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Wild Canid Of The Month:
Carolina Dog
By Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin

      The use of the phrase “the wolf among us” to describe the domestic dog is often difficult for most people to appreciate - especially when one considers pampered, perfumed pets wearing designer sweaters when they leave their urban apartments for a walk in the “wilds” of a city street.  However, scientific studies and the archaeological record show clearly that the direct ancestor of this domestic apartment-dwelling dog was indeed a wolf - albeit one of the rather small and probably little-studied subspecies of Canis lupus which was native to the Middle East during the time period of the first domestication, approximately 11,000 years ago.  During the ensuing years, this primitive man/domestic wolf combination spread rapidly across the globe and was extremely successful in colonizing much of southeast Asia and eventually the Australo-Pacific region, then later crossing the Bering Land Bridge and sweeping rapidly across the North American continent.  Along the way, an almost universal primitive type of dog seems to have been left behind, living in a close but often loose association with primitive people and on the fringe of more developed/civilized areas of both the old and new world.  With the exception of the Australian Dingo, few populations of these primitive dogs are strictly feral - rather than occupying a pariah niche subsisting on man’s garbage, handouts, and leftover hunter kills along with whatever natural foods they can capture or scavenge.

      The Australian Dingo itself is the epitome of these primitive long-term pariah dogs whose appearance worldwide is typified by a wolf or fox-like appearance with sharp-pointed, erect ears, a long, pointed muzzle and a long, fish-hook shaped tail which often shows a pale color beneath with an occasional tendency toward bushiness.  The dogs are generally of a medium body size, usually weighing between 35-45 pounds and standing between 20-25 inches at the shoulder.  The hair coat is generally short to medium in length, but can often be quite dense in winter in the colder climates.  The body color most commonly ranges from a pale buff-tan to dark red ginger with all shades in between.  Black and tan and piebald, spotted individuals occur with varying frequency in nearly all populations.  Solid-colored dogs often show some darker sabring along the back and tail; there are frequently white facial markings along the sides of the checks and muzzle, tending to even further enhance the generally wolf-like appearance.  A common thread connecting all of these population types, this generalized appearance typifies those dogs known worldwide as showing this “long-term pariah morphotype” (LTPM).

      Throughout the world, many populations showing LTPM characteristics have been identified as distinct entities.  This has been particularly true of populations isolated on islands where they have had only limited genetic exchange with other related groups of dogs.  In some cases, animals taken from such populations have been bred in captivity under controlled conditions, and when this process is accompanied by the development of a stud book or some other form of registration/documentation, a domestic breed population is formed (by definition) from founder animals taken from the original free-living LTPM population.  This process has, for example, resulted in the development of the Telomiati dog of Malaysia, the Basenji of Central Africa, the Canaan dog of the Middle East, the Chindo Kae dog of Korea and several forms of native Japanese breeds, including the Akita and Shiba Inu.

      In North America, LTPM dog populations are less well-known and less clearly-defined.  Early explorers to the North American continent documented the frequent occurrence of LTPM dogs living amongst and on the fringe of North American aboriginal societies, suggesting that dogs of this type in all likelihood accompanied primitive humans in their migration from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge into North America many thousands of years ago.  Skulls, skeletons and mummified remains of primitive aboriginal dogs from North American also confirm the frequent occurrence of LTPM animals.  However, the frequent hybridization of many North American aboriginal dogs with either coyotes and/or North American wolves apparently has resulted in the dissolution and modification of the basic LTPM type in many parts of this country, such as the western, north central and northeastern United States.  Later exploration and settlement of the New World by Europeans provided still more opportunities for hybridization and hence a further blurring of the distinctiveness of many of the LTPM populations on this continent.

      Recently, dogs of a basic LTPM body type have been found living in and around rural communities and particularly on the fringes of large areas of protected/undisturbed habitat in the southeastern United States.  Dogs of this type show the basic LTPM characteristics as described above and their more frequent occurrence in areas where they would be less likely to encounter and hybridize with modern domestic dog breeds suggests the possibility that these animals might represent portions of a remnant of the original type of LTPM dogs which inhabited this part of the country before European settlement and exploration.  The general absence (until recently) of the coyote from this region further suggests a possible additional factor contributing to the ability of dogs of this type to retain basic LTPM characteristics in this area.

