Labrador Retriever. West Highland White Terrier. Giant Schnauzer. Chihuahua. Most breeds can evoke not only an image but also a geographical location when brought to mind. But what about some other breeds, those less in the forefront of the common mind? What about the graceful borzoi, the Tibetan terrier, and the shipperke?
Though the dog is long reported to have been one of our oldest companions, little is known about his true origins. When did he first join us? Where did he come into our lives, and why did he choose us, or us him? Though the true history of the domestic dog may never be revealed to us, he may be closer to our doorsteps than we think. Though there are surely many paths that their ancient forebears came to follow to reach us, the Carolina Dog represents one of the most archaic lines of doggy genetics available to us today. This living fossil is at once a piece of American history and modern-day canine fairy tale that has made its way into homes worldwide.
North American Native Dog. Yaller dog. Dixie Dingo. Known my many names, the Carolina Dog is a breed apart. The myriad of names given to this breed are in part due to its rich history, and in part due to its modern day discovery. In the late 1970's, I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., a researcher then stationed at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, made a rather peculiar discovery. He adopted a brown and white mongrel from the side of the road and put him in his kennel, not sparing a thought to what this dog might entail. In the area around the Savannah River Site, and truly throughout the back woods of South Carolina, dogs like this were very common. However, as he began to investigate further, Dr. Brisbin came to notice that these dogs were not quite like other dogs. In point of fact, they were not found in the same areas as other feral dogs, they did not behave like other feral dogs, and they bore a very strong resemblance to the dingoes of Australia. As more and more investigation was done, it became apparent that Carolina dogs were not the same as other domestic dogs. In fact, they were not truly domesticated at all. They occupied what is known as the "pariah niche" -- that area on the edge of society that is still seen in the behavior of feral dogs in third world nations. These are the dogs that eat at dumps, feed off of trash piles and will accompany people on hunts but will not come closer to society than necessary to gain sustenance.
Dr. Brisbin took it upon himself to search local shelters in Georgia and South Carolina to see how many more dogs he could find. At this time, he has multiple Carolina dogs that he has begun to raise and breed from those he has found in shelters and pups taken from the wild. They are not the typical dog. Unlike today's modern Labrador or Shih Tzu, wild Carolina dogs breed three times a year. It has been speculated that this is to improve chances of producing viable litters before infectious diseases such as heart worms can overrun the population. Puppies are born in seasons of plenty, when populations of small mammals and other easily obtained food sources are at their peak. They also dig dens and create little holes from which they are ostensibly eating prey items or mineral-rich soil deposits, a behavior wholly unseen in today's domestic mothers.
The history of the Carolina dog is slowly being pieced together. Mitochondrial DNA studies undertaken by Dr. Brisbin and collegues seems to indicate that the dog is in fact of ancient stock, and not just a mismatched mutt left to fend for itself among the loblollies and swamp dirt. In fact, this dog is thought to be a descendent of the dogs that were seen roaming Native American villages when explorers began to arrive and paint pictures of such things. Bones and skulls that are similar to that of today's Carolina Dog, as well as cave paintings all seem to suggest that a dog much like this was at home with Native American tribes up to several hundred years ago. The estimates go further: There is some speculation that the Carolina dog is the type of dog that would have crossed the Bering Strait with the emigrants on the land bridge that brought those Asian settlers those thousands of years ago. Carolina dogs closely resemble a native breed of Korea that is thought to be free of interbreeding, the Chindo-kae of Chindo Island.
The breed is taking up a new life in the domestic forum, having become recognized by the United Kennel Club and the American Rare Breed Association. This breed designation is thought to be a mere construct, as the true dogs are still wild animals living in previously undisturbed tracts of lands in the rural Southeastern United States. However, as people and development move further into habitats, territory destruction as well as the potential for interbreeding threaten the species as as a whole. Coyotes also are on the move into these areas and are destroying Carolina dogs for meals and as well as through mating. The creation of the breed and thus breeding standard may be all that prevents the Dixie Dingo from going the way of the dodo.
According to the breeding standards of the UKC:
The Carolina dog is a mid-sized dog ranging from about 17.75" to 19.625" (45-50 cm) tall at the shoulder and varying in weight from about 30-44 pounds (15-20 kg) -- a much more forgiving standard than that of height. The female is usually slightly smaller and less well-built than a male dog but variety abounds. The dog should not be overtly thin and should also not appear heavy-bodied. These are dogs that are built for survival and have been shaped as such so obesity is not tolerated as a characteristic.
The coat of the Carolina dog should be thick and rather short, with longer guard hairs down the topline but short dense hairs on the neck, head, and legs. The fur should always be smooth and never curly or wavy. There are seasonable variations in the coat thickness, with winter coats being much more dense in order to afford protection (remember, these are wild-living dogs) because even the South can get cold. The thickness comes from the growth of a substantial undercoat that will be shed out as the weather once again becomes agreeable. Shedding with appropriate seasonality is not penalized, but the hair should never be cut or shaved on this breed.
Carolina dogs can have a slight variation in coloration, with the preferred color being the nice deep ginger that so resembles the dingo. The ginger is usually accented with paler areas especially around the shoulders, eyes, and muzzle. Light to white coloration on the throat and white paws and tail-tips are also deemed to be all right. Some dogs, especially those under 2 years of age, will try the opposite tack and have dark coloration along the shoulders, back, and loins and especially around the muzzle. This is not a penalty in the ring. Permitted gradations of color include variations ranging from light straw to a yellow buff. Dogs may also be piebald, black-and-tan, or have a black blanket on the back. Piebald dogs should only have one color of spot and those spots should not constitute more than 50% of the dog's coat color. While these dogs are accepted in the showing society, they are generally frowned upon and probably everyone talks about them behind their back. Even with these coloration restrictions, there are breeders who specialize in certain colors, including the piebalds. Piebalding with more than one spot color, brindling, Irish markings, and all-white coat are considered disqualifications from show.
Carolina dogs should have normal dog noses, black and with wide nostrils. Liver colored noses or other variations are considered to be only minor faults and may occur with lighter colored dogs.
The eyes are a dark brown rimmed with black and almond in shape with an oblique set. The most important trait associated with the eyes don't appear to be color, but rather the sort of look the dog gives. Carolina dogs should show intelligence, softness, and some level of cautiousness.
In puppies, ears are flopped but will become erect during adulthood. The ears are softly furred and slightly rounded at the tips and are very expressive. The ears are usually shaped like equilateral triangles and set on the top of the head and carried forward, especially when alert. They may be laid back along the neck at other times, but ears should always be set atop the head and face forward or face major deductions. Ears that droop or are only semi-pricked can be counted as a fault and will be deducted based on the amount they are deviated from ideal.
The Carolina dog's tail is at a straight continuation from the spine and usually is held in a fish hook stance as the dog is alert and may be held more like a pump handle when trotting. The underside of the tail is rather bushy and always lighter than the topline. Twisty or curly tails are definitely frowned upon. The paws of the dog are well-suited to outdoor living with hard paws, strong nails, and well-arched digits. They may point slightly outside but should be equally done on both sides.
As one might expect, a dog that has been recently removed from the swamps is still a little bit wild when brought into a cushier lifestyle. The Carolina dog can be a handful, as it is a high energy dog who will need room and time to run. If given adequate play and exercise, the dog will be calm and will be unlikely to attempt to escape from its home. Unlike some other "wild" dogs, the Carolina dog is not prone to Houdini-type maneuvers in search of freedom. One minor problem is that they have a very strong prey drive, so even a dog let loose in a fenced yard may cause trouble if there are a lot of small animals or other things that like to put up chase. This may cause some trouble if there are other pets in the household that resemble nothing so much as tiny appetizers running around. However, Carolina dogs have a very strongly imbued sense of pack and will often accept smaller animals as part of their family group if introduced young. If brought in as puppies, most Carolina dogs will defer to already established dogs as alphas, though there may be some hierarchy scrambling later on.
The wild streak in these dogs also affects their interaction with humans. They are naturally suspicious of strangers but will be affectionate and friendly to those they know. According to one breeder, females have a good personality but are less likely to befriend outsiders to the "pack", whereas males often are more accepting and less worried about things like who will eat their puppies. The breed as a whole does well enough with children but are much better with older kids, who can play more gently and do not look like tiny chubby deer. It is important to establish the humans in the household as dominant in the family pack, or else a Carolina dog will assert itself over those that it deems to be lower than itself in the hierarchy, which may lead to many misunderstandings in the form of growling and nipping. The dogs are not aggressive, but will scrap for dominance if given the opportunity.
Unlike most purebred dogs, the recent heritage and breeding efforts of the Carolina Dog have allowed for them to be mercifully free of many genetic disorders and diseases. The breeding pool is small, but responsible breeders are attempting to prevent inbreeding and maintain genetic diversity to avoid the entrenchment of disease issues that plague so many other breeds of dogs.
As interest in the breed continues to grow, people that have found or taken in animals from the natural habitat of these wild ones have begun to wonder if they too might own a Dixie Dingo. If you are unsure about the origins of your own reddish point-eared "mongrel", look to the archaic traits that the dogs exhibit for clues. If your dog actively engages in feces covering, communal pup rearing, regurgitation for pups, digging of nesting dens, strong prey drive, pack mentality, and most especially creating snout pits from February to September, it is possible that your dog is a Carolina dog. However, any dog that is outwardly aggressive or vicious is excluded as being recognized as a Carolina dog and will therefore not be able to breed in to any current programs, no matter the true genetic lineage of said pet.
As technology and society moves forward it is important to remember that there are still some relics of history that bear preservation. It's not often that people look to the animal kingdom to remind us of this, but it is in our best interest to preserve not only our written histories, but that of our natural history as well. And the next time you see some ol' yeller mutt back in the swamps, be reminded that there are some places that life still hasn't touched. I hope that means as much to you as it does to me.