Aiken Family Magazine's
Discovered by Accident in Aiken; Saved through Dedication in Aiken
So often it is not the big occasions in your life that turn it around; it is the routine that turns into the extraordinary. When combined with the serendipity of personal connections, the accident of understanding can lead to the profound.
It was a series of such connections among Pam Brisbin Collins, Bris Brisbin and Jane Gunnell that revealed to the world what might be the descendent of the globe's first pariah canid, the Carolina Dog, and it all happened here in Aiken.
It was a routine summer day two decades ago when Aiken Technical College professor Pam Brisbin, Ph.D., took a few old belongings to the county dump south of Aiken. There she saw a "cute little puppy," obviously feral with no collar.
Now living in West Virginia, she recalled the simple moment of compassion that led to an international phenomenon, the discovery of the Carolina Dog.
"I rescued him literally at a dumpster site near New Ellenton," she remembers.
"He didn't run off. He must have been hungry. I picked him up and that's how things got started," she says. "He was the very first one. I brought him home and we named him Horace. He was the best. His behavior was a bit odd; he did things normal dogs just don't do, the way they respond to their environment."
That simple moment of compassion became a serendipitous connection when she got home and introduced the puppy to her children and to her husband, "Bris" Brisbin, also a Ph.D. His work is as a senior researcher at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, one of the leading ecological research centers in the world - walking distance from where Horace was "discovered." The laboratory is located on the Savannah River Site, formerly a gigantic cold war nuclear production facility.
At that time, Dr. Brisbin was conducting observations on small mammals at the huge, 3io-square mile reserve. Often he had seen mid-to-small-sized feral pariah dogs at the edges of bottomland forests.
He remembers his epiphany moment.
A few years after Horace had become a member of the family, "I looked down at that dog and thought, good gracious, you look like a dingo. You look like an Australian dingo." He soon thought of the feral dogs he saw so often during his work on the huge federal reservation and he began to wonder.
The Carolina dog, like the dingo, is easily recognizable; it is small to middle-sized, about 21 to 23 inches high and usually around 35 to 45 pounds a with pointed nose and prick ears and a fishhook tail. They usually sport a reddish coat with pale buff markings over the shoulders and along the muzzle, although there are many color variations. Their coat varies in seasons but overall it is short and smooth with coarse, longer guard hair over the neck, withers and the back, which stands up when alerted.
There are small packs on the edges of lowland forests across the state and throughout the Southeast and others that closely resemble them within certain longitudinal perimeters around the world, north and south of the equator.
The hypothesis is that these dogs are descendents of the world's first dog. The theory is that they are descendents of canids which came over the Bering land bridge from Asia to North America with Paleolithic Man 18,000 years ago. There is some evidence that a separate group may have reached this continent with another migration of Paleolithic man from Europe, across Iceland, Greenland and down the coast of what is now the U.S. Remnants of similar dogs have bed found in the Cactus Hill archeological dig near Richmond, Virginia and along this Savannah River at the Topper dig near Allendale, S.C. and other areas along the east coast.
Subsequent DNA tests show that the Carolina Dog is indeed closely related to the Australian Dingo, the Korean Jindon the New Guinea Singing Dog and other primitive dogs around the world. Then is much more research to do, but there is
a strong argument being built that they are remnants of that first breed the spread all across the world.
Carolina Dogs, also often called the American Dingo, the Dixie Dingo, the Native American Dog and the "Old Yaller Dog" now inhabit the swamps and bottomlands of much of the Southeast but extensive research would concluding that their ancestry probably reaches for the other side of the globe - in the Middle East.
Certainly for research, more dogs had to be captured and more bred to see that the offspring stayed consistent with ; parents. Dr. Brisbin knew he needed help if he was going to carry out enough research to test his hypothesis.
That's when several severe winter storms provided the next serendipitous connection that helped establish the Carolina Dog as a breed, and save it from extinction.
It had been a cruel winter in Middleburg, Virginia, with fourteen weeks of ice and snow - and now, another storm was roaring across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Jane Gunnell and Billy Benton got a call from her son Nelson Gunnell who had arrived in Aiken with ten horses. Nelson said the Aiken winter was mild and the foxhunting would be great. Within a few hours Jane and Billy were driving South with the ominous storm chasing them.