      Beginning in the mid to late 1970’s, a program began to conduct research on both captive and free-ranging dogs of the LTPM type on and around the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.  The Savannah River Site is a 300 square mile production and research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The lands of this site were closed to public access in 1952 and the habitat within this area has provided a sanctuary to many forms of native southeastern wildlife.  In the course of a program to trap and study the Savannah River Site’s native forbearer populations, dogs of the LTPM type were occasionally encountered.  Bringing some of these dogs into captivity, together with other wild-caught individuals of similar appearance from neighboring parts of South Carolina and Georgia - particularly in the vicinity of large areas of protected habitat associated with military bases, a captive breeding program was established. The wild-caught founders and subsequent captive-born progeny have been registered in a stud book with records being maintained by the International Species Information System (ISIS).  Named the “Carolina Dog,” this captive-bred population now numbers over 50 individuals and includes seven wild-caught founders

      Little or nothing is known concerning the behavior and general ecology these dogs in the wild, other than that which can be inferred from observations of captive individuals allowed range freely in large study enclosures. They are one of the most elusive and difficult forms of wildlife to observe in the southeast.  Limited observation suggest that these dogs are probably largely crepuscular and forage frequently around the outskirts of underdeveloped rural communities where garbage and other forms of refuse provide a ready supplement to whatever natural forms of food they can otherwise obtain.  Most of the behavior observations of these dogs have taken place in a large enclosure at the Swamp Fox Sanctuary research facility, near New Ellenton, South Carolina where the nucleus of the breeding and research program for these animals located.

      Confined in 14 acres of natural habit, female Carolina Dogs are known to dig and use elaborate nursery structures but leave also, on other occasions, whelped and successfully raised puppies in shallow bowl shaped nests exposed to the elements under minimal cover of trees and shrubbery.  Under such conditions, puppies have been successfully raised after being born in mid-January and experiencing rain, snow and temperatures in the mid-20 degree range.  Within their packs, these animals seem to run more or less stable linear dominance hierarchies which are independent and specific to each sex.  Male hierarchies, however, are considerably less stable than those of females and it’s not yet been possible to maintain more than one breeding male in a free living pack situation even in a large 14 acre enclosure.  Several breeding females however, can be maintained together if the lower-ranked individuals grow-up into the pack from puppyhood.  The introduction of new adult females (or even the reintroduction of females that had been removed fir some period of time) has not been successful and has always resulted in levels of fighting which required the removal of one or more individuals.

      Although the space limitations of even a 14-acre enclosure prevent the observation of completely normal predator behavior, some observations of the captive pack provide an idea of the capabilities of these dogs to find, capture and utilize natural prey under free-ranging conditions.  The majority of predatory activity in this captive pack has been directed toward rodents and smaller prey items such as insects and other invertebrates. Invertebrate prey observed to have been taken and consumed has included slugs and earthworms.  Even in colder months, some of the dogs in the enclosure have been able to find large quantities of grasshoppers (presumably while the latter were hibernating), the remains of which were in regurgitations produced during the period of winter puppy caring.
Some preliminary observations suggest the existence of cooperative pack hunting strategies to capture small rodents in open old-field grasslands which are carefully hunted by these dogs.  Upon encountering heavy scent or fleeing rodent prey, the pursuing dog generally begins to elevate and rapidly flail its tail from side to side.  This has the effect of displaying in a very conspicuous manner above the weedy cover, the generally feathered and pale underside of the tail.  Other pack members have been seen to move toward dogs which are thus “signaling” and begin to display similar behavior themselves while all members of the group arriving at the scene begin to vigorously thrust their muzzles into the vegetation and make pouncing or “stomping” movements with their forelegs (the commonly described “mausensprungen” behavior common to foxes, coyotes, wolves and other wild canids).  With a number of dogs performing such activity together in a limited area where the prey was initially sighted, there would seem to be a possibility of increased likelihood of capture, although quantitative documentation of this is still lacking.  Other mammalian prey known to be taken by these dogs include larger furbearers such as rabbits, opossums and raccoons, all of which seem to be easily dispatched by the dogs working as a pack.  On one occasion, a pack exhibited a vigorous social “snatch and throw” behavior to quickly dispatch a small snake which it had encountered in heavy, old field weedy vegetation.  Although the snake captured and killed was a nonpoisonous black racer, the behavior shown could have provided a high probability of the dogs even capturing the killing a poisonous snake by using such a technique.
Recently, the reaction of a pack of captive Carolina Dogs to a tame wild boar X feral hog hybrid was tested in a 14 acre field enclosure.  While a number of the dogs in the pack surprisingly seemed to ignore this hog, one or two of the males were relentless in their pursuit and baying of this animal with the result that the hog began to overheat and had to be removed to prevent heat stroke.  Although again preliminary in nature, these observations suggest that the actions of just a few individuals in a pack of these dogs could result in the eventual capture and demise of even a large (up to several hundred pounds) and potentially dangerous quarry such as a hog, and that this could be accomplished without any undue risk to the dogs themselves.

