The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Carolina dog, created from Georgia stock,
is warming hearts in metro Atlanta homes
By Jingle Davis, STAFF WRITER.
Released 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 off."
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 years ago.
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 miles."
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 $1,000 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 nuclear site.
"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, Brisbin said.
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."
The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, May 9, 1998