FASS researchers analyze origin and disappearance of Coast Salish woolly dog

December 14, 2023
The reconstructed woolly dog shown at scale with Arctic dogs and spitz breeds in the background to compare scale and appearance; the portrayal does not imply a genetic relationship. Photo credit: Karen Carr

Researchers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History led a new analysis that sheds light on the ancestry and genetics of woolly dogs, a now extinct breed of dog that was a fixture of Indigenous Coast Salish communities in the Pacific Northwest for millennia.

The study’s findings, published in the journal Science, include interviews contributed by several Coast Salish co-authors, including Elders, Knowledge Keepers and Master Weavers, who provided crucial context about the role woolly dogs played in Coast Salish society. 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers played a role in this monumental project—Indigenous Studies assistant professor Chelsey Geralda Armstrong co-authored the study along with recent Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) alumnus Jonathan Hartt, who completed his undergraduate studies majoring in philosophy with minors in Indigenous studies and political science. Under Armstrong's supervision, Hartt conducted ethnographic and background research for the study, which contributed to the study's understanding of the woolly dog's cultural significance through an Indigenous lens.

By analyzing genetic clues preserved in the pelt of “Mutton,” the only known woolly dog fleece in the world, project researchers were able to pinpoint the genes responsible for their highly sought-after woolly fur.

Coast Salish tribal nations in Washington state and British Columbia bred and cared for woolly dogs for thousands of years. Prized for their thick undercoats, the dogs were sheared like sheep and often kept in pens or on islands to carefully manage their breeding and to care for the canines’ health and vitality. Coast Salish weavers used the dogs’ wool to craft blankets and other woven items that served a variety of ceremonial and spiritual purposes. Woolly dogs themselves possessed spiritual significance and were often treated as beloved family members. As emblems for many Coast Salish communities, woolly dogs adorned woven baskets and other art forms.