The domestication of animals in prehistoric Alberta followed a very different pattern than the one seen in Africa, Asia and Europe. Draft animals such as cattle and horses were either not indigenous to North America, or went extinct long before they could be domesticated. There was no North American equivalent to the wild ox, while horses went extinct on the continent by at least 6,000 BCE. Of course, horses would eventually play a major role in the lives of people living on the western prairies: re-introduced to North America by Spanish colonists in the early 1600s, horses spread across the continent and reached present-day Alberta by the 1730s. Prior to that, however, the earliest peoples of Alberta harnessed the strength and energy of a different animal to help them survive—the dog.
For thousands of years, dogs were the most important work animal for indigenous people living on the western prairies. Indeed, Blackfoot oral tradition refers to the period before the arrival of the horse on the plains as the “dog days.” Archaeological evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated from wolves and used as pack animals on the prairies as early as 3,000 BCE. Such dogs would
haul loads on a simple pulling device known as a travois, which consisted of two poles tied together with sinew and splayed outward in a V-shape. The narrow part of the travois would be harnessed to the dog, while the wider portion was connected with webbing or cross-bars that would hold the desired load. While the travois was not practical for travel up and down gullies or across streams, it was perfectly suited for the grasslands of the open plains and travelled very well over snow.
Without question, dogs had significant limitations—they certainly lacked the strength and pulling power of a horse or ox, for example, and required frequent rest, particularly in the grueling heat of the summer. At the same time, dogs had other strengths that allowed them to thrive as work animals in early Alberta, even after horses were available in the eighteenth century, notably their capacity to endure harsh prairie winters. Thus, while horses were increasingly preferred over dogs for transportation and hauling, dogs continued to be used as work animals on a seasonal basis, proving especially effective during the winter months.