Originating with the Talhtan Indians in the Pacific Northwest territories of Canada, the Tahltan Bear Dog, also known as the Chien d'ours de Tahltan, is a primitive breed of dog thought by many to be extinct. However, a specialized breeding program by a few select individuals using the original bloodlines has helped this dog survive to a small extent until present day. Currently these individuals are keeping the Talhtan Bear Dog close, to preserve the integrity and true heritage of the breed as well as to prevent the commercialization associated with rare dogs and those that would wish to profit from it at the expense of the overall health of the breed.
A canine version of Mighty Mouse, the Tahltan Bear Dog dog possesses tremendous power and bravery in a small package. Named for the Talhtan Indian tribes of northwestern Bristish Columbia, these small fox like hunting dogs were commonly seen around Indian campsites during the 19th century. It was the job of the Talhtan Bear Dog to assist the Tahltan tribesmen in the hunting of numerous types of game including elk, beaver, porcupine, and especially large predators such as bear and big cats.
The night prior to the hunt the native Indians would perform a ceremonial bleeding by stabbing the dogs in the hindquarters with the fibula bone of a wolf or fox. The morning of the hunt two of these dogs would be carried over the Indians shoulder in a sack, until he came across fresh bear tracks, at which point the dogs would be released. The small stature and light weight of the Tahltan Bear Dog enabled it to run full speed across the top of crusted snow in pursuit of its quarry, while bear and other larger animals were hampered trying to trudge through it.
Once released, working in unison the pair of Talhtan Bear Dogs would use their keen hunting abilities to track and either corner or tree the bear. A unique trait of the Talhtan Bear Dogs is its distinctive yodel, and high pitched, rapid style of barking. Once found, one dog would annoy the bear by barking and dashing in and out from the front while the other attacked it from behind. It was the job of these brave little dogs to hold the bears attention until hunters could arrive with their bows and arrows and make the kill.
Originally fed a diet that consisted of fish, meat and small pieces of poultry, this small fox-like breed with a novel short and erect shaving brush-like tail can live for 10 to 12 years.
Although the exact origin of this breed is not precise, oral history handed down from generation to generation by the Tahltan Indians makes reference to feral dogs that were utilized to assist bow and arrow hunters in hunting both large and small game. It is believed that the Tahltan Bear dog, descended from the dogs of small isolated bands of Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers that migrated from Asiatic regions into Alaska following large herds of herbivores around 13,500 B.C.
A book by John Muirs, titled “Stickeen: John Muir's Adventure with a Dog and a Glacier” published in 1897, is a true story of what happened on an Alaskan glacier with what is believed to be a Tahltan Bear Dog named Stickeen, in 1880.
"In the summer of 1880, I set out from Fort Wrangell in a canoe to continue the exploration of the icy region of southeastern Alaska, begun in the fall of 1879. After the necessary provisions, blankets, etc., had been collected and stowed away, and my Indian crew were in their places ready to start, while a crowd of their relatives and friends on the wharf were bidding them good-by and good-luck, my companion, the Rev. S. H. Young , for whom we were waiting, at last came aboard, followed by a little black dog, that immediately made himself at home by curling up in a hollow among the baggage. I like dogs, but this one seemed so small and worthless that I objected to his going, and asked the missionary why he was taking him.
"Such a little helpless creature will only be in the way," I said; "you had better pass him up to the Indian boys on the wharf, to be taken home to play with the children. This trip is not likely to be good for toy-dogs. The poor silly thing will be in rain and snow for weeks or months, and will require care like a baby." But his master assured me that he would be no trouble at all; that he was a perfect wonder of a dog, could endure cold and hunger like a bear, swim like a seal, and was wondrous wise and cunning, etc., making out a list of virtues to show he might be the most interesting member of the party.
"Nobody could hope to unravel the lines of his ancestry. In all the wonderfully mixed and varied dog-tribe I never saw any creature very much like him, though in some of his sly, soft, gliding motions and gestures he brought the fox to mind. He was short-legged and bunch-bodied, and his hair, though smooth, was long and silky and slightly waved, so that when the wind was at his back it ruffled, making him look shaggy. At first sight his only noticeable feature was his fine tail, which was about as airy and shady as a squirrel's , and was carried curling forward almost to his nose. On closer inspection you might notice his thin sensitive ears, and sharp eyes with cunning tan-spots above them."
It wasn’t until James Teit's research in 1915 at Telegraph Creek that Tahltan Bear Dogs became recognized as a distinct, culturally important breed. However, contrary to his opinion that "not more than two or three" of these dogs remained, and his that they would probably become extinct. Teit also gave hint to this breed being frequently traded and removed from it homeland in reporting 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 distemper, and unaccustomed levels of heat and stress to an inability to live on a non-wild diet.
