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The Carolina dog emerged from the Southeastern U.S. swamp and into the dog scene in the 1970s. Unlike the long-domesticated pups who snooze on your lap, these jackal-like dogs still have some wild child in their genes—and it's not uncommon to find them roaming in the Georgia and Carolina woods today.
There's evidence to suggest these dogs lived alongside indigenous peoples and, with a dedicated handler and a home in a rural area, a Carolina dog can make a loyal companion. Just don't expect him to behave like a golden retriever.
When a Carolina dog dashes by, you might think you've just spotted an Australian dingo. In fact, the resemblance between the two is so strong that Carolina dogs are often called the "Carolina dingo" or "American dingo."
A Carolina dog is medium-sized with a thin-yet-powerful frame. His short fur can be yellow, red, tawny, white, black, or black and tan. Some Carolina dogs have white markings along their belly, chest, and throat. Dark sable or blanket backs are also possible.
His ears, a defining characteristic of the breed, stand tall and almost look a little too big for his long, triangular head. His almond-shaped eyes hint at his intelligence and are most often brown, though there are yellow and even blue-eyed Carolina dogs.
At his other end, his long tail is shaped like a "fish hook," and indicative of his emotions—wagging with his family and held low around strangers, according to the Carolina Dog Club of America (CDCA).
As a primitive breed who hasn't been subject to selective breeding, Carolina dog temperaments tend to be shy and suspicious. Early socialization and obedience training are vital for a Carolina dog puppy to grow into a well-adjusted adult.
"They are great once you earn their trust, but they can be a little more suspicious in nature and a little shy in the beginning," says Laura Pletz, DVM and Scientific Services Manager at Royal Canin.
Because of his pack mentality, he is steadfastly loyal to his humans. He might not be overly snuggly during movie night, but his favorite activities—hiking, running, and exploring—are all better when you're by his side.
A Carolina dog has seemingly endless energy and needs daily exercise, says Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, editor of pet health and behavior at Daily Paws. Even if you wake up early to take your dog on a jog or hike, he'll want to head back out again in the afternoon. He needs an active owner who can keep up with his energetic attitude.
Because of their extensive history as wild "swamp" dogs, Carolina dogs still prefer the wilderness over an urban or suburban home. They will thrive on a farm or ranch with lots of room to sniff, explore, and run, but might be uncomfortable when dealing with unfamiliar people, new locations, and strange animals.
"As an owner, it is crucial to understand how their genetic history will impact their desire to do, or not do, things that more 'traditional' breeds would enjoy," Bergeland says. "For instance, expecting this dog to just be comfortable in a dog training class surrounded by other dogs is maybe not reasonable. As well, expecting this dog to just come along on excursions into town, joining you at the local market, would also be super unreasonable."
Carolina dogs do best in homes with no children and no small pets. Pletz says they are "very much pack dogs," and can live well with other pups, especially if introduced in puppyhood. This is not a dog for a first-time owner, or even for someone who has raised other breeds, Bergeland says.
"It would take a very special situation with a very experienced handler to make sure this breed is happy and healthy in a home," she says.
Instead of walks through a neighborhood, Carolina dogs would prefer expeditions into the woods. They need to go on long, daily hikes where they'll have plenty of opportunity to sniff around.
It's important that owners keep their Carolina dog on a leash during any outing. They have a high prey drive due to their free-roaming history, meaning they're alert to fast movements (think rabbits, squirrels, or a neighborhood cat) and can be tempted to bolt after it.
Bergeland says bringing home a Carolina dog "will be a full-time job."
"Any breed that has such a history, or really any breed that has significant drive, takes a lot of work and must have a knowledgeable full-time owner," she says. "This is not going to be a dog you can just leave kenneled for hours on end."
Though Carolina dogs can be a bit high-maintenance overall, they don't ask much when it comes to grooming. These pups tend to clean themselves like a cat, so regular brushing and, if they get into something particularly dirty or stinky on their roam, an occasional bath will keep them clean. Brushing and bathes can also help keep their moderate shedding under control.
Trim a Carolina dog's nails regularly so they don't click-clack on the floor, and check him frequently for ticks after he spends a lot of time outside. Just like with any dog, he'll need his ears checked and cleaned and his teeth brushed.
As with all breeds, Carolina dogs do best with positive reinforcement training and require consistency and patience from their owner.
"Never hesitate to seek the help of a positive-based certified professional dog trainer," Bergeland says.
A huge part of Carolina dog care is making sure they get enough exercise and mental stimulation through sporting activities, regular training, exercise, and playtime. A bored Carolina dog will bark, climb, dig, chew, and jump in an effort to entertain himself.
"All dogs need to be understood, and owners should understand what dog behaviors are natural to all dogs," Bergeland says. "That being said, this dog will not be happy with an owner who does not understand those important facts."
As a medium-sized breed, a Carolina dog's lifespan is about 12–15 years. You can expect smooth sailing (and few vet bills) during that time—he's a hardy dog with no major known health issues.
"They have relatively few genetic issues," Pletz says. "I'm sure you could see some possible hip dysplasia and things like that, but it's not heavily seen. There are very few genetic health concerns with this breed."
Even with his good health, you still need to take your Carolina dog to the veterinarian for regular checkups and keep up with all of his vaccinations.
Though some breeds have been refined and standardized for decades (or even centuries), the Carolina dog is a recent discovery. In the 1970s, the dogs were found running free in the Southeastern U.S., according to the Saving Carolina Dogs rescue.
So where did these dogs come from? It's theorized Carolina dogs are descendants of canines that walked across the Bering land bridge with their people about 12,000 years ago, according to North Carolina Public Radio. Based on archaeological discoveries and DNA testing, these pups were most likely longtime companions of Native Americans.
The breed was discovered and named by I. Lehr Brisbin, a biologist and former researcher at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab. According to the Columbia Star, he "noticed wild dogs on his trips into the Savannah River Site's fields and swampy areas. The dogs would sometimes be caught in the live traps he used to study other wildlife."
The United Kennel Club registered the Carolina dog in 1996, and the dogs were accepted into the American Kennel Club's Foundation Stock Service in 2017.
- Carolina dogs go by many nicknames, including "swamp dog," "Old Yaller dog," "Dixie dingo," "Carolina wild dog," "Carolina yellow dog," "American dingo," and "Native dog."
- Some Carolina dog characteristics are much more similar to wild dogs than to long-domesticated pups. For example, they tend to cover their poo by pushing dirt onto it with their nose, according to the Columbia Star. Unspayed females also go into heat more frequently.
- Ginger the Carolina dog models her gorgeous yellow coat for Hill's Science Diet food packaging.
- The 2022 movie Prey stars Coco, a rambunctious Carolina dog.