      Probably the most unique behavioral observations of the captive Carolina Dogs have involved their tendency to ritualistically cover their excrement with sand or dirt, by making definitive shoveling movements with their nose and muzzle.  The resulting coverings range from a light dusting to more extensive pyramid-shaped piles that can be as deep as several inches.  Strangely enough, this behavior does not seem to occur at all times in these dogs, but rather is closely coordinated with the reproductive cycle.  In the case of females, excrement covering occurs during estrus and also during the period of lactation while nursing puppies.  The end of the heat period or the weaning of puppies causes a gradual diminishing and eventual cessation of the behavior - suggesting the possibility of some form of hormonal control.  In the case of males, the behavior is much less frequent, but in one well-documented individual, excrement has been covered with a high degree of frequency during the colder winter months with virtually no covering at all occurring during the summer.  The annual fluctuation of this behavior in this individual has been consistent over three years.  All of these observations have been made on individuals confined in kennel runs with sandy floors and the behavior has not yet been documented in free ranging animals.  The function and particularly the reasons-for the correlation of this behavior with the reproductive cycle remains unknown.  Excrement covering behavior such as that described above for the Carolina Dog has never been described in the scientific behavioral literature for any other form of wild, feral or domestic canid.  There has been an anecdotal account of excrement covering by fennecs, and several reports have been received of similar behavior by some individual domestic dogs, although in no case has any correlation been noted with the reproductive cycle.  It is noteworthy, however, that the domestic breeds in which this behavior has been reported to the greatest extent have been the Basenji, Canaan Dog and Akita, all three of which are LTPM-derived forms.  In some ways, a unique behavioral trait, such as this pattern of excrement-covering& might serve as a “marker” to suggest evolutionary relationships and/or common lines of adaptation to a life-style designed for survival in the free-ranging state.  It is curious, however, that this behavior has never yet been noted in wolves or coyotes and this, in turn, raises some interesting questions concerning the trait’s derivation in those few LTPM dog forms in which it occurs.

      Continuing studies of the Carolina Dog involve the determination of the range and frequency of occurrence of free-living wild founders in various parts of the southeastern United States, along with further expansion of the captive gene pool through judicious crossing of appropriate founder animals and their progeny.  This work provides an opportunity for a number of interested persons to become involved in assisting in the collection of behavioral observations of these dogs as they adapt to the variety of forms of life styles to which domestic dogs may be exposed in this country.  Puppies and occasionally adult animals can be made available at no cost to qualified individuals with the understanding that they will cooperate in the collection and reporting of behavioral data of the type reported in this article.  A particular preference is given to those individuals familiar with wolf and/or wolf hybrid behavior.  Carolina dogs have, in fact, been proven to be extremely adaptable to living with other forms of canids, including wolf hybrids.  They also provide an opportunity for those who might not otherwise wish to own a wolf or wolf hybrid themselves, to learn more about the primitive behavioral instincts and life-style which might have characterized the very earliest relationships between man and the “wolf among us.”


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