They reached Aiken in time to put up their horses for the night and waive goodbye to the grooms who left for a big Friday night on the town. The hunt would meet early next morning.
It did, but the grooms couldn't answer the bell - their heads ringing on their own.
Faced with few options, Billy and Nelson would hunt. Jane would don chaps and paddock boots and feed the rest and muck out the stalls.
Deep into her chores, Jane was surprised by the appearance of an elegantly dressed and horsed hunt master calling her name.
It was Dr. Brisbin, who said he was told he should find her.
"I understand you like dogs," he said from his commanding post.
A few hours later she found herself surrounded by 14 wild-caught Dogs. After getting to know each other, which takes an extremely gentle human manner and touch to overcome the natural timidity of a feral dog, she played with her new friends while Dr. Brisbin explained that he needed help.
He told her about his hypothesis of the dogs' ancient origin and their history as camp dogs for the Paleolithic peoples and subsequent Native Americans. Since the removal of the Indians, they have fended for themselves in the ever-decreasing habitat of the rural South. They would discover that the dogs were to be found in remote areas of the Southeast, usually on large federal reserves, military bases and national parks - places where they could live undisturbed.
But, if he couldn't find someone to help him, the Carolina Dogs' story would soon end. They were destined for extinction from hybridization and predators, both two legged and four legged. He knew what to do, but his time and other commitments did not allow him the hours needed to concentrate on saving the dogs, nor did he have the extensive facilities and monetary support that it would take.
Jane looked down at them. "I suddenly believed every word of their fascinating story," she remembers. "And they would soon be gone, gone after all those thousands of years. I made an instant decision. I would be the one to help save them. I would move to South Carolina."
She called her cousin, prominent local real estate professional Courtney Conger, and the two of them set out with Billy to find a plantation to start the project. Driving down a sandy farm road far out in the country around an old plantation house with crumbling outbuildings, suddenly a light, red dog with sharp, prick ears and a fish hook tail came out from the underbrush and trotted close in front of the car.
Jane recalls, "I bolted upright with a gasp! I stared in total disbelief. 'She is a Carolina Dog!'"
Jane quickly guessed correctly, partly because the dog was heavy with milk, that she was leading the car away from a litter of puppies.
"Stop the car," she whispered as she and Billy jumped out and made their way through the briars to a falling down old corn-crib. There, standing guard was the Mr. Carolina Dog, who barked at Jane until seven furry little puppies bolted out from beneath the floor of the corncrib and through a rabbit trail too tight in undergrowth for humans to follow.
Fifteen years of devotion and breeding success have followed, but in very brief summary; she bought the plantation, named it Banbury Cross Farm South, built a breeding and kennel area and dedicated herself to the care and rescue of an extraordinary species that has served man for tens of thousands of years and otherwise was near the end of its time on Earth. Now these ancient remnant treasures are in thousands of homes with their specially chosen families all over the World.
Saved for Now
Jane has moved her operation closer to Aiken to protect the dogs from marauding coyotes, but continues her breeding operation. Victories in many types of shows have established the Carolina Dog as a superior breed for nearly everything we love doing with dogs.
Jane credits trainers Jackie and Rick Lancaster, of Walls, Miss., and Juanita
and Rick Oser, near Wilmington, N.C., for taking Banbury Cross Farm's Carolina Dogs/American Dingoes, to the top in every venue, including many competitions for obedience, agility and herding. They have won numerous conformation championships and Best in Shows under the auspices of the United Kennel Club and the American Rare Breed Association. Many are qualified for Canine Good Citizen certification and Temperament Test certification. Those and others have been exemplary search and rescue dogs and therapy and service dogs.
"They are loyal, nonaggressive and low maintenance," says Jane. "They are uncannily smart and very healthy. When lovingly socialized as puppies, Carolina Dogs will grow into the best, most loyal dog any human could have as a companion."
Aiken Family Magazine, Spring, 2011