Remembering Canada’s extinct dog breed
For years I have kept the Canadian Kennel Club’s 125 year booklet. It’s a 20-page collection of letters remembering, celebrating, and paying tribute to the Club’s heritage and advocacy of purebred dogs. While the copy is interesting (like the fact that the CKC’s modest start began in my hometown of London, Ontario in 1889), I have kept the pamphlet mainly because I love the cover art.
The painting of Canada’s indigenous dog breeds by Eddie LePage features the Newfoundland, the Labrador Retriever, the Canadian Eskimo, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, the Flat-coated Retriever (which I believe to be a British breed, but we can argue that another day) and a black and white, double-coated dog. At first glance, I thought the dog painted was a Karelian Bear Dog (a Finnish breed), but discovered it is actually an image of a Tahltan Bear Dog, Canada’s most recent extinct purebred dog breed. The image of this dog has stayed with me and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about this lost piece of Canada’s history.
Writing a breed blog on dog breed with no living members left was challenging. Luckily my friend and mentor Mike Macbeth is a journalist who has written many articles on Canada’s dog that disappeared. This blog would not have been possible without her help.
For more than 500 years, the Tahltan Bear Dog served the Tahltan people of Northern British Columbia.1 These small dogs were used for hunting both Black bears and Grizzly bears.2 Black and white, they were 12 to 16 inches high and weighed 10 to 18 pounds.3 They had large pricked ears, and a distinctive bushy tail resembling a shaving brush.4
These little dogs were carried in sacks on the hunter’s backs. On encountering a bear, working as a pack, they would distract the bear by rapidly yapping and biting at it, allowing the hunters to move in for the kill.5 These brave little dogs were incredibly tough, but at the same time gentle enough with humans that they were welcomed into their family’s tent.6 Rifles would eventually rifles replace the dogs' usefulness and lead to its demise.
As the Tahltan edged toward extinction, a B.C. police officer attempted to save the breed. Constable J.B. Gray purchased 10 dogs as pets between 1936 and 1940 while posted at Telegraph Creek.7 His perseverance convinced the Canadian Kennel Club to recognize the Tahltan Bear Dog in 1941.8 Gray's efforts inspired Harriet Morgan of Windsor, Ontario to attempt to perpetuate the breed, however her efforts proved futile.9 While it is uncertain, it is presumed that most of the dogs taken from their northern habitat died from a change in diet or climate. 9 Others died of diseases they had not previously been exposed to in their home out in the wilderness.10
By 1975, only six Tahltan Bear Dogs were known to exist.11 The final dog died in 1979, the same year the Canadian Kennel Club removed the breed, after more than a quarter of a century of no new registrations, from its list of recognized breeds.12 And with this, the courageous little Tahltan Bear Dog - the world's most recently extinct breed of dog - vanished.
But some don’t believe the breed vanished then and there. Reports in 1979 claimed that a breeding pair may have been taken to California 8 years earlier. 13 Although this may seem like a ray of hope for the breed, that was 40 years ago and if a conservation effort was in effect, I believe that the internet surely would have alerted us to it by now.
In 2010, a woman in Carmacks, Yukon was selling a litter of puppies claiming that their grandfather was 5/8 Tahltan Bear Dog.15 But experts like Murray Lundberg said that was impossible. The Whitehorse-based writer and amateur historian became curious in the late 1990s about claims the Tahltan Bear Dogs still existed. He concluded that they do not.16
When asked of the part Tahltan litter Lundberg said “The Tahltan bear dog was bred under very specific circumstances that can never be recreated. It doesn’t matter what you do. You’ll never have another Tahltan Bear Dog. It’s not evolutionarily possible.”17
The Tahltan Bear Dog might be gone, but the breed lives on in art. Canada Post included the breed in their 1988 collection of native breeds that celebrated the Canadian Kennel Club’s centennial.18 Artist Bill Lishman (of Father Goose fame) used Canada Post’s image to create a giant bronze sculpture of a Tahltan Bear Dog that was displayed at Canada’s Royal Dog Show in 1998.19
The image of the small but mighty Tahltan Bear Dog running across the top layer of snow, barking in high pitched staccato, bringing their people to the big game that would feed and clothe their families, is one that stays with me and many. I hope that the Tahltan’s story reminds us all of the importance of protecting our purebreds. I would hate to hear that one of the Canadian Kennel Club’s almost 200 recognized purebreds became extinct and I know that you would too. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.
1 Macbeth, Mike. “Celebrating the Canadian Breeds of Dogs and Cats”. Canada Day Presentation. Pawsway Toronto ON. July 1, 2009
2 Ibid., Macbeth
3 Ibid., Macbeth
4 Ibid., Macbeth
5 Ibid., Macbeth
6 Tahltan Bear Dog, Dogs of Canada . https://postagestampguide.com/stamps/16465/tahltan-bear-dog-1988-canada-postage-stamp-dogs-of-canada
7 Ibid., Macbeth
8 Ibid., Macbeth
9 Ibid., Macbeth
10 Ibid., Macbeth
11 Ibid., Macbeth
12 Ibid., Macbeth
13 Ibid., Macbeth
14 Ibid., Macbeth
15 Thompson, J. ( 2010, December 24) The Tahltan Bear Dog: Survivor or Scam?https://www.yukon-news.com/news/the-tahltan-bear-dog-survivor-or-scam/
16 Ibid., Thompson
17 Ibid., Thompson
18 Ibid., Tahltan Bear Dog, Dogs of Canada
19 Ibid., Macbeth