When you think "wild dog" you may picture the dingos of Australia, or the wild painted dogs of Africa. But it may come as a surprise that North America has its very own wild dog. It certainly came as a surprise to Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., who in the 1970s discovered the secretive, tan-colored dog living in the most isolated stretches of the southeastern United States. Rather than brushing them off as stray dogs, Brisbin saw them for what they are: a landrace dog that evolved apart from humans — not feral, but truly wild.

Pariah dogs are ancient breeds with little or no influence from humans in their evolution. At some point after their evolution into domestic dogs, they split away from humans once again and did their own natural selection along the line. Their characteristics are crafted based on what is needed to survive, rather than what humans desire and select for. The Carolina dog falls into this category of pariah dog, along with the wild New Guinea singing dog, the Australian dingo and the Indian pariah dog among others.

Carolina dog lying downThough it is still unconfirmed, the theory is that Carolina dogs are related to the primitive dogs that migrated to North America alongside humans thousands of years ago. Brisbin notes that the Carolina dog is nearly identical in appearance to the chindo-kae, a breed native to Chindo Island, Korea, which has been free of hybridization with more modern dogs. This further bolsters Brisbin's hypothesis that if primitive dogs on each side of the Bering Straight land bridge look alike, then perhaps they did arrive with people, and that the Carolina dog may be a close descendent.

However it was that they arrived here, at some point a handful of the dogs went their own way. They did not stick around at the edges of human habitation as feral dogs. They left people behind entirely. In doing so, the once-domestic animal evolved over centuries without influence from humans and thus have their own self-selected characteristics and instinctive habits.

In the case of Carolina dogs, these characteristics include buff, fawn or ginger-colored coats (sometimes, but less commonly, black or piebald) similar to that of Australian dingos. They have an exceptional skill at catching small rodents for food with a pouncing method similar to foxes or coyotes, as well as the ability to hunt in packs. Females have estrus cycles in quick succession which can also become seasonal, and males tend to stay with females after the litter is born, something domestic male dogs don't do. The females also have a habit of digging small snout pits in the dirt, but only in certain areas and only in the fall — an evolved behavior that still puzzles Brisbin.

Beyond the appearance and behavior similar to wild dogs, DNA confirms that Carolina dogs are not just long-feral dogs but something much more ancient. National Geographic reports, "Within the realm of laboratory science, very preliminary DNA studies on the Carolina Dogs have provided some tantalizing results. 'It's intriguing,' Brisbin said, 'we grabbed them out of the woods based on what they look like, and if they were just dogs their DNA patterns should be well distributed throughout the canine family tree. But they aren't. They're all at the base of the tree, where you would find very primitive dogs.'"

Carolina dog sittingThe typical Carolina dog, or American dingo, has a tan or buff coat, a "fish hook" tail, and tall pointed ears. (Photo: Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock)

Whatever studies are needed to unravel the mysteries of this unique wild dog with its unusual habits and appearance will have to happen quickly, as time is running out for its existence in the isolated swamps and forests of the southeast. The population of free-roaming wild Carolina dogs has significantly declined, and continues to decline with the encroachment of humans, domestic dogs and coyotes into their once isolated territories.

But it doesn't mean they are disappearing entirely. The Carolina dog is now recognized as a pure breed by the United Kennel Club, which could help protect it from losing its genetic uniqueness. They can make quality family pets in experienced households, and there are several organizations dedicated to breeding and rescuing Carolina dogs to keep their line going.

But selective breeding by humans also puts them back into the realm of domestic dog. As Brisbin notes, "Even when based on documented wild-caught founders, such continued management under conditions of captive breeding cannot be expected to maintain those traits which set these animals apart from all other domestic dogs."

Though their genetic line may be preserved, the room for the wildness that made the Carolina dog what it is, is rapidly disappearing.

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Inset photo: Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.