I’ve been intrigued lately by a breed of dog called the Carolina Dog. These dogs have been in the news lately, because a study of the genetics of the domestic dog suggested that several of the American dog breeds (Chihuahua for example) have origins from ancient Asian breeds rather more recent European ones. The study, c0mparing mitochondrial DNA, suggested that Carolina dogs are quite accurately called “American Dingos,” because of a close genetic relationship to the same genetic pool that created Australian Dingos. Both dogs appeared to have originated from dogs in East Asia rather than having genetics more closely related to European breeds.
Carolina Dogs certainly look a lot like Dingos, and they also fit the drawings and descriptions from Native American Indians long before Europeans settled the country. Some suggest that they migrated from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge as many as 20,000 years ago. Fossil evidence also suggests a connection, which is why the dogs are also sometimes called North American Native Dogs and Indian Dogs. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia (who, by the way, I contribute to each month because it is such a great resource). Note that they aren’t all colored this way, some are actually black and tan, as apparently are some dingos. (Australian readers, feel free to confirm or deny.)
Carolina dogs received national attention in the 1970’s when an ecologist, Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin became curious about them while doing studies in the Savannah River area of South Carolina. The dogs were living in an 310 square mile area managed by the Department of Energy which was closed to the public due to the production of nuclear materials. It is suspected that the remoteness of the area allowed the dogs to avoid inter-mixing with other types of dogs and thus retain their more “ancient” genetics. (But question: What about all those years before the area was closed? Why wouldn’t the dogs have bred with more dogs of European breeding? Apparently not, and probably because the area is basically swamp, and thus is truly isolated.) Brisbin first assumed the dogs were “just strays,” but did some investigating and began to realize that the dogs more resembled Dingos than the usual American free-ranging dog.
After they were discovered to represent an ancient breed, many of the dogs were captured and a captive breeding program was begun. Carolina dogs are now a registered breed of the United Kennel Club and the American Rare Breed Association.
All of this brings up a number of questions, I’ve listed the easiest (and silliest) one first:
Was “Old Yeller” a Carolina Dog? Old Yeller is still one of my favorite books in the entire world, although I also still can’t read it without turning into a puddle. If you haven’t read it you are in for a treat; it is a beautifully written book. It never occurred to me while reading it that the dog in the book could have been a Carolina Dog, but now I find myself wondering… After all, some sources say that Carolina dogs were called “yaller dogs” by the locals. (Question to South Carolina readers: Does “yaller dog” just translate to “yellow dogs?”) The descriptions of Old Yeller seem to fit the descriptions of Carolina dogs (loyal but also independent, good with children but avid hunters, etc.). I’ll have to go back and dig out my old copy.
What is it like to live with a Carolina Dog, or any other “non-domesticated” breed of dog, like New Guinea Singing Dogs or Basenjis? Keep in mind that I have some experience with these breeds, and have good friends who own them. Thus, I have my own opinions, but I’ll wait to hear from readers before chiming in.
Unique Bathroom Behavior? I called Brisbin last week after reading about the study on the genetics of “American” dogs, and found that, according to him, Carolina dogs exhibit two unique behaviors that are as distinctive as any structure or morphology. For one thing, 98% of the females create “snout pits,” or depressions in the sand formed exactly as one would predict based on the name. Apparently this only occurs between September and January, and appears to be related to nutrition, possibly driven by pregnancy (the pups usually are born in April). The females seem to be ingesting something at the bottom of some of the pits, suggesting a nutritional component. Brisbin has looked and hasn’t found any evidence of the dogs eating insects or any other animals, so perhaps the dogs are finding minerals in certain deposits of sand. Just speculating… Anyone else have a dog who does the same? I have a video of an Aussie who makes “snow pits” with his snout. It’s outrageously funny to watch and probably related to scent, but otherwise inexplicable to the mind of apes like us, but I’ve never seen “snout pits”.
