The Problem with Dogs…

by Elizabeth Campbell

There is no question that dogs were essential to life at Red River. But their working days were mostly winter days. These were hardy dogs, fit and perhaps high-strung – in terms of energy, at least. So, the major problems began when the snow and ice disappeared and the main method of dissipating all that energy melted away with the arrival of spring.

Other things were going on at the settlement in the spring – it was the season for lambing. The dogs, we must remember, were probably not all that far removed from their wolven ancestors. It seems that they frequently wreaked havoc in the lambing pens, and sometimes they even went after the larger animals!

[5 May 1813] Found Delorme & the Shepherd at the Point 2 Rams Ewes &c lamb alive – likewise the Cow & Bull & calf. The Cow was injured & much bit by Delorme’s Dogs – but the Shepherd thinks she will recover.
[15 May 1813] 5 Sheep & a lamb have been Killed by Dogs – viz 2 by Neil McKinnons Dogs. & the lamb by Dond. Mcmillns. Donald McL & B Bethunes Dogs

There are other such entries in the journals. Livestock was incredibly difficult to obtain – at the time this entry was written, there was only one bull, one cow and one calf in the RRS – and the loss of such animals was a severe blow to the colony.

Unruly dogs caused other serious problems, too:

[4 March 1815] Bannerman began to make a complaint that a dog of mine had eat his Pemican & that he would kill him if I did not restore the Pemican.

The seriousness of Bannerman’s loss is illustrated by the severity of his threat to kill Archie McDonald’s dog. McDonald was a settlement official, not just another settler. Pemmican was strictly rationed at this time, and with the propaganda the NWCo. officials were using to stir up the settlers against their own settlement officials added to the mix, this particular complaint against McDonald foreshadowed bloodshed of another type than dog!

But dog problems were not confined to idle canines. Ross mentions an incident involving runaway dogs while they were in the harness:

Many a curious and amusing incident occurs at buffalo-hunting, one of which may be noticed by way of example. A friend of the writer’s, about this time, went to enjoy a few weeks’ sport in the plains, and often repeated, with a comic and serious air, a scene which took place in his own presence. Some of the hunters who were accompanying him were conveying their families across a large plain, intersected here and there with clumps of wood. When in the act of rounding one of those woody islands, a herd of buffalo suddenly burst into view, causing two dogs who were drawing a sled, on which a child and some luggage were being conveyed, to set off at full speed in pursuit, leaving the father and mother in a state of despair for the safety of their only child. The dogs soon reached the heels of the buffalo, and all were mixed pell-mell together; the dogs running, the sled swinging to and fro, and the buffalo kicking. At length a bull gored one of the dogs, and his head getting entangled in the harness, went off at the gallop, carrying the dog on his horns, the other suspended by the traces, and the sled and child whirling behind him. The enraged animal ran a good half mile before he shook himself clear of the encumbrance, although pursued by a large party, by whom many shots were tired at him without effect. The state of the parents’ feelings may be imagined; yet, to their utter astonishment, although both dogs were killed, the child escaped unhurt!

(reference: pages 16824, 16860, 16934, 18275-6 of the Selkirk Papers, M186, Manitoba Archives; Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement…. 1856. page 247)

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