Tracking America’s First Dogs

Carolina dogs, discovered in the Southeast woods, may provide clues to the primitive dogs that arrived with the first humans in America

It's not often that a registered breed of dog starts with a castoff that even the pound didn't want and a stray plucked out of the woods. But it is even less likely that such animals would provide one of those rare "Eureka!" moments in science, drawing back the curtain on both evolution and human culture, and providing clues to the mysterious origins of the long, fruitful partnership that exists between humans and canines.

I. Lehr Brisbin, a senior ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken, South Carolina, breeds and studies what he calls the Carolina dog: a scrawny, medium-sized animal with a reddish-yellow coat, upright ears and a whiplash tail curling up over its back — what rural Southerners have long called a "yaller" dog. Through his work with Carolina dogs, Brisbin hopes to gain a better understanding of their origins and possible relationship to other so-called primitive dogs throughout the world, such as dingoes in Australia, New Guinea singing dogs and the so-called pariah dogs of the Old World. His research on a group of Carolinas has revealed that they share traits and behaviors with the other primitive groups, and preliminary DNA studies reveal a possible linkage.

The size, appearance and behavior of the Carolina dogs also suggest they might be a relic of the first dogs to enter the Southeast region thousands of years ago. Early paintings and ancient rock art depict dogs with Native Americans that appear remarkably similar to the Carolinas.

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