The second behavior that I find especially interesting is that all Carolina dogs bury their feces by covering them with sand. The behavior is highly ritualized; the dogs circle the pile of feces and and as they do, push sand on top of it with their noses. We’ve all seen plenty of dogs defecate and then scratch the soil, sometimes resulting in a partially buried pile, but this is very different, in that the dogs use their noses in a perfect circle and work hard to cover the pile completely. My Border Collie, Lassie used to bury food on occasion: she’d rip up grass, place it carefully on top of a piece of kibble, and then tamp it down with her nose. She’d repeat this until the object was completely covered. But that was food, not feces, and I can’t remember hearing about dogs who buried their poop using their noses until now. Brisbin says the only other dogs who cover their feces with sand or dirt pushed up by their noses are Afghans and Basenjis. And so I ask you: have you had or seen a dog who covered its feces by using its nose to push sand or dirt over it? If so, do you know the genetic background of the dog? I’d love to hear more about this. (This is another one of those “Anyone looking for a PhD topic” questions, just fyi.)
Needless to say, dogs like Carolina dogs, who appear to be ancient breeds, bring up a host of issues. I look forward to hearing from you about the questions posed…
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: You gotta love living in the country. Where else do you get to rescue a 900 lb cow off of the highway, and bring her back to the farm for an overnight under the apple tree? Meet Louise:
I met Louise on the county highway about a half a mile from my house, after someone stopped at the farm and asked if that was my cow on the road. “Nope, don’t have any cows,” I said, and went back to trying to wash the pig sh– off of Willie. (I do apologize, but the slimy feces of pigs, once smeared all over your dog, can only be described as pig sh–. Calling it poop or feces doesn’t begin to give it the power it deserves.) But I digress, that’s another story.
A second car stopped and said there is a cow right in the middle of the road, was it mine? Oh dear, no, but apparently it was standing right on top of a steep hill on a blind curve–a serious, if not fatal, accident waiting to happen. While the visitor (thank you Becky, wherever you are!) went to ask other neighbors if they’d lost a 900 lb animal, I drove up, parked and made friends with the cow, who turned out to be the lovely Brown Swiss you see in the photo. We began a delightful conversation and began to stroll together along the road toward my farm. (And I always thought my ability to moo like a cow was a useless skill. Oh ye of little faith.) Miss Swiss allowed me to walk beside her, so I flagged down cars to slow them down as she ripped great mouthfuls of grass at road’s edge. Miss Swiss had a leather collar and a bell, but I was quite sure that if I tried to restrain her she’d try to bolt. My ability to stop an animal that size by a collar being nil, I felt it wiser to finesse the issue and continue our mutual conversation. Several times she began to veer into the road, but I was able to herd her back and slow any approaching cars.
However, once we got to my farm Miss Swiss took one look at the grass in my front yard and bolted across the road. If you’ve never worked with cows, you might imagine that they are slow and lumber-y. Not so, they are as fast as the wind when they want to be, but luckily I saw it coming and was able to slow the approaching car. By then Becky had returned and another good country samaritan stopped his truck and the three of us herded her behind the barn and through a gate into my main pasture. While the sheep watched in a state of shock, Miss Swiss ambled up through the woods and parked herself under an apple tree at the top of the hill above the house. That’s where I took this photo, right before returning to the house to start trying to find her owner. Willie was left to sit happily in his crate stinking to high heaven.
Many phone calls later, I located the number of the only farmer any of us knew with Brown Swiss, who said, yes, he had a cow with a collar and a bell. His farm was a long way away, but cows can cover ground pretty fast, so it seemed a possibility. He was able to come over a few hours later and hiked up the hill with me to claim her. “Uh oh,” he said, “that’s not my cow,” Argh, seriously? I should be clear here that 1) Miss Swiss being in the pasture meant that neither the sheep nor Willie could be there either and 2) I was concerned she’d have enough to eat because the lack of rain has left the pasture bereft of grass and 3) I live in the kind of area where everyone knows everyone else and NO ONE could imagine where else this cow could have come from. Lots of Angus cows, yes. Lots of Herefords, and Holsteins, but Brown Swiss? “But wait!” said my new farmer friend as he was about to leave, “I’ll bet I know who owns her.”
And yes, he did. It turns out that Miss Swiss is actually named Louise, and had been brought a few days ago to a pasture not far from my farm, which didn’t turn out to have adequate fencing. Louise’s owner came to take her home the next morning, and we loaded her up out of the barn while my sheep and Willie watched on the other side of the fence with eyes like platters. I’m glad she’s home, and I’m glad that I have my pasture back, but… Truth be known, now I sort of miss her. She really is a lovely, lovely cow.
And oh yeah, two baths later, Willie still stinks.