"It's a hypothesis," Brisbin stressed, "but we might infer that if dogs look similar on both sides of the Baring Strait land bridge, maybe our first American dogs came over from that area." On Chindo Island, Korea, local free-ranging dogs exist that have apparently been free from hybridization by other breeds. "That native Korean breed, the chindo-kae, is indistinguishable from Carolina Dogs, Brisbin noted. "If they were mixed in a group, I couldn't tell who was who."
The distinctive appearance of Carolina Dogs is not their only link to the world's surviving primitive breeds. Brisbin's studies have also revealed behaviors not observed in domestic dogs.
Carolina Dogs' breeding cycles, for example, may reflect the challenges of wilderness survival. Breeding begins young and can occur oftenthree times in a year. "It's astounding," Brisbin said, "other dogs don't do that. Why?" He theorizes that it may be a population-level adaptation, ensuring that the next generation is born before the old is afflicted with diseases like heartworm. The cycles also follow seasonal patterns, apparently timed to coincide with the times of birth of easy and abundant preyyoung rodents and other small mammals.
Other unusual behaviors include the digging of small pits. While many dogs dig, Carolina Dogs do so with a pattern that so far remains a mystery. "What's unique about them is that they dig lots of these little pits, but only in specific areas and only in the fall," Brisbin explained. "Also, the vast majority of the dogs who dig pits are females. When you see that kind of structure, you think that there is a reason for it, some kind of selection at work. But so far, we don't know why they do this."
Another interesting observation is an entire range of hunting and prey-catching techniques not commonly seen in domestic dogs. These include hunting snakes in an effective pack formation and dispatching by cracking them, whip-like, into the air.
Within the realm of laboratory science, very preliminary DNA studies on the Carolina Dogs have provided some tantalizing results. "It's intriguing," Brisbin said, "we grabbed them out of the woods based on what they look like, and if they were just dogs their DNA patterns should be well distributed throughout the canine family tree. But they aren't. They're all at the base of the tree, where you would find very primitive dogs." Such results are not conclusive, as other dog breeds sometimes show similar patterns, but they do beg the need for more extensive DNA testing that could more accurately fix the dogs' place in the genetic universe. "We need more research funding, more testing, and more Carolina Dog DNA," Brisbin noted.
Wild Populations Under Pressure
Any future DNA will have to be provided by the surviving wild population of these animals, a group that faces the pressure of increasing development throughout their previously isolated home range. It's likely the unique characteristics of their remote Southeast habitat that have allowed the dogs to live there as they do nowhere else in North America.
Isolated tracts of land exist in the region that are relatively free of other domestic dogs that could potentially hybridize Carolina Dogsand until recently the area was also free from coyotes. The latter aggressive animals likely have a three-fold effect on this primitive dog species in North America. "I think that coyotes sometimes eat these types of dogs," Brisbin said, "successfully compete with them for food resources, and also hybridize them."
Because of encroaching humans, dogs, and now coyotes, the future is not bright for the survival of the pure strains of free-ranging, wild Carolina Dogs.
Don Anderson is a longtime local resident, who with a cousin owns several thousand acres of prime Carolina Dog-habitat. He does his part to ensure the survival of the wild dogs in his area. "I sort of protect these dogs," he said, "we have about three packs operating in this wide area."
"One the biggest things I do to promote those in the wild is to be sure that hunters are advised of their existence." Anderson added. "Most people have no idea what a Carolina Dog is, even the neighbors. They're the people who need to be apprised of the situation. I just try to use what little bit of influence I have to make sure people don't bother them."
Carolina Dogs' future as a registered domestic breed, however, is perhaps more assured. The animals are now a registered breed recognized with the American Rare Breed Association and the United Kennel Club. "The breed is an artificial construct," Brisbin said, "made by man for his own whims.
"The dogs in the wild are not a breed, just as gorillas in the wild are not a breed."
Vicki Rand is an editor with the United Kennel Club, which worked with Brisbin to register the breed. She explained that Carolina Dogs are classified in a group known as pariah dogs. They are the group's only North American member. "They're essentially wild dogs, that live on the outskirts of human settlements occasionally interacting with humans," she said of the group. "Most of these that still exist are in developing nations, in the Far East and Africa."
Their wild nature doesn't stop some people from breeding Carolina Dogs and using them as domestic companions. Rand notes that such a proposition is a bit different from raising the average dog. "They're often not as easy to train as the domesticated dogs we're used to, they are more wild and their affiliation with people is traditionally more of a symbiotic relationship."
Don Anderson raises a litter or so of Carolina Dogs each year, a process that began when a Carolina Dog puppy fell into a spring on his property and became a pet. The animals have long been known in the South as superior tracking and watchdogs, but while Anderson enjoys breeding them he ultimately does so for a higher purpose. "My main drive is that with such a small gene pool, I feel like eventually the dogs could become too inbredlike the New Guinea singing dogs. I'm trying to prevent them from becoming inbred, especially if they become as popular as I believe they will."
Nationalgeographic.com Resources on Dogs
News and Features
Salukis: Ancient Dog Breed Still in the Hunt
Guard Dogs: Newfoundlands' Lifesaving Past, Present
Hollywood Gives Stray Dogs New Leash on Life
A Love Story: Our Bond With Dogs from National Geographic magazine
"Detector Dogs" Sniff Out Smugglers for U.S. Customs
Bear Dogs on Patrol for Problem Grizzlies
Veterans: Dogs of War Deserve a Memorial
Therapy Dogs Seem to Boost Health of Sick and Lonely
Life Is Serious Mission for Rescue Dogs
Crisis-Response Dogs Offer Comfort After Tragedy
Dogs Are "True Heroes" of Iditarod, Race Champ Says
Brooklyn Dog a Rising Star in New York Art Scene
Canine Companions May Help Kids Learn to Read
U.S. Beagle Brigade is First Defense Against Alien Species
Science and Dogs
Scientists Start Deciphering Dog Genome
Human Gestures Fed Dogs' Domestication
Animal Acupuncture: More Pets Get the Point
National Geographic magazine's "Wolf to Woof: The Evolution of Dogs"
News and Features About Other Canids
Red Wolves Back From Extinction In U.S. Wild
Thriving Gray Wolf May Come Off U.S. Endangered List
Coyotes Now at Home in Eastern U.S.
Rare-Dog Search Meets With Success, Then Tragedy
Hi-Tech Tracking Tool Tested in Wolf Recovery Efforts
Scandinavian Wolves on Road to Recovery, Study Says
Most-Endangered Wolves May Be Saved By Vaccine
Is U.S. Safe From Foxhunting Debate?
Related Lesson Plans:
Use National Geographic News articles on dogs in your classroom with these Xpeditions lesson plans.
Lesson Plan: Little Red Riding Hood MeetsA Golden Retriever?
Lesson Plan: Geographical Dog Show
Lesson Plan: From Wolf to Woof
Lesson Plan: The Human Role in Dog Evolution
More About Animals
National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide
Other Web Sites
List of Dog Breeds (American Kennel Club)
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES