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The Carolina Dog:
making a comeback
This breed is said to be more than 11,000 years old,
and a SouthCarolina man is dedicated to preserving it

By Evelyn S. Morehead

      Driving down the wide, orange, sandy lane to the farm of Dr. 1. Lehr Brisbin is a trip into the far-distant past of our country, to a time even before the Indians roamed the land.  Brisbin’s 18-acre fenced countryside is home to the oldest dog inhabiting our continent, and one of three new breeds to be recognized by the American Rare Breed Association.

      The Carolina Dog was discovered by Brisbin as he went about his work as senior ecologist at the Savannah River Site in lower South Carolina.  A long-time dog lover and exhibitor, Brisbin became intrigued in the mid 1970’s after noticing dingo like dogs scavenging around a dumpster near the remote, swamp-surrounded grounds of the Savannah River Site.  Further investigation led Brisbin to the discovery of other, similar dogs in the area.  Some of these dogs were found at shelters. While some were discovered living as pets with families in the region.  As news spread of Brisbin’s studies, animal control officers and individuals brought in reports of other dogs that seemed to fit the description of the Carolina Dog.

      The Carolina Dog weighs 35 to 40 pounds and somewhat resembles a small German Shepherd Dog, but can range in color from beige to red.  The tail is its most unusual feature, as it is long and has a distinctive hook at the end.  Possessing a wolflike head with expressive ears, the Carolina Dog holds its ears erect when alert, but can fold them back along its neck.  The breed shares its ancestry with the Australian Dingo, and both canines originated more than 11,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.

      Brisbin believes the dogs accompanied the nomadic hunters who crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska more than 8,000 years ago.  The dogs followed the hunters as they spread down to populate the continent, later forming tribes to become the American Indians.  The Carolina Dog lived on the fringes of these societies, often picking through the village garbage dumps for food, but very rarely becoming close enough to be considered tame.  Brisbin has documented the relationship between the dogs and Indians by study of drawings made of Indian villages by visiting European naturalists.  These drawings sometimes included yellow dogs with distinctive fishhook tails. Later, as Indians were displaced from their villages, the Carolina Dogs stayed, choosing instead to melt into the swampy areas of lower South Carolina that were rarely visited by humans.  Here the dogs survived, hunting and scavenging for food.  And it was the practice of scavenging from dumpsters that first attracted the attention of Brisbin, who now owns 15 of the animals. Brisbin maintains an 18-acre farm primarily for the comfort and study of the Carolina Dog.  One of the most fascinating as well as bewildering discoveries Brisbin has made about the Carolina Dogs is their habit of covering their feces, and sometimes even urine, by using their noses to push dirt over the waste. No domesticated breed is known to exhibit this behavior, and Brisbin is puzzled as to why the Carolina Dogs developed this behavior.  He has, however, found that the males cover their wastes primarily during November, December and January, leading him to believe the behavior is related to day length.  The females cover their wastes during heat and nursing periods.  Brisbin hopes his studies will someday lead him to the cause behind this mysterious behavior.

      As Brisbin leads me around his farm, he explains.  ‘To understand the Carolina Dog, you have to understand the pack.” As we walk, the pack quickly spreads out and begins what appears to be an organized hunt through a field of tall weeds.  The adaptations that helped them survive for thousands of years immediately become apparent as they become invisible in the weeds, only their tails waving high as beacons to each other.  As one of the pack flushes a rabbit, the other dogs somehow know and converge to help chase the prey, which finds safety under a building.  Seemingly unconcerned, the dogs simply fan out and continue their hunt.
      Brisbin stresses that, despite their feral background, Carolina Dogs are very docile.  “I have no qualms about placing these dogs.  I cannot imagine a Carolina Dog biting someone.  One has been trained to Schutzhund, but the dog’s attitude was like, ‘OK, I’ll bite this arm, but I really don’t want to, and can we quit now?’”

      Benjamin, a young adult who was captured wild by animal control officers, happily approaches for a quick pat before rejoining the pack.
Benjamin will be competing in obedience in the future,” Brisbin says.  “These dogs are wonderfully versatile.  When this dog came to North America there were no breeds of dogs.  This dog developed due to genetic fitness, to survival of the fittest.  This is the animal that had the characteristics necessary to survive.”
Animal control officers brought Benjamin to Brisbin.  Brisbin says, ‘He looked good, so I asked where the@ found him.  Well, they found him on Bennington Drive in southern Richmond County in Georgia.  I went to a map and found that Bennington Drive dead-ends into Fort Gordon Military Reservation.  Now I had already found two dead Carolina Dogs on highways near Fort Gordon, so I know that it’s a likely place to find the Carolina Dog.  So I brought Benjamin home and raised him.  He still looked good.  The next thing is breeding.  And if he produces what I want, then I’ll let him in the stud book.”

      After putting all of the pack back in the kennels, Brisbin leads the way to another kennel, set apart from the others.  It is in this kennel that the matriarch of the pack lives.  Caught as a wild adult and named after the famed Revolutionary general, Frances Marion is the mother or grandmother of every dog in Brisbin’s kennel, except for the wild-caught Benjamin.  Brisbin says Marion is ‘a basket case as far as doing anything with her.  Structurally, she is perfect.  This is a wolf.
Marion does indeed appear to be a basket case. She stays as far awav from us as possible, noiselessly padding back and forth.  When we attempt to pet her she shows no aggression, but clearly is unhappy.

      “This is a wild animal,” Brisbin says.  ‘For 8,000 years people stoned it, ran over it, gassed it.  If Marion escaped it would not be a case of abandonment, but of restocking the habitat.  I really think she’d stay here, but we’d never see her again.  She’d watch from the woods, then come in at night to eat from the bowl of food I’d leave out for her.’

      We step away from Marion, much to her relief.  Brisbin says that Marion is going to live out the remainder of her days in the peace and quiet of her kennel.  Only one more project will involve Marion, and that is what Brisbin asserts is a ‘dream breeding, Benjamin to Marion.”

Evelyn S. Morehead, a sixth-grade math and science teacher, lives in Shelby, NC.  In her leisure time she enjoys showing her two Beagles.  

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