Wayback Lowcountry: Carolina Dog


Story + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

It moves like a shot through the piney woods, blending perfectly with sunlit broomstraw. Its color is like Carolina sandhills mixed with a little Georgia clay. The way it runs effortlessly, almost noiselessly, through swamp and underbrush signifies perfect integration with its surroundings as only a wild thing can attain. Big triangle ears prick straight up from its head, and a fishhook tail curls back over its lean belly and broad, athletic rib cage. To gaze into its almond-shaped eyes — eyes the luminous amber color of blackwater — is to experience a deeper than usual canine connection. Even people who know little about dogs can instantly sense there’s something different, something primal and wolf-like, about this one.

It is the Carolina Dog, Dixie Dingo, swamp Dingo, Indian Dog, Cherokee Cur, Yaller Dog, Porch Dog, Lynches River Wild Dog … or maybe just “Old Brown Mutt,” depending on how familiar you are. There is a lot more to it than its humble origins belie. In fact, a hard-scrabble life in the backwaters is exactly what makes it so special. Locals had long known about these feral dogs running rampant through the woods and swamps around the Georgia-South Carolina line, often turning up in shelters or as junkyard dogs. But nobody thought too much about it until the 1970s, when a biologist studying wildlife at the Savannah River Site started sniffing out a strange story.

The ears of Carolina Dogs are long with elegantly pointed tips. They can individually turn in the direction of any sound, exhibiting extremely sensitive hearing.

Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin had observed the dogs many times in his fieldwork and even caught a few in live-traps. He noticed they displayed certain primitive behaviors, such as digging small pits with their snouts (possibly to extract nutritious minerals from the soil) and regurgitating food for their pups. Males stayed to care for the litter. They hunted in packs and could apparently signal each other by flashing the white undersides of their tails. But it wasn’t until Brisbin realized they looked like dingoes, the famous wild dogs of Australia, that something clicked in his mind.

He adopted two of the dogs, then went on to breed and study them. What he came to was that they are uniquely aboriginal to this continent, a rare primitive breed with no European ancestry. The idea had been suggested before, notably by a zoologist in the 1920s who described the “Indian dogs” of North America, which are often referenced in the journals of early explorers like William Bartram and Meriwether Lewis. But Brisbin was the one who popularized the theory, and later genetic research would support if not yet conclusively prove it.

Here is a history that goes way back — further back than the South, further than the United States, further than European contact. Back to the first inhabitants of the Americas who crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia 13,000 years ago … with their little dogs. It was over long association with human beings that these canine companions gained their intense devotion and soulful eye-contact. But those that took up a life of their own in the wilderness are what make the breed today. Surviving only in isolated rural pockets (of which the South has many) they managed to escape hybridization with European breeds, instead evolving by natural selection to become perfectly adapted to their surroundings. Some would argue they are the ultimate Southern dog.

Brisbin christened them Carolina dogs and got them recognized as an official breed by the United Kennel Club and the American Rare Breed Association. However, he and other enthusiasts long resisted registering them with the American Kennel Club because it requires a closed studbook, which would preclude the addition of newly captured wild individuals into the gene pool, thus ruining what’s so great about Carolina dogs in the first place. (The breed was finally recognized by the AKC in 2017.) Although similar canines have been found in many states — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and others — the distinct pedigree they’ve earned is something we can proudly claim as our own.

Carolina dogs are clean, intelligent and fiercely loyal. While naturally shy and suspicious of strangers — making them excellent guard dogs — they go absolutely ballistic with joy when they see their people. They’ve been known to protect babies, save people from snakebite and cause an autistic child who’d never uttered a single word to speak. In return, their owners are nothing short of fanatical about them. Members of the Carolina Dog Society meet every year to fellowship, swap tales and let their dogs run free in pack mode; this year’s event, Carolinas in the Pines, will be held October 21-24 in Waterloo, South Carolina. The event also features a show judged by Dr. Brisbin himself to determine whether entrants are actually Carolina dogs, or just regular old brown mutts. As it is generally acknowledged that they will likely disappear from the wild, advocates of the breed vow to preserve it through human care.

All dog owners think there is something special about their dog. But in the case of Carolina dogs, it appears to actually be true.

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