Prehistoric, Primitive … Preserved

Carolina Dogs: man’s (ancient) best friend

By Zoë Burge

Photography by Robert Clark

Consider modern man. Subtract 12 inches from the average height and add 30 pounds of solid muscle. Take away technology and add a profound understanding of the land. In place of a processed, prepared cheeseburger, substitute the meat of recently hunted prehistoric wild game. The result will resemble Homo erectus, the version of man that existed during the last Ice Age. Now, consider a Carolina Dog. Add nothing. Subtract nothing. The result will resemble an ancient, primitive canine that accompanied man across the Bering land bridge some 10,000 years ago.

Sometimes called American Dingoes or Dixie Dingoes, Carolina Dogs are typically 35 to 50 pounds and sport pointed jackal ears and fishhook tails. While their physical characteristics aren’t particularly noteworthy, some of their behavioral tendencies are unique and suggest that the breed was created and preserved through natural selection. 

Coming across a Carolina Dog in South Carolina is not an unusual occurrence — nor is it a particularly sensational one. Regardless of their ancient origins, the canines, many of which remain feral in rural parts of the southeastern United States, are often perceived as mutts. In fact, Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., emeritus professor and senior ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, had come across the dogs many times before he appreciated the true marvel of the breed. “In 1976 or ‘77, I came up with the concept of Carolina Dogs being these ‘Yaller dogs’ running around in the woods on large pieces of conserved, undeveloped land,” Dr. Brisbin says. However, it was a single moment of realization that shifted his perception forever. He recalls the very moment — the very thought — that changed everything: “It just occurred to me; the dogs in there looked just like Dingoes!”

Australian Dingoes are thought to stem from the same line as those ancient canids that were introduced to North America over 4,000 years ago. The wild canines now exist primarily in Australia and are among the few remaining canid species that retain a pure and ancient genetic strain. 

While the dogs Dr. Brisbin noticed roaming the Lowcountry triangle between Savannah, Charleston and Augusta shared a striking physical resemblance to the Australian Dingo, he noted a number of differential behavioral traits and tendencies. Unlike most canine species that exist today, female Carolina Dogs have an extraordinarily high frequency of estrus at an early age, meaning females can come into heat up to three times in a single year. According to Dr. Brisbin’s study, Primitive Dogs, Their Ecology and Behavior … , this extreme, early fertility suggests “selection pressure to reproduce quickly at an early age before succumbing to a large number of mortality factors, including heartworms.”   

To determine the origin of the dogs he was examining, Dr. Brisbin constructed a three-part hypothesis to test his prediction that the dogs were shaped by their life in a primitive state. “The first part of the hypothesis predicted that they’d look like Dingoes. That was fulfilled. The second prediction was that if they are different, then their DNA will reflect it. Encouraging evidence present. The third part says that their ecology should reflect their origin — they should live far out of town — that was fulfilled,” Dr. Brisbin says.

Through studying his hypothesis and in his examination of the Carolina Dogs, Dr. Brisbin discovered that the feral dogs in rural lowlands of the southeastern United States were similar to the dogs that crossed the Beringia landmass with man during the last Ice Age. Amazingly, the breed has managed to evade extensive hybridization with European breeds, wolves, coyotes and other canines for more than 10,000 years. 

Dr. Brisbin’s discovery provided a new means of studying the history and evolution of a number of sub-species and an additional method of tracking the migratory patterns of ancient man. However, the relatively recent introduction of coyotes to the Southeast presented a threat to the breed. Not only were the dogs faced with an unfamiliar predator but also with an added potential for hybridization with this new invader. 

An avid dog lover and former delegate in the American Kennel Club over a period of 18 years, Dr. Brisbin decided to breed the Carolina Dogs he’d caught in order to preserve the breed. He adopted the method used in the mid-1800s by Reverend John “Jack” Russell, who owned a small, white female dog for fox-hunting, fell in love with her versatility, and bred her to conserve her traits. “I did the same thing Reverend Jack Russell did,” Dr. Brisbin says. “He had a dog he liked, and he started breeding them. That’s what I did but I called them Carolina Dogs.”

