Wild dogs that live in southern cypress swamps and are called Carolina Dogs or “yaller dogs,” may be descended from the first dogs to live in North America, according to I. Lehr Brisbin. He studies the world’s remaining wild, ancient dogs, such as the Australian dingo, which may have come to Australia along with the original human inhabitants thousands of years ago. When he noticed a wild dog that had been captured and put in the dog pound near his home in South Carolina, he thought, “You look like a dingo. I wonder how many of you other guys are out there that look like dingos?” He found a number of these animals living in secluded areas far from humans or domestic dogs. He decided they could have arrived in America along with the earliest humans who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge, and is now analyzing fossils and cave paintings to see if this could be true. Early paintings of Native Americans show dogs that look a lot like today’s Carolina Dogs.
He’s also comparing them with dogs that still live on the other side of the long vanished land connection that once linked Asia and the North America. He says, “?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, near Korea, he found a clue. “That native Korean breed, the chindo-kae, is indistinguishable from Carolina Dogs,” he says. “If they were mixed in a group, I couldn’t tell who was who.”
By studying the Carolina Dogs, he’s also discovered how dogs used to behave, before they were domesticated. For one thing, their breeding cycles occur 3 times a year. He thinks it may have helped them survive in the wild, since the next generation is born before the older one gets diseases like heartworm.
Other unusual behaviors include digging small holes. Lots of dogs dig, but Carolina Dogs dig their holes differently. “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 says. “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.” They hunt differently too. They attack snakes in a pack, then kill them by cracking them like whips.
DNA testing came next. “It’s intriguing,” Brisbin says, “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.”
Brisbin will have to work quickly, since the dogs’ habitat is changing fast, as roads and houses are built on it. The dogs probably survived because their habitat remained the same for a long period of time. Also, coyotes are migrating to the area. Brisbin says, “I think that coyotes sometimes eat these types of dogs, successfully compete with them for food resources, and also hybridize them.”
Don Anderson owns several thousand acres of Carolina Dog habitat. He says, “One the biggest things I do to promote those in the wild is to be sure that hunters are advised of their existence. Most people have no idea what a Carolina Dog is, even the neighbors.”
Some people have adopted them as pets, but Vicki Rand, of the United Kennel Club, says, “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.” In other words, you’re their friend, not their master.
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