by Heather Parsons
Carolina Dogs are a primitive, land race, pariah breed classified as sight hounds. They crossed the Bering Strait to North America with the first humans and have lived alongside indigenous tribes since Pre Colombian times and still carry Pre Colombian DNA today. They are North America’s only wild dog and wild packs are still present across the south and south east, most notably central/south Texas, North and South Carolina swamplands, Florida, and Georgia.
Dr. Brisbin “rediscovered,” and began studying them in the 1970s. After extensive observation he began to trap them and research their DNA noting their remarkable similarities to Australian dingos. While behaviorally and visually similar, DNA has shown they are completely unrelated despite being nicknamed, “the American dingo,” a term which should absolutely never be used as it has the potential to get a dog confiscated or euthanized. Dr. Brisbin not long after began his breeding program, SwampFox Carolina Dogs in an effort to preserve the breed as they are notably in danger of dying out due to habitat encroachment and a lack of awareness of the breed. The lack of breed awareness has caused hundreds and likely thousands to be mistaken for strays and mixed breeds, caught by animal control, put in shelters, spayed/neutered, and pet homed. Thus, their feral numbers are at a steep decline.
They are recognized by the UKC and the ARBA and are FSS for AKC. Many are never shown as their natural, and appropriate, wariness of strangers is not ideal in a show ring. However, per their breed standard set forth by Dr. Brisbin, in the ring the dog is allowed to exhibit shyness including visible discomfort being handled by the judge and tucking of the tail.
All coat colors are allowed in the standard except pure white.
Ginger dogs are most common and this has unfortunately caused them to be the most popular and there are now people who believe it should be the only allowed color.
I personally own ginger dogs, piebald dogs (white with ginger markings,) black and tan dogs, buff dogs (cream,) black dominant dogs, and a domino dog. All coats can produce all colors. Dilutes are also acceptable.
Dark eyes are the most common but blue eyes are seen some times (I own 3 blue eyed dogs,) and within standard. Heterochromia is accepted but is a minor fault. Ears should be erect and set high, tips are a fault. Dogs should have dark eyeliner, a major characteristic of the breed.
There is a large need in the breed community for more health testing to be done for future generations.
However, so far, natural selection has been very good at preventing a majority of health problems.
I have seen CARRIERS of Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA,) Exercised Induced Collapse (EIC,) Dilated Myelopathy (DM,) and Von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD,) but to date I have not seen a dog affected.
Low Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT,) is somewhat common in the breed and though it has no negative effects on the dog, veterinarians should be made aware if it is present.
Thus far, all dogs who have been OFA tested for hips, knees, elbows, eyes, thyroid, and cardiac have passed with normal or better.
One thing that has become commonplace in domestic breeds is not allowing puppies to run/jump/stairs. This is NOT something that needs to be done with Carolina Dogs. In the wild they would be running, jumping, and climbing over woodland/swampland terrain. While they should never be PUSHED as puppies, they should also not be restricted. This allows their joints to strengthen and grow as they would in the wild, without human influence, which lets us have a better idea of if the dog is truly a good example of the breed.
Honestly I tell people they’re like cats.
However, once they bond with you they will do any and everything you ask of them. I’ve never trained a recall on any of mine but I let them run my 40 acre property and I don’t even watch them because they recall to me easily. I’ve called them off running deer. They’re incredibly in tune with their handlers. I work my first Carolina Dog as my service dog. Which was completely unplanned but he stepped into the role very naturally and the most common compliment I get is how in tune we are as a team.
They’re moderate energy. They can be happy with a kong and running around the yard for 20min or I can take them out to run the property for 6hrs. As sight hounds they DO require running. Particularly when they’re young to allow proper growth. However this can be a couple of times a week and a large yard is sufficient as long as every couple weeks they can go on a better run to truly stretch their legs.
Mental stimulation is incredibly important. Carolina Dogs are extremely intelligent and do bore easily. It’s important to tire their minds even more so than their bodies. This can be done through a huge variety of outlets including puzzle games, training, chews, nose work, sniff walks, etc.
They are extremely trainable with their handler and infuriatingly smart. They will absolutely try to outsmart you and succeed. I have a couple that I have to put a literal padlock on their kennels. And if you’re training they will look for another way to do things that they like better. But they also can pick up 5+ new things in one session if you can get them to not get bored.
You have to build drive with them. The biggest thing I try to stress to people is that they don’t work FOR you. They will work WITH you. But never expect them to work FOR you because it’s not going to happen. There is no amount of high value toys or treats to make them work for you if they don’t respect you and trust you. My first show I took a dog who wasn’t there yet and she decided to run out of the ring and even the blue rare filet in my hand meant NOTHING to her.
I can take my service dog into absolutely any situation blindly and am confident that he will look to me for guidance and even if he is uncomfortable he will do as I ask because he works with me.
Carolina Dogs are extremely versatile.
There are around 30 working Carolina Dog service dog teams.
There are Carolina dogs competing in:
- Weight pull.
- Dock diving.
- Barn hunt.
- Fly ball.
Some other things we, our puppy buyers, and our friends do with our Carolina Dogs:
- Search and Rescue.
- Rabbit hunting.
- Shed (antler,) retrieval.
- Blood trailing.
- Deer hunting.
- Scent/nose work.
- Trick titles.
- Agitation work.
If there is anything you WANT to do, they can and have proven they can do it.
The majority are dog social. They do live in packs in the wild and mine do here as well, as do my breeding partners’. They are one of the only breeds to follow a legitimate pack structure with a set alpha and hierarchy. It’s not static, the order changes frequently. But there is an alpha that they look to. It’s easy to distinguish who it is partially by the dogs watching them, as the pack will look to them for guidance if something happens like a small scuff breaks out, a new person approaches, a new dog enters, a loud noise happens, etc.
It can be seen also by how that dog grooms the others and monitors interactions. The alpha will be the one to break up scuffs and settle disputes. This dog, typically a female, though we actually have a male alpha here, carries themselves with an obvious easy confidence and tends to sit more to the sidelines and watch rather than play.
They follow a family pack dynamic in raising pups as well. Females, generally, will look after one another’s pups. Not to say there are not outliers who will kill pups. Males also take interest in not just their own puppies but all pups in the pack grooming and guiding. We keep puppies until 12wks rather than 8wks due to the social cues they learn from the adults in the pack from weeks 8-12.
Human aggression has only been seen in one dog that I’m aware of and should absolutely never be seen in the breed.
Same sex aggression can occur, however personally, I have only seen it a handful of times and only in females.
Typically the only fights that break out are hierarchy fights. They do scuff constantly, it’s just their play style. But actual fights are very rare. They can, however, be dangerous. I won’t sugarcoat that. Typically the fight is between the alpha and a challenger. Which can be dangerous if they both refuse to back down. The bigger problem is there is always the potential to turn into a pack fight if the pack turns on one dog. In which case the dog in question must submit or will almost certainly be killed. But that’s the reality of wild dogs.
We are very fortunate that because we don’t have packs that exclusively live outside we haven’t encountered this, every other breeder I know has at one point. Luckily that’s not much of a concern unless you keep a large pack.
Many can and do live with cats and other small animals without an issue. None of ours ever had an issue with our cat. They obviously do have a prey drive, but impulse control is easy to teach them for small animals. I’ve never yet seen one with outward small animal aggression.
Carolina Dogs aren’t super cuddly for the most part but I have one in my bed right now and her son on my floor asleep. Each dog is definitely different and it depends on your bond. There are outliers who are absolute velcro dogs and want to be attached to your hip at all times and ones on the opposite end who would prefer zero interaction.
One of my girls sleeps on my pillow every night she sleeps in our bed.
Most are and should be wary of strangers. They are never going to run up to a new houseguest and greet them if they are an in standard dog. But again, absolutely zero aggression. They are 100% flight, never fight. They’re cautious of new situations so it takes them a while to decompress in a new environment. But once they’re comfortable they are extremely loving and bouncy, fun dogs.
Obviously in the wild Carolina Dogs hunt and scavenge for their own food. Their wild diet includes small animals, birds, insects, and they are even capable of taking down deer.
Many Carolina Dog owners feed a prey model raw diet, which is ideal. However, our pack is fed and thrives on either ProPlan Sport 30/20 or Authority. The biggest thing with Carolina Dogs is that they remain on an all life stages food, particularly when they’re young, so they don’t grow too quickly and have problems like down ears or flat feet.
A well rounded, grain inclusive all life stages food like ProPlan 30/20 Sport or Authority all life stages chicken and rice are good options.
One problem being faced is simply people not understanding the breed. They’re picked up and put in shelters and labeled as a “shepherd mix,” “lab mix,” etc. and so when the dog isn’t immediately a super friendly, biddable dog right from moment one they are returned or (particularly young dogs,) end up lost by their owners.
The breed community is absolute trash, to be honest. The UKC parent club is full of people breeding for color and trying to breed out some of the wild traits and breed down to only one coat color, ginger.
There are only a handful of breeders and the majority are trash. So it’s unfortunately a very “watch who you say what to” situation.
But the dogs make it worth it in every way.
An extra note:
The native tribes revered Carolina Dogs as sacred dogs. They believe them to carry spirits. Particularly the black and tan dogs, which have been called, “four eyes,” for their tan eyebrows on black masks. They believe these particular dogs to be the spirits of ancestors coming back to them.
We are currently working alongside a tribal chief in South Carolina who also breeds to reintroduce dogs to several reservations across the US.
I will never own another breed. Every owner I have talked to has said the same thing, “there’s something special about them. They aren’t just dogs.” And I agree wholeheartedly.
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