A Special Breed
dog could have once been mistaken for a common mutt, but today
it is believed to be an important link to early canines
By Steven Uhles
Staff Writer, Augusta Chronicle
On the tracts of uncultivated
land at Banbury Cross Farm, north of Aiken, a phalanx of dogs
bursts from the cover of the trees. There is no barking, yelping
or growling. They break the silence of the clearing only with
their quiet footfall and the occasional rustling of a branch
or the snapping of a twig.
Annie, lean and foxlike,
leaps on top of a hay bale, acting as a lookout for the pack.
Quickly, the area at the edge of the clearing fills — 10,
15, 20 dogs squirming and running in the small patch where thicket
merges with field. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, the pack
takes off, tearing across the open space. Soon, all that can
be seen are the dogs' white-flag tails waving above the shallow
scrub brush, signaling each dog's position to the rest of the
It is an old behavior,
part of the pack mentality that has allowed these dogs to survive
— perhaps for as long as 8,000 years.
They are Carolina dogs,
a term that did not exist in the lexicon of dog breeds 20 years
ago. Running wild through the game-rich lowlands of the Southeast,
these dogs were often referred to as `yaller dogs' or `porch
dogs' — strays and scavengers that lived at the fringes
of polite canine society.
But I. Lehr Brisbin,
Jr., senior ecologist at the Savannah River Site's Savannah River
Ecology Lab, saw something different — something more. He
saw what might turn out to be the remnants of the first dogs
to roam the North American continent.
His work with the dogs
began, as few great moments in science do, at a dog shelter.
Roaming the lines of cages in an Augusta pound, he saw a nervous
face staring out at him from one the pens, a face he had seen
``I thought, `My God!
She's a dingo,''' Mr. Brisbin said.
Soon, Mr. Brisbin saw
the dogs everywhere. He saw them under porches, in abandoned
buildings and roaming the wastelands at the edges of Fort Gordon
He began to form the
hypothesis that these dogs were more than just skinny mutts that
made their dens beneath a thousand old Chryslers. He saw that
they shared similar physical characteristics: lean physiques;
short, tan coats; long tails arching over their backs and sharp,
``If these are just mutts,
then why do they look so similar?'' Mr. Brisbin asked. ``Why
does this dog come out of the mix?''
He believed, based on
their striking resemblance to cave paintings, fossilized canine
remains and wild dogs in other parts of the world, that these
dogs might be the progeny of the ancient scavengers that followed
man across the Bering Strait into North America.
At the ecology lab, Mr. Brisbin began raising
and studying the animals, beginning with Marion, the nervous
dog he had rescued from the animal shelter. He found data supporting
his hypothesis very quickly.
``When I saw the dogs'
behavior,'' Mr. Brisbin said, ``I almost dropped my teeth.''
It was unlike any Mr.
Brisbin had ever seen. They piled small pyramids of dirt over
their droppings with their noses during cold weather or when
the females were nursing. They dug holes, purposefully placing
them in the same place over and over again, only to stick their
heads in them to chew on the loose dirt.
The dogs' appearance
and behavioral traits were strong indications that they might
be more than run-of-the-mill mongrels. Over the past year, genetic
researchers at the University of South Carolina have taken the
``Brisbin has a number
of years of behavioral data, but it is difficult to use as hard
evidence,'' said Roger Sawyer, a professor of biology at the
University of South Carolina said. ``DNA is helping make it concrete.''
taken from a sampling of the pack at Banbury Cross Farm, show
not only a genetic marker that could well indicate the dogs are
not mongrels but a single breed, but also a genetic similarity
to other wild dogs — Australian Dingoes in particular.
``Honestly, we were surprised,''
Dr. Sawyer said. ``I thought they would show up as more of a mongrel-type dog.''
Travis Glenn, who works
with researchers at the ecology lab and at USC, said that despite
encouraging results, it is important to remember that the project
is still in the early stages and that under the best of circumstances,
dogs are a less than desirable genetic model.
``Dogs are a very
complex mixture of past breeding,'' Dr. Glenn said. ``No dog
is a good genetic unit.''
The involvement of Billy
Benton and Jane Gunnell with the dogs has very little to do with
the animals' DNA or the propensity toward chewing on dirt. They
became involved with the dogs after a visit to Mr. Brisbin at
the ecology lab. They immediately fell in love with the dogs
and the area.
``We went back to Virginia
with two dogs and a cotton plantation,'' Ms. Gunnell laughed.
Today they live at Banbury
Cross Farms with a veritable herd of horses and a pack of nearly
30 Carolina dogs. They believe that the Carolina dog is not only
an important scientific discovery, but also a real boon for dog-lovers.
``They don't shed. They
have no aroma, and they're also very conscious about where they
do their business,'' Mr. Benton said. ``They're very easy to
With this in mind, they
have begun to breed the dogs, selling and publicizing them as
the answer to a dog owner's prayers.
Mr. Benton and Ms. Gunnell
are training the dogs based on the animals' innate hunting skills
and sociable nature.
Mr. Benton said that
what they do on the farm is also important to the research. The
farm's 200 acres offer a better facsimile of the dogs' natural
habitat than the ecology lab's 18-acre compound, providing the
opportunity to observe the dogs in a more natural setting.
``This is the next stage,''
Mr. Benton said. ``Here we ask them to do what they do naturally,
which is hunt.''
In the early 1990s, the
American Rare Breed Association recognized the dog as a breed,
and the United Kennel Club followed in early 1995. It has not
yet been recognized by the American Kennel Club, and Carolina
dog researchers, breeders and enthusiasts are reluctant to press
``We have a problem with
the AKC because they demand that we close the stud book, bring
no new stock in,'' Mr. Benton said.
He said that
to become AKC-recognized, every subsequent Carolina dog would
have to be able to trace its lineage back to Carolina dogs now
being used as breeding stock. No wild-caught dogs could be added
to the pool.
Adding breeding stock
to the gene pool lessens the chance of inherited diseases, like
diabetes and hip dysplasia, that can occur as a result of inbreeding,
``We're finding new dogs
in the woods all the time, and we want to continue to do that.
We want to keep our gene pool open and wide,'' Mr. Benton said.
Walking with the pack,
Mr. Benton explained that the dogs are particularly social animals,
working well within a family dynamic that stems from their pack
mentality. They'll quickly make their new family their pack,
``These dogs are really
obedient, and part of that comes from the hierarchical thing
they've got. In the pack, there is the alpha male and the alpha
bitch, and the other dogs are subservient to them,'' he said.
``Sometimes you'll get a young dog that tries to assert themselves,
but they usually are put in their place pretty quick.''
As if by cue, the group's
smallest and youngest member, a 3-month old spitfire named Gypsy,
gives Little Sister, one of the older females in the pack, a
tentative growl and snap.
``See,'' Mr. Benton explained.
``She's trying to assert her dominance.''
As quickly as the mini-rebellion
started it is over. Gypsy is brought back into line with a lunge
that sends the smaller dog yelping and sprawling in the dirt.
When describing his experience
with the dogs, Mr. Benton becomes philosophical.
``This has been a journey
that I don't think we knew what the destination would be, but
we always really knew we had something here that was really unique,''
he said. ``We pretty quickly fell in love with them, and they
haven't done anything to disappoint us.''
``And that's because
they are the perfect dog,'' Ms. Gunnell added.