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Columbia, SC
Published: Tuesday, May 13, 1997Section: HEALTH/SCIENCEPage: D1



At Ridge Spring in rural Saluda County, the six dogs spread out evenly as they coursed the pinelands down toward the pond. They seemed to know precisely what they were doing - organizing into a hunt formation, ready to converge on any hapless rabbit or field mouse they flushed.

These were Carolina Dogs, a middle-sized breed that probably first came to this continent 8,000 years ago with the nomads across the Aleutian Land Bridge. Symbiotic comrade to the ancient Asians that were to become America's Indian tribes, they have persisted in their wolflike ways and canny canine intelligence.

This was at historic Banbury Cross Farm at the old Boatwright Plantation, owned by Jane Gunnell. She and others, particularly University of Georgiaecologist Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, are trying to do seminal scientific research on what apparently is the oldest dog breed inhabiting this continent.

Forty pounds or so at maturity, the Carolina Dog ranges beige to reddish or cinnamon. It is distinguished by its fox-mask face and fishhook tail. They have very expressive faces, and their ears perk upright when the dog is on alert or fold back along the neck. Its closest kin is likely the Australian Dingo. Both originated 11,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.

Billy Morgan Benton, a resident at the farm, described the Carolina Dog, which has its ancestry in the small, ancient Chinese wolf.

"They are very pack oriented and your job is to be the leader of the pack," Benton said. "You have to work with the pack through their own hierarchy. You have to treat the dominant male as that because he keeps all the other males in line. But it's the female who does the thinking in the organization.

"The male is the one who feeds the bitch and her pups. Domesticated dogs don't do that, although wolves, dingoes and Carolina Dogs do."

The female is also very strict about who's in her pack. She will often kill the pups of the other females, if she can get to them and until she, herself, is displaced at the top. She also will eat pups of her own litters, presumably leaving the best specimens of the breed. In the wild this is how the breed has remained pure and strong.

"In temperament, they're amazing," Benton said. "They're defensive, but not aggressive and they very much like to be loved. It's an ideal dog for a camper or someone who spends a lot of time out of doors."

The Carolina Dog has recently been recognized by American Rare Breed Association as well as the United Kennel Club. Much of that credit goes to Brisbin, a senior ecologist at the Savannah River Site's Ecology Lab. Much of Brisbin's work involves the capture of migrating waterfowl and other animals to document how much radiation or other contaminants they have accumulated in their systems.

Back in the 1970s, he began noticing Dingo-like dogs scavenging around Dumpsters on the 310-square-mile federal reservation. He also found similar dogs in the surrounding areas. Some were family pets, others were at shelters. A scientist, he was struck by the similarities of the animals' looks and actions and started doing research.

He already was qualified. For 25 years he did work with hounds and Staffordshire terriers for the American Kennel Club. He also has trained bloodhounds for law enforcement agencies.

"We have the hypothesis that there are still remnants of this type dog, the animal that came across the land bridge," Brisbin said. "This is the dog seen in cave paintings and pottery, as fossils - and we even have some paintings by early European settlers of the dogs sitting by Indians.

"You can just look in a Carolina Dog's eye and feel that you're looking back in time. Other people have felt that."

The transition from wolf to domesticated dog probably goes back 14,000 years, according to some scholars. The earliest evidence of a domesticated dog dates from that period of the late Paleolithic when human culture was characterized by broad-based hunting and gathering of wild plants.

The first relationships between man and his best friend began when feral dogs started hanging around the camp fringe or cave mouth looking for scraps. Before long they joined in the hunt and proved their worth by chasing down wounded animals or retrieving them from rough terrain. The rest, as they say, is history.

The greyhound of Egypt 5,000 years ago appears to be the first of the foundation breeds. The Romans were the first to systematically develop breeds such as hunting, herding, guard and lap dogs.

It is Brisbin's idea that Carolina Dogs managed to survive on their own in large land tracts such as SRS and military bases. He and others are compiling an inventory of such dogs that conform to the characteristic anatomy and nature.

"These dogs do things that no other dogs do," he said. "For instance, they cover their droppings and sometimes even their urine by using their noses to push dirt over the waste. No jackal, wolf, other major ancient types - not even the dingo - does this. If they do, nothing has been published about it."

Brisbin will be getting some specialized research help from the University of South Carolina, according to Roger Sawyer, interim dean of College of Science and Mathematics.

"Ms. Gunnell and Dr. Brisbin have expressed an interest in the genetic background of the Carolina Dog and what makes it unique," Sawyer said. "Our Institute for Biological Research and Technology assists faculty research projects in the genetics of birds, alligators, fish and marine organisms.

"We are increasingly interested in molecular approaches to conservation biology of rare and endangered species. Our researchers are willing to assist by investigating these dogs genetically."

Brisbin added, "We may be throwing away our last chance to look at one of the most primitive dogs. If we had not domesticated the dog and used it - to bark in alarm, to hunt and herd, and so on - we would not have progressed as far as we have."

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