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The Tahltan Bear Dog

by Murray Lundberg

Tahltan Bear Dog

Northern Breed Dogs

Originally published on February 22, 1998

      In 1974, the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) rescinded their recognition of the Tahltan Bear Dog as a distinct breed, after 26 years with no new registrations. Since that time, the breed is generally considered to be extinct. This belief is fostered by the Guinness Book of Records, which for several years tracked the last few Tahltan Bear Dogs as the world's rarest breed. But is it extinct ?? While the definition of "extinct" is clear enough, what exactly is a Bear Dog?

      The Tahltan Indians of northwestern British Columbia have had dogs around their campfires as far back as their oral history goes, and they were adept at specialized breeding of their animals. The most highly valued breed in a Tahltan camp was not the large "husky" as you would probably expect, but a much smaller dog, about the size of a fox. These dogs were used to locate game, and then harrass the target animal with their high-pitched, staccato barking and unpredictable darting and nipping, until the hunters arrived with their bows and arrows. Most famous for their bravery and dexterity around both black bears and grizzlies, they also assisted in hunting everything from beaver to porcupine, ptarmigan to elk. Spring hunts in particular were made infinitely easier by these dogs, who could run easily on the thin crust of the snow.

      Their small size made it practical to carry the dogs in packs while hunting, releasing them only when game was near, or at night, when they would guard the camp. Although they were generally carried in moosehide backpacks, chest packs were occasionally used as well, possibly for smaller dogs. It's generally reported that the dogs were carried to conserve their energy, but the high social value of a Bear Dog makes it likely that status for the owner, and protection of the little dog from the huskies, would have been significant factors in the decision to carry them, as would their very affectionate nature.

      Not until James Teit's research at Telegraph Creek in 1915 were Tahltan Bear Dogs recognized as a distinct, culturally important breed. Although Teit reported that "not more than two or three" of the dogs remained, and expressed the opinion that they would probably become extinct, by the 1930s they were quite common. In about 1939, the efforts of British Columbia Provincial Police Commissioner T.W.S. Parsons and Constable J.B. Gray were largely responsible for the CKC's recognition of the breed, and several years later, the American Kennel Club added them to their list as well. bear dog

      A Tahltan Bear Dog was primarily black, with white patches which varied widely in size and position on different dogs. Standing 12 to 15 inches high at the shoulder, its relatively large, erect, pointed ears, a pointed muzzle and a fairly short bushy tail (often described as resembling a shaving brush) are the primary identifying physical features. The glossy coat was of average length, with guard hairs covering a very thick undercoat.

      Bear Dogs seem to have been widely traded, and dogs resembling them are mentioned occasionally in early coastal literature. The most famous example is certainly Stickeen by California environmentalist John Muir. My absolute favourite dog book, this slim volume describes a dog which accompanied him on a trip across a glacier near Fort Wrangel in 1880. Stickeen, "a perfect wonder of a dog [who] could endure cold and hunger like a bear, swim like a seal, and was wondrous wise and cunning...", sounds like a Bear Dog except for his curly tail.

      The last strongholds of "purebred" Tahltan Bear Dogs were the small villages of Atlin, British Columbia, and Carcross, Yukon. Big-game guide Tom Connolly used Bear Dogs during his hunts around Atlin and Ross River for 30 years, and following his death in 1970, his wife Shirley was officially the last person to own purebreds. Two dogs were rumoured to have been taken to California in 1971, but an extensive search in 1979-1980 by the California Rare Breed Dog Association turned up nothing. Legend has it that the dogs were unable to survive Outside; Teit reported that "whites who have taken away to different parts of the coast specimens of the small Tahltan 'bear dog' say that in all cases these dogs soon became sick and died." Opinions as to the reasons vary widely, from unaccustomed levels of heat and stress to an inability to live on a non-wild diet.

A Tahltan Bear Dog on a Canadian postage stamp       In 1988, the Canadian Post Office honoured the Tahltan Bear Dog as one of four breeds of dog native to the country. The particular dog pictured would not have ranked very high with Tahltan fanciers, who generally prefer a black dog with white patches instead of white with black patches as this one has. Each block of four stamps had all four Canadian breeds, the Tahltan Bear Dog, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Canadian Eskimo Dog and Newfoundland.

      In 1997, it is not uncommon in the southern Yukon to hear of, or see, dogs which resemble Tahltan Bear Dogs, and several people in Whitehorse and Carcross are attempting to revive the breed. While these dogs may not be recognized as purebreds, more important to the local breed fanciers is the fact that they have both the most important physical attributes of their ancestors, and the intelligence and attitude that has made them so famous. Many people are wishing them great success in their efforts.

    2007 update: after seeing many of the dogs now being advertised as Tahltan Bear Dogs, I consider it to be a scam. A breed such as the Tahltan Bear Dog cannot be re-created except in the identical conditions in which it was originally developed, and those conditions no longer exist. So a warning to those of you who think that owning a Tahltan Bear Dog would be cool - I share that romantic notion, but the reality is you'll be paying a great deal of money for a little black mutt.

My dog Tucker - a Tahltan Bear Dog descendant?     April 2020 update: It's funny how things work out sometimes. In October 2015, Cathy saw the photo to the right, of a rescued puppy at Watson Lake, and fell in love. When she showed it to me, the reaction was the same, and on October 15th, I drove to Watson Lake to get him and his brother, who had also been adopted by a Whitehorse family.

    The rescue organization, the Yukon Animal Rescue Network (YARN) didn't know what breed he was, and we never could figure it out. Our vet had no idea - he was simply "18 pounds of solid muscle." He had 100 pounds of attitude, though. One of his really distinctive traits was a high-pitched voice when he got excited. I called it his "baby voice," and expected that he would lose it as he matured. Luckily, he didn't, and about a year ago, it occurred to me that his ancestors may have been Tahltan Bear Dogs.

My dog Tucker - a Tahltan Bear Dog descendant?     Tucker fits the breed description well except for the shaving-brush tail, which I've never seen on any of the dogs claiming to be Tahltan Bear Dogs. The lower photo to the right shows him in his full winter coat at the age of 3½ years.

    So, it does seem possible - even likely - that Tahltan Bear Dogs had some very strong genes. That doesn't change the fact that the breed cannot be re-created, but it has resulted in some wonderfully unique dogs, and Cathy and I consider ourselves very lucky to have one of them as a member of our family.

I want to extend a special "thank you" to Delores Smith for sharing with me both her research into, and love of, these wonderful little dogs.

References & Further Reading:

  • Crisp, W.G., "Tahltan Bear Dog," in The Beaver, Summer 1956
  • Muir, John, Stickeen (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909) Reprinted 1990 by Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA
  • Teit, James A., "Field Notes on the Tahltan and Kaska Indians, 1912-15," in Anthropologica No.3 (Ottawa, 1956)
  • Whitehorse Star, December 2, 1971; January 9, 1980
  • Yukon News, February 27, 1974
    This article is © 1998-2020 by Murray Lundberg: use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.