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The Tahltan bear dog: survivor or scam?

Dawn Charlie of Carmacks is selling Tahltan bear dog pups for $500 a pop. Or is she? Authorities have long declared the breed to be extinct.

Dawn Charlie of Carmacks is selling Tahltan bear dog pups for $500 a pop. Or is she?

Authorities have long declared the breed to be extinct. But that hasn’t prevented a handful of Yukoners, Charlie among them, from claiming that the Tahltan bear dog lives on.

The breed was long-prized by the Talhtan First Nations of northwestern British Columbia. The small, fox-sized dogs possessed dark coats, pointy ears and a short, bushy tail that resembled an old-fashioned shaving brush.

They were brave enough to confront a bear with their yappy barks and agile enough to stay clear of jaws and claws. A pack of them would distract the animal until their owners could catch up to finish the job with bows and arrows.

In 1988, the Canadian Post Office honoured the Tahltan bear dog with a stamp. But, the Canadian Kennel Club had rescinded its recognition of the breed more than a decade before.

The Guinness Book of Records spent several years tracking the dog’s slow passage towards apparent extinction.

But is it truly gone? Not according to Charlie.

She has a litter of six puppies. Their grandfather was 5/8 Tahltan, said Charlie. “I’m not claiming they’re purebred,” she said. “But they’re a strong mix of the Tahltan.”

“Some people will get riled up when they hear this, and say it’s impossible,” she said.

Murray Lundberg is one of them.

“Does the Tahltan Bear Dog exist? Absolutely not,” said the Whitehorse-based writer and amateur historian. He became curious in the late 1990s about claims the Tahltan bear dogs still exist. He concluded otherwise, in an article published on his website.

“The Tahltan bear dog was bred under very specific circumstances that can never be recreated,” said Lundberg. “It doesn’t matter what you do. You’ll never have another Tahltan bear dog. It’s not evolutionarily possible.

“My objection is that these breeders are using a significant breed name to pass off these mutts for huge money to people who don’t know any better.

“Call it what you want. Just leave the Tahltan bear dog name out of it. That’s just not right.”

But Charlie’s undeterred. And she’s found supporters. One is Kim La Flamme, a breeder of American Indian dogs in Oregon.

While he concedes purebred Tahltan bear dogs “don’t exist,” La Flamme claims his dogs have Tahltan blood. He’s considering buying one of Charlie’s adult dogs to add to the stock.

La Flamme sees similarities between Tahltan bear dogs and other dogs bred by First Nations up and down the continent. He sees this as evidence of trade between different peoples.

“There’s no way to save the Tahltan at this point. But there is a way to add it to the melting pot to save them all in one.”

La Flamme sees Tahltan in the pointy ears of Charlie’s dogs. But her dogs lack the Tahltan’s distinct, shaving-brush tail.

And Charlie’s dogs also have white markings, which were not traditionally found on Tahltan coats. Charlie says the markings probably come from crossbreeding with Karelian bear dogs - a breed used by Russian fur-traders.

La Flamme contends the white probably comes from another native breed.

Charlie also sees Tahltan behaviour in her dogs.

“They’ll lay down their lives for you,” she said. Their bravery sometimes proves fatal. Charlie’s lost some to coyotes or wolves.

They “yap like crazy,” and are capable of running upwards of 40 kilometres per hour, she said. While loyal, they aren’t the easiest to train.

“They’re like teenagers. They’re really smart, but with a stubborn streak.”

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