Several unusual habits distinguish the breed from other pedigrees, such as the habitual digging of snout pits, which are small funnel-shaped holes the dogs dig to possibly extract nutrients from the soil. To feed their offspring, most Carolina Dogs regurgitate already ingested food for their puppies. This behavior probably derives from the days when male Carolina Dogs would hunt for their offspring and needed an efficient way to transport food to their pups. Males tend to remain with a female after her litter is born which is also unique. 

According to Jane Gunnell, Carolina Dog breeder and owner of Banbury Cross Farms in Aiken, S.C., “The reason it’s so important that the males stay with the momma is because the males bring food in. What poodle would ever bring food in for a litter of puppies? Carolina Dogs do that … I’ve watched it for 18 years!”

Jane Gunnell and Bill Benton, her husband, were introduced to Carolina Dogs in 1996 while fox hunting with Jane’s son in Aiken. “The dogs fell into my lap,” Jane says. “There was this guy whose wife caught several, and he told me about them so I went down to look at them. They had a litter of puppies, and I had never seen anything like them.” When Jane learned of the breed’s uncertain fate, she had an immediate desire to help preserve the purity and the survival of the canines. “He told me we had two years — two years in this area — until they were completely hunted out by the coyotes or hybridized. Eighteen years ago hybridization was really bad,” Jane says. 

Immediately enthralled with the animal, Jane and Billy took two Carolina Dogs back to their home in Virginia. When the couple told friends and fellow Virginians of their findings and their desire to salvage and redeem the Carolina Dog, they were met with both incredulity and skepticism. “Everyone in Middleburg, Va. was aghast. ‘You’re going to South Carolina to save these wild dogs? Oh, that will be fun,’” Jane explains. “And so we did, we came down to Aiken to save them.” 

During her property search, Jane stumbled across an old plantation, built in 1838, which had been uninhabited for some time. As she pulled into the driveway, she noticed a dog, limping and swollen with milk, walking in front of the car and away from a wooded alcove. “She was just like one of those birds acting like it had a broken wing to get you away from her nest. She walked into the cornfield like, ‘Please follow me, please follow me,’ and I thought, ‘Okay, there’s something in that corncrib I know it.’ So Billy and I got out of the car and sure enough there was a male dog standing there, looking at me from the other side of the corn field barking. He wasn’t going hurt me, he was only trying to protect the litter.”

Jane proceeded to watch as eight tiny puppies emerged and rolled down the hill toward a nearby pond. Jane was anxious to get a closer look but was unable to reach the puppies due to the thick vegetation around the pond. Still, she looked on as the male dog took each puppy through the cat briars and out of harm’s way. “I said: ‘This is it. This is the place,’” Jane remembers.

Jane and Billy spent several years at the farm, examining, breeding and caring for the Carolina Dogs that inhabited the surrounding land. “It was fascinating what they did,” Jane says. “We just watched and wrote it down.” By observing the dogs both in their natural and domesticated states, Jane and Billy were able to derive a further understanding of the Carolina Dogs’ instincts and behaviors. Though it was a fascinating process, there were moments when it was difficult to grapple with the canine’s primitive rituals. For example, when a male Carolina Dog believes he does not have the resources to feed the entire litter of puppies sufficiently, he solves the problem by eating one or more of his puppies. “I had to remind myself several times that these dogs don’t have the same morals as I do,” Jane says. 

While the breed is recognized by the American Rare Breed Association and by the United Kennel Club, it remains unrecognized by the American Kennel Club. “Jane has resisted going to the AKC,” says Billy, “only because the AKC demands you close your studbook.” In the dog world, a closed studbook means that a dog cannot be registered if its bloodlines don’t trace back to the foundation stock. While this ensures that a breed stays pure to its type, it also limits the gene pool and in some cases accentuates and perpetuates undesirable characteristics in a breed. 