However, by the 1930s the Tahltan Bear Dog actually remained quite common in the area. In about 1939, the efforts of British Columbia Provincial Police Commissioner T.W.S. Parsons and Constable J.B. Gray were responsible for the CKC's recognition of the breed, and following several years later, the American Kennel Club added them to their list as well.
Following their addition to the American Kennel Club it becomes unclear as to what single factor led to the rapid decline of the breeds numbers. What it is known is that the Tahltan Bear Dog was prized and widely traded among Indian Tribes and at trade posts throughout the region. This may have lead to the crossbreeding of many of the purebreds with other dogs of the era and a subsequent decline of true Talhtan Bear Dogs. The effect of this casual trading in relation to the decline in the breeds numbers was further amplified by the Tahltan Bear Dogs natural breeding difficulties of females only whelping three to four puppies a year, with a propensity to kill them if she was disturbed. It can be assumed that many of the purebred specimens were traded away, and those that remained were not able to produce significant numbers of pups to sustain the breed.
In the 1970’s the last strongholds of purebred Tahltan Bear Dogs were to be found in the small villages of Atlin, British Columbia and Carcross, Yukon. Tom Connolly a big game hunter around Atlin and Ross River used Tahltan Bear dogs on his hunts in the area and following his death in 1970, his wife Shirley was officially the last person known to own purebred Tahltan Bear Dogs. With no new registrations and the breed nearing extinction, the CKC removed the dog from the Sporting Group.
The last hope for restoring the breed may lie with Kim Laflamme, a breeder of Indian Dogs in Oregon who claims to have aquired 2 of the 6 Talhtan Bear Dogs owned by Tom Connolly at the time of his death. The story as to how he came to own these two remarkable animals and what the breeds status is now as excerpted from Kim Laflammes Song Dog Kennels® website is below.
"There were rumors of a fellow named Tom Connolly of Atlin and Ross River, a large game hunter that used the Tahltans for hunting Bear and Elk, for 30 years or more. When I finally tracked down Tom Connolly, he was very sick at that time and didn’t know of any more other than the few he had left by then and they weren’t registered. His wife Shirley gave me 2 of his Tahltans in 1970 after Tom’s death and these were the 2 that were integrated into my breeding program, these were a black and a blue. Ms. Connolly later sold all of her 4 Tahltans to a Lady friend that moved with these Tahltans to Southern CA., where we traded some breeding’s later.
It was around the late 70’s that the Rare Breed Dog assoc., based in Southern CA, tried to take these last Bear Dogs from Shirley Connolly’s Lady friend including the stud book, passed to her from Shirley. In order to start a Tahltan breed club of there own “to revive the breed”. We all new they would ignore the controlled selective breeding it would have taken to actually “revive” them. Shirley once again warned me that CKC and AKC would not listen to her husband Tom back when there were enough numbers left to save them and in 1974 AKC rescinded their recognition as a breed, after 26 years with no new registrations. It seems they would not allow Tom to register his Tahltans as they were not recognized in AKC’s or CKC’s “closed” stud books. She was so angry with these big brother registries and told me of the hassles Tom had experienced with both CKC and AKC not allowing his Tahltan dogs to be included in their stud book. The breeders and clubs that REALLY cared about saving their breeds had finally realized these “pure blue blood” registries were not interested in small numbers of some “Indian Breed” and were only interested in large numbers of “popular” politically correct dogs. Breeds that could be promoted and marketed and inbred in every ones back yard for AKC’s financial gain. There were so few Bear Dogs left at that time that they would have been inbred to the point of them all being related the same 4 already related dogs, turning them into unhealthy inbred mutants. That was my first lesson in BIG BROTHER and its rules of not opening the stud book to different Tahltan bloodlines, letting in any new bloodlines to even an almost extinct breed that was already at risk. At that time there were at least some that were ¾ pure Tahltan, they could have at least used them to save them as a breed, not even including the other pure Tahltans of the Connolly’s. I’m at least happy that some of these special Tahltan Bear Dogs blood is still flowing within our AIDog breed. Towards the end of this article we will see if the Tahltans are truly extinct or can possibly still be saved, even if in a less “pure” form?
