The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: Saturday, May
Pets are Breed Apart
The Carolina dog, created from Georgia
is warming hearts in metro Atlanta homes
By Jingle Davis,
from kennels into their 18-acre wooded compound, the yellow dogs
began hunting, quickly reverting to behavior that has helped
keep their kind alive for centuries.
Ears swiveling like satellite dishes
and noses lifted to the lush scents in Aiken, S.C., the dozen
or so pack members flashed messages back and forth with the white
undersides of their fishhook tails.
"Look how they're splitting
up," said Lehr Brisbin, a University of Georgia researcher.
"Rabbits run in a circle, so the dogs fan out to head them
The animals are Carolina dogs,
developed as a breed in recent years by Brisbin, who is convinced
they are North America's most primitive dogs. He says they are
even linked in type, or appearance, to the oldest known dogs
on earth: canines that crossed the Bering Strait land bridge
with the first aboriginal inhabitants of the continent 8,000
During the past two decades, Brisbin
and others have discovered the breed's founder dogs living wild
in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, subsisting on handouts,
scavenging in Dumpsters or hunting in the coastal plain's isolated
swamps and woodlands.
The Carolina dog is the first canine
breed ever created from Georgia stock, Brisbin said.
"I'm not the first to create
a breed, though you can count on one hand the number of people
who have done it," he said. "I approached it from the
basis of science, documenting every step of the way."
Carolina dogs are showing up as
pets in Atlanta households and elsewhere and winning honors in
dog shows. Benjamin, Brisbin's wild-born male, holds a national
championship and ranks among the top three dogs nationally in
the primitive class.
Mike and Stephanie Emry, Smyrna
technical consultants, say Scout, their Carolina pup, is a delight.
"He learns things faster than
other dogs I've had," Stephanie Emry said of the exuberant
puppy. "He has a stuffed alligator toy and I referred to
it a couple of times as 'Ally.' The other day, I told him to
go get Ally and he did."
On the down side, Emry said Scout
has a mind of his own.
"We sometimes wonder if it's
because he's an only dog and maybe he's meant to be in a pack,"
she said. "Both of his parents were born in the wild."
Brisbin said wild Carolina dogs
are shy and standoffish. But John and Katie Liverato of Smyrna
say their three dogs are affectionate.
"They're also very agile,"
Katie Liverato said. "Ours know how to open French doors
and fence gates."
Although good at guarding, Carolina
dogs rarely bite, Brisbin said.
"For centuries, any dog that
bit a village child went into the stew pot. Natural selection
weeded out the biters," he said.
Brisbin stumbled on the wild dogs
during his 31 years at the University of Georgia's Savannah River
Ecology Laboratory, located on the isolated 310-square mile Savannah
River Site where plutonium for nuclear weapons was processed.
Tons of radioactive wastes are still stored at the giant reservation,
off-limits to the public now for almost half a century.
"Those wastes will boil in
their own heat for the next 10,000 years but there are relatively
few waste storage areas," Brisbin said. "The rest is
natural. My job is to study what goes on in the other 300 square
Upper Three Runs Creek, a blackwater
stream meandering through the site, teems with more varieties
of life than almost any other waterway on the planet. The reservation
is home to 50 species of mammals, 101 species of reptiles and
amphibians, almost 100 species of freshwater fish and more than
240 bird species, according to Rosemary Forrest, spokeswoman
for the ecology lab.
Brisbin's duties as a senior ecologist
include humane trapping and study of wild animals. Over the years,
wild dogs also showed up in his traps. With their ginger coats,
they were ringers for "Old Yeller" the classic cur
of the rural South. Brisbin also noticed the dogs resembled those
pictured in North America cave paintings, on primitive pottery
and in early European sketches of Indian villages.
"About 12 years ago, it dawned
on me I was catching dogs that looked, like dingoes," he
said. The dingo, a wild dog of Australia and New Guinea, is linked
to aboriginal inhabitants there, he said.
Brisbin, who calls Carolina dogs
North America's dingo, believes their type survived on large,
remote tracts where human influence is minimal.
While viewing an old plantation
for sale in rural Ridge Spring, S.C., Jane Gunnell saw a yellow
dog hiding newborn pups under a tumbledown corncrib near the
woods. An unrelated male stood guard nearby.
Brisbin later identified the animals
as wild Carolina dogs.
Charmed, Gunnell decided to relocate
her well-known hunter-jumper stables, Middleburg Farm, from Virginia
to South Carolina.
Now, Banbury Cross Farm and its
restored 1838 home are overrun by Carolina dogs Gunnell claims
can out-hunt her purebred fox hounds.
"I think it's the most fascinating
story I ever heard," she said. "These Carolina dogs
are a national treasure. Imagine them being smart enough to survive
all these years."
Gunnell and her companion, Billy
Benton, have launched a Carolina dog Web site and helped found
the Carolina Dog Association. They also breed registered Carolina
dogs for sale; the dogs are priced at $300 each.
To continue his research, Brisbin
hopes to compare genetic material from Carolina dogs with material
from 2,000-year-old fossilized dog skulls unearthed by researchers
at the Savannah River Site.
The site's southern boundary is
the Savannah River, a major waterway for prehistoric Indians.
Some of the oldest Indian pottery ever unearthed in North America
was found at Stallings Island in the Savannah River near the
"With funding, I could get
DNA from the fossils and compare it to the blood of Carolina
dogs," Brisbin said.
The unique behaviors exhibited
by some Carolina dogs helped them qualify as a separate breed,
The females use their noses to
scrape sand over their droppings, leaving distinct flower-like
patterns on the ground.
They also create "snout pits,"
shallow holes they dig for as-yet unknown reasons, he said.
Carolina dogs are recognized by
the United Kennel Club and the American Rare Breed Association
and are listed in "The Encyclopedia of the Dog," by
veterinarian Bruce Fogle.
According to Brisbin, there are
still unknown numbers of Carolina dogs in the wild, though he
said they are rarely seen by humans.
"They are designed to blend
in," he said. "They are one of the least-known, hardest
to study animals in the Southeast."