“It’s like thoroughbred horses,” Jane mentions, “There were three foundation sizes for thoroughbred horses and the studbook was closed, that’s it, that’s where every racehorse comes from. Look at the Derby, and the Triple Crown, they can’t win those races. No one has won the Triple Crown in 38 years. Well, what are they doing? Don’t they realize that 30 percent of a horse is connected to every other horse? They can’t win, so let’s get some new blood in there.” Moreover, if a breed has a closed studbook, the breed registry does not accept outside bloodlines, meaning a Carolina Dog caught in the wild — regardless of its genetic purity — would no longer be considered a Carolina Dog and could not be bred to produce other Carolina Dogs.

Jane and Billy are reluctant to close the Carolina Dog studbook, as they believe it will hinder the preservation and authenticity of the breed. “The AKC is in the business of improving dogs. Look how they improved the German Shepherd: the poor thing is walking on its hocks,” Billy says. “You know, Herr Doberman — who bred the Doberman Pinscher — he used the Rottweiler, which was a Roman war dog, and bred it with a Fell Terrier, and there are only seven in the foundation. So all the Dobermans come from these seven dogs, and then they close the studbook.” He believes that limiting the foundation of a breed that already faces extinction and hybridization threats will further perpetuate its obsolescence.

 Dr. Brisbin is also unwilling to close the studbook. “So far I have not considered registering the Carolina Dog with the AKC because they will not allow it to be an open studbook and I do not ever want to eliminate the possibility of going out into the wild and continuing to get breeding stock. I don’t want others to be able to ruin my dog,” he says. 

Through his work with Carolina Dogs, Dr. Brisbin has created a pedigree list and a studbook. “It’s like any that the AKC uses — except that it’s an open studbook,” he notes. “When it’s one that’s closed, the mom and dad must both be the same breed. They need papers to be registered, and if they’re not registered, the puppies can’t be registered. With an open studbook, a puppy is a Carolina Dog if the mother and father are registered as Carolina Dogs. Or I can look at a dog and designate it a founder, even if it comes from the wild. I can go out in the wild and catch a dog and breed that dog. That privilege was given to me by the UKC.”

Most dogs have historically been bred for a certain skill or purpose, like the Pomeranian which was originally bred to warn owners of an intruder or the Norwich Terrier, bred for ratting as well as digging out small game. However, according to Billy, the Carolina Dog was originally bred by Native Americans for the primary purpose of companionship. Though in many cases the dogs also provided protection and hunting assistance, the domestication of the breed was originally rooted in a deep, spiritual connection with man. Billy explains the rituals Native Americans practiced when a dog died, noting the traditional decoration of the animal’s burial site and the unwillingness of the former owners to use the dog’s body for food or fur. In certain instances, the dogs would be buried in clay pots outside their owners’ hut, sometimes with arrowheads still in the corpse from a confrontation with an opposing tribe. “You have to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s valuable. Why’d you do that? Why’d you ritually bury the dog? Why didn’t you eat it or recycle the arrowheads?’” Bill says. “Clearly, those dogs died defending the inhabitants. They wanted the souls of these dogs to defend them from there on out.”  

Jane and Billy believe this method of domestication and the spiritual connection it cultivated between Carolina Dogs and man continues in the breed today. “I mean you look at this dog, you look into its eyes. And you’ve never seen anything like it,” Jane says. In one case, an autistic boy who had never spoken was introduced to one of Jane and Billy’s dogs. “He never talked before that day,” Jane says. “He read to that dog, and that was the first time the kid ever spoke. I about broke down in tears.” 

The couple regularly receives updates from the many people who have taken home one of their many Carolina Dogs. Proud Carolina Dog owners send letters, pictures and emails describing their experiences with the canines and raving about the wonderful addition they’ve been to the owners’ homes and families. “A woman wrote me the other day and said, ‘I don’t know how I’ve lived my life without this dog,’” Jane mentions. 

With his own Carolina Dog, Lady, in his lap, Billy says, “And that’s just one of the joys of being involved in this project. These dogs bring so much joy to people. It’s been a truly great experience.”

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