In 1986 I tried once again to reach out to The Rare Breed Association for recognition and help to save the AIDog breed, supposedly a “breed” is not considered “real” if it is not excepted by AKC. To be excepted by AKC you must first give up your stud book to a Rare Breed Club (1st in the Chain of Command) to then be AKC miscellaneous; (2nd in the Chain of Command) and of coarse the ultimate AKC at the top of the “Politically Correct” ladder of being “real” is AKC. Once again after 2 years with them they wanted me to turn over my stud book, go with AKC and their marketing agenda rule, giving up complete control of the selective breeding program that was so important for the health and the actual “saving” of a special on the edge breed. My 3rd lesson with BIG BROTHER was in the early 90’s when two lady’s tried to start their own AIDog club and take them to a newly started Rare Breed Club based in Washington DC. These promotional marketers again wanted to take over the AIDog stud book and would not give the AIDog club founder/board of directors control of its own breeding program, using our own code of Ethics and rules that had to be set up in order to actually save them. Needless to say I told them what they could do with there ideas of making the AIDog one of the most popular breeds in the world … increasing the marketability by inbreeding to create all the same colors and all blue eyes … etc …etc. Ya, right, that’s just how to ruin a breed, not save it; just like they’ve done with all of there breeds once they get their hands on them and start there promoting, marketing programs to increase there popularity, for their financial agenda’s. Yes, any breed has to at least be popular enough to a select few special owners to maintain and pay for itself, but not marketed to the point of back yard breeders, breeding mothers to sons and fathers to daughters. Including the show breeders; breeding to just a couple already inbred conformation favorite champion sires and dams … over and over and over generation after generation until they become one carbon copy clone of each other …. with many genetic health problems, both in the body and mind. No thank you!
Now at this time in 1998 the Tahltan Bear Dog breed is generally considered to be extinct. This belief was decided by the Guinness Book of Records, which for several years tracked the last few remaining Tahltans and at there death declared them “extinct” … but are they extinct … or was it just the CKC/AKC registered ones ?? The definition of extinct is clear enough, but how did Guinness know this …. did they take CKC/AKC’s word for it …. what exactly is a Tahltan bear Dog …… did they even bother to ask the Tahltan people themselves? Would the Tahltan First Nation's people even tell them if they had any more of their Dogs, after these registries didn’t even take care of the ones they had before or even listen to the warning of those that new the breed?? I think the Tahltan peoples have learned their lesson also with BIG BROTHER, like I have with the AIDogs and wouldn’t say even if they did have some left or a breeding program of their own."
It is known historically that Tahltan Dogs were highly valued and traded south to other Indian Nations. The Pueblo Indian Dog is a very similar breed which Laflamme believes has close genetic ties to the Tahltan, and for the last several decades, he has had a pure line of Tahltans and Pueblo Dogs. Recently he gave one of his last Tahltans (which has some Pueblo blood) to a Tahltan woman in British Columbia who hopes to revive the breed in its homeland by crossing with her remaining partbred Tahltans.
Even now, there are individuals looking to profit on this breeds rarity and there are the occasional advertisements claiming purebred Tahltan Bear Dog puppies for sale. However, due to the extreme rarity of this nearly extinct breed, it is highly unlikely that the animals being sold are the real thing.
The Tahltan Bear Dog is small dog measuring only 12 to 15 inches at the shoulders and weighing between 15 to 20 pounds with a fox like appearance. With a medium sized head, domed skull and pointed average length muzzle that tapers slightly to a black nose. The eyes appear dark, with well spaced erect bat like ears sitting atop the skull. The neck is of medium length with ribs that spring out from the spine nearly level to form a broad back and then arch downward and curve in at the bottom to connect with the breastbone. The feet are tight and cat like with hard pads and arched toes that allow the dog to run easily on the thin crust of snow
This is a breed that was highly valued by the Thaltan people in the mountainous regions of Northwestern British Columbia and in Canada's Yukon Territory. It was the size of the Tahltan Bear Dog that made it feasible for Tahltan Indians to carry the dog in their moose hide backpacks or chest packs, which was done to conserve the dogs energy for the hunt. The unique qualities of a Tahltan Bear Dog's when compared to other breeds is its peculiar yodel and shaving brush tail. This short bushy tail , measuring only 6 to 7 inches in length was covered with stiff upstanding hairs that fanned out like a brush. With a short, yet thick, glossy, course outer coat, and dense undercoat the Thaltan Bear Dog was able to survive in the harsh winters of the North American Continent. Most commonly the coat was black with white markings although other varieties such as steel grey also existed; some coats such as white spotted with grey or black were less desirable.
A fearless breed of dog, even the mighty grizzly several times larger in size failed to intimidate the Tahltan Bear Dog. Highly valued not just for their hunting prowess but for the kind, loving and affectionate nature. The Tahltan Bear Dog was the house dog of the time for Thaltan Indians, being considered a member of the family and allowed to live inside the family tent. A pack dog by design, they tended to tolerate other dogs very well.
A typical double coated hunting dog with a course outer coat and dense undercoat, that if it existed commonly today would require frequent brushings to remove dead undercoat, in order to prevent excessive shedding if the dog were intended to live in the home.