away at potlatches as well as being used at marriages, funerals and body wrappings after death.
“These blankets- like the ones woven today- were made not only to protect the wearer from the cold, but also to protect their spirit,” according to PoCo Heritage.
The dog likely shared common ancestry with Ryuku, Shikoku, Siberian Husky, Mongolian Native, airedale terrier, German shepherd, and Mexican hairless dogs, according to a sequencing of mitochondrial DNA taken from a wool dog bone fragment.
Colonization and decline
The population of the woolly dogs was decimated in the 1800s, in part because settlers’ dogs bred in the Salish Woolly dogs and in part because of land disease and displacement, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
The arrival of inexpensive, machine-made blankets may also have played a part in the decline of the dogs, “especially since feeding a herd of dogs required salmon that could otherwise be used to feed people,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
While there were some sightings of woolly dogs as late as the 1940s, the canines are thought to have been largely extinct at the end of the 1800s.
To learn more about the exhibit, click here.