September 2007

A Love Story: Carolina Dogs

Author: Penny Starr

I fell in love with Wally the first day I met him. Try as I might to resist, his doe-like brown eyes and shy demeanor did their magic.

Almost 14 years later, he sleeps curled up near my desk, no doubt dreaming about the days he chased cats and squirrels around the yard or fetched a tennis ball until he was ready to collapse.

I now know that Wally is a Carolina Dog, or American Dingo as they are also called. But that fateful day so many years ago in Oregon, I only knew he’d been given away by a surfer who had dubbed him Shocka.

When my sons and I brought him home, we decided Shocka wasn’t a fitting name for the sweet golden dog we had adopted. We did think he looked like a Dingo, the wild dog that is indigenous to Australia. So we came up with Wally, derived from another creature from “Down Under”—the Wallaby.

It wasn’t until we moved to South Carolina seven years ago that I found out I wasn’t the only one under a canine spell. People regularly approached me to talk about my Carolina Dog. Although I was flattered (and Wally too, I’m sure), I didn’t see how a dog adopted in Oregon could have Carolina roots—that is until I googled Carolina Dog. At the top of the list was That’s how I found Jane Gunnell, a sort of Carolina Dog diva and a devoted crusader determined to preserve the breed.

The photo gallery on the site revealed dozens of dogs that looked just like Wally, with those big brown eyes, white markings and the tell-tale “fishhook” tails.

Gunnell raises race horses on her expansive Banbury Cross ranch in Aiken. She also has dog kennels, most of them filled with Carolina Dogs and their pups. She says she fell in love with the breed after she met L. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., a senior ecologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab. Brisbin had studied the primitive Australian Dingo, so a yellow “mutt” caught his eye on a visit to the local animal shelter.

As Gunnell tells it, Brisbin began searching for the dogs in the Georgia and South Carolina wilderness and found several. This led him to speculate that the species could have arrived on the North American continent as companions of the earliest humans who arrived here by crossing the Bering Strait.

Gunnell, who at that time lived in Virginia, met Brisbin in 1996 while visiting South Carolina. And she met his Carolina Dogs. It was love at first sight and he gave her two pups.

Today, Gunnell has more than 25 Carolina Dogs, some she’s culled from the wild and others she’s bred at her ranch. She’s also authored a book on the subject, Carolina Dogs, The American Dingos, Perfect Dogs: Remnants from the Ages Past, My Canid Odyssey.
She’s also served as president of the Carolina Dog Association.

Brisbin and Gunnell, however, aren’t the only Carolina dog enthusiasts. There are breeders across the country and Wally’s wild cousins still populate remote wilderness areas in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.

In South Carolina, preliminary mitochondrial DNA testing performed by the University of South Carolina’s College of Science and Mathematics shows a possible genetic link between Carolina Dogs and other primitive breeds like the Australian Dingo.

Carolina Dogs are also recognized as a primitive dog breed by the United Kennel Club, and many have won championships, including a number of Gunnell’s dogs.

So what makes the Carolina Dog so special? Here’s Gunnell’s list: They are extremely loyal, have a hardy constitution and a sweet disposition (“very good with children,” she says). They are content to stay in with you while you read or watch a movie and just as eager to “climb a mountain” if that’s the plan.

In other words, the perfect pooch.

Some may think the “perfect” label is perhaps more a reflection of the owner’s prejudice than the Carolina Dog’s winning attributes. OK, I’ll admit that Wally has a shedding problem (although Gunnell says this is not the case with most Carolina Dogs), and he’s dug his fair share of holes in my garden in search of a cool spot on a hot Carolina afternoon.

But other than those slight flaws, he is indeed the best dog I’ve had the pleasure of calling my own. And when he’s gone, if I ever think of replacing him, I will no doubt give Gunnell a call and head to Aiken.

Not than any dog, even another Carolina Dog, could replace Wally. Still, it might be of some comfort to know I’m helping the breed by giving another one a happy home—and spreading the good word about them.

Not to mention, once smitten, it won’t be easy to live without those big brown eyes.

Adopting a Pet
If you’re considering adding a dog or cat to your family, the folks at the Hilton Head Humane Association hope you’ll visit their facility on Spanish Wells Road.

“We have 180 dogs and cats that are ready for adoption,” said Franny Gerthoffer, executive director of the association, adding that close to 30 other animals are being socialized or treated for medical conditions to ready them for adoption. The list of available dogs and cats, puppies and kittens includes a large range of breeds, sizes and personalities.

The association has trainers on site to help match people with the right pet. Prospective pet owners are asked to fill out an application that asks a wide range of questions, from providing information on other pets in the home, to arrangements in the home and yard for the pet, and the number of hours the pet will be left alone each day.

Those adopting a dog or cat also have to sign a contract to ensure that the animal will be living in a loving home and that, if the adoption doesn’t work out, the association can reclaim the animal.

Home visits are required for those who are interested in adopting dog breeds that can be mistreated because of aggressive tendencies, including Akitas, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and German Shepherds.

The cost to adopt a dog or cat is $88, which includes medical costs, microchipping and a Beaufort County license.

The shelter is open every day except Tuesday. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m., except on Wednesday when the facility is open until 6 p.m.

strong>For more information, call 681-8686.

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