Carolina Dogs go north for permanent homes

Donna Casamento, adoptions director for Pawmetto Lifeline, said Carolina Dogs, such as Sophietta, are a big hit — up North. Pointed ears and a curled tail are two characteristics of a Carolina Dog.

Columbia — Common brown strays often get overlooked when people go to local animal shelters hunting for a new dog.

But an organization that finds homes for unwanted pets in Richland and Lexington counties has discovered these medium-sized, short-haired Carolina Dogs are very popular — up North.

In its first year alone, Pawmetto Lifeline has rescued 2,482 adoptable dogs from local shelters, often finding homes for them out of state. More than 500 were what a lot of folks would call Carolina Dogs.

“It’s the Carolina Dogs that tend to get left behind in our shelters, and we wanted to create a program that addressed that problem,” adoption director Donna Casamento said.

“Up in the North, they have a lot of designer breeds. They’re looking for something different.”

There is a specific breed of Carolina Dog that has survived for generations in the swamps and backwoods of South Carolina. It looks a lot like an Australian dingo.

But the term has evolved into a generic term for “your average brown dog,” medium-sized, with short hair and expressive brown eyes, Casamento said.

In Watertown, Conn., that kind of dog often inspires “love at first sight,” rescue volunteer Lydia Crepon said.

“That mixed-breed look — maybe a little Lab, a little shepherd, a sprinkle of something else,” she said. “Nothing like you’ll see up here.”

Crepon, who runs a nonprofit organization that places unwanted dogs in new homes, has several people waiting on a litter of puppies from Columbia now.

Casamento said Pawmetto Lifeline isn’t using the term “Carolina Dog” as a marketing tool — but probably could. A lot of groups refer to any dog they rescue from around here as a Carolina Dog.

That doesn’t seem to bother the Aiken scientist who discovered and named the Carolina Dog 40 years ago.

“They’re free to call them what they want,” said I. Lehr Brisbin, “but they won’t have (registration) papers unless I give them to them.”

Brisbin was working as a wildlife ecologist at Aiken’s Savannah River Site in 1972 when he began studying the dogs that turned up, unharmed, in fox traps at the 300-acre nuclear reservation.

His research suggests these Carolina Dogs are similar in appearance to primitive dogs that arrived on this continent in the company of the first people that crossed the Bering Strait land bridge around 14,000 years ago.

No one knows how many purebred Carolina Dogs remain today, Brisbin said, but they are in danger of getting “hybridized out of existence.” He breeds one or two litters a year.

As for the mutt version, Pawmetto Lifeline is sending them all over the country through its year-old HEART program. HEART stands for Helping Every Animal Reach Tomorrow.

Every weekday, Casamento photographs each new dog and cat available for adoption at the Columbia/Richland and Lexington County animal shelters, then incorporates their photos into a daily email that goes out to 6,000 individuals and rescue groups.

The HEART program works with 123 organizations in 16 states, including one in Ontario, Canada.

Casamento said northeastern states, in particular, have such effective spay and neuter laws that it can be hard for people to find dogs and puppies to adