Annie -- A Typical Carolina Dog

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The American Dingo/Carolina Dog...Linking us to Prehistory

A Special Breed

The Carolina dog could have once been mistaken for a common mutt, but today it is believed to be an important link to early canines

By Steven Uhles
Staff Writer, Augusta Chronicle

   On the tracts of uncultivated land at Banbury Cross Farm, north of Aiken, a phalanx of dogs bursts from the cover of the trees. There is no barking, yelping or growling. They break the silence of the clearing only with their quiet footfall and the occasional rustling of a branch or the snapping of a twig.

   Annie, lean and foxlike, leaps on top of a hay bale, acting as a lookout for the pack. Quickly, the area at the edge of the clearing fills — 10, 15, 20 dogs squirming and running in the small patch where thicket merges with field. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, the pack takes off, tearing across the open space. Soon, all that can be seen are the dogs' white-flag tails waving above the shallow scrub brush, signaling each dog's position to the rest of the pack.

   It is an old behavior, part of the pack mentality that has allowed these dogs to survive — perhaps for as long as 8,000 years.

   They are Carolina dogs, a term that did not exist in the lexicon of dog breeds 20 years ago. Running wild through the game-rich lowlands of the Southeast, these dogs were often referred to as `yaller dogs' or `porch dogs' — strays and scavengers that lived at the fringes of polite canine society.

   But I. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., senior ecologist at the Savannah River Site's Savannah River Ecology Lab, saw something different — something more. He saw what might turn out to be the remnants of the first dogs to roam the North American continent.

   His work with the dogs began, as few great moments in science do, at a dog shelter. Roaming the lines of cages in an Augusta pound, he saw a nervous face staring out at him from one the pens, a face he had seen before.

   ``I thought, `My God! She's a dingo,''' Mr. Brisbin said.

   Soon, Mr. Brisbin saw the dogs everywhere. He saw them under porches, in abandoned buildings and roaming the wastelands at the edges of Fort Gordon and SRS.

   He began to form the hypothesis that these dogs were more than just skinny mutts that made their dens beneath a thousand old Chryslers. He saw that they shared similar physical characteristics: lean physiques; short, tan coats; long tails arching over their backs and sharp, foxlike faces.

   ``If these are just mutts, then why do they look so similar?'' Mr. Brisbin asked. ``Why does this dog come out of the mix?''

   He believed, based on their striking resemblance to cave paintings, fossilized canine remains and wild dogs in other parts of the world, that these dogs might be the progeny of the ancient scavengers that followed man across the Bering Strait into North America.

At the ecology lab, Mr. Brisbin began raising and studying the animals, beginning with Marion, the nervous dog he had rescued from the animal shelter. He found data supporting his hypothesis very quickly.

   ``When I saw the dogs' behavior,'' Mr. Brisbin said, ``I almost dropped my teeth.''

   It was unlike any Mr. Brisbin had ever seen. They piled small pyramids of dirt over their droppings with their noses during cold weather or when the females were nursing. They dug holes, purposefully placing them in the same place over and over again, only to stick their heads in them to chew on the loose dirt.

   The dogs' appearance and behavioral traits were strong indications that they might be more than run-of-the-mill mongrels. Over the past year, genetic researchers at the University of South Carolina have taken the study further.

   ``Brisbin has a number of years of behavioral data, but it is difficult to use as hard evidence,'' said Roger Sawyer, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina said. ``DNA is helping make it concrete.''

   Preliminary results, taken from a sampling of the pack at Banbury Cross Farm, show not only a genetic marker that could well indicate the dogs are not mongrels but a single breed, but also a genetic similarity to other wild dogs — Australian Dingoes in particular.

   ``Honestly, we were surprised,'' Dr. Sawyer said. ``I thought they would show up as more of a mongrel-type dog.''

   Travis Glenn, who works with researchers at the ecology lab and at USC, said that despite encouraging results, it is important to remember that the project is still in the early stages and that under the best of circumstances, dogs are a less than desirable genetic model.

    ``Dogs are a very complex mixture of past breeding,'' Dr. Glenn said. ``No dog is a good genetic unit.''

   The involvement of Billy Benton and Jane Gunnell with the dogs has very little to do with the animals' DNA or the propensity toward chewing on dirt. They became involved with the dogs after a visit to Mr. Brisbin at the ecology lab. They immediately fell in love with the dogs and the area.

   ``We went back to Virginia with two dogs and a cotton plantation,'' Ms. Gunnell laughed.

   Today they live at Banbury Cross Farms with a veritable herd of horses and a pack of nearly 30 Carolina dogs. They believe that the Carolina dog is not only an important scientific discovery, but also a real boon for dog-lovers.

   ``They don't shed. They have no aroma, and they're also very conscious about where they do their business,'' Mr. Benton said. ``They're very easy to housebreak.''

   With this in mind, they have begun to breed the dogs, selling and publicizing them as the answer to a dog owner's prayers.

   Mr. Benton and Ms. Gunnell are training the dogs based on the animals' innate hunting skills and sociable nature.

   Mr. Benton said that what they do on the farm is also important to the research. The farm's 200 acres offer a better facsimile of the dogs' natural habitat than the ecology lab's 18-acre compound, providing the opportunity to observe the dogs in a more natural setting.

   ``This is the next stage,'' Mr. Benton said. ``Here we ask them to do what they do naturally, which is hunt.''

   In the early 1990s, the American Rare Breed Association recognized the dog as a breed, and the United Kennel Club followed in early 1995. It has not yet been recognized by the American Kennel Club, and Carolina dog researchers, breeders and enthusiasts are reluctant to press the issue.

   ``We have a problem with the AKC because they demand that we close the stud book, bring no new stock in,'' Mr. Benton said.

   He said that to become AKC-recognized, every subsequent Carolina dog would have to be able to trace its lineage back to Carolina dogs now being used as breeding stock. No wild-caught dogs could be added to the pool.

   Adding breeding stock to the gene pool lessens the chance of inherited diseases, like diabetes and hip dysplasia, that can occur as a result of inbreeding, he said.

   ``We're finding new dogs in the woods all the time, and we want to continue to do that. We want to keep our gene pool open and wide,'' Mr. Benton said.

   Walking with the pack, Mr. Benton explained that the dogs are particularly social animals, working well within a family dynamic that stems from their pack mentality. They'll quickly make their new family their pack, he said.

   ``These dogs are really obedient, and part of that comes from the hierarchical thing they've got. In the pack, there is the alpha male and the alpha bitch, and the other dogs are subservient to them,'' he said. ``Sometimes you'll get a young dog that tries to assert themselves, but they usually are put in their place pretty quick.''

   As if by cue, the group's smallest and youngest member, a 3-month old spitfire named Gypsy, gives Little Sister, one of the older females in the pack, a tentative growl and snap.

   ``See,'' Mr. Benton explained. ``She's trying to assert her dominance.''

   As quickly as the mini-rebellion started it is over. Gypsy is brought back into line with a lunge that sends the smaller dog yelping and sprawling in the dirt.

   When describing his experience with the dogs, Mr. Benton becomes philosophical.

   ``This has been a journey that I don't think we knew what the destination would be, but we always really knew we had something here that was really unique,'' he said. ``We pretty quickly fell in love with them, and they haven't done anything to disappoint us.''

   ``And that's because they are the perfect dog,'' Ms. Gunnell added.

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Jane Gunnell
Banbury Cross Farm
Phone: (803) 215-6166 or
            (803) 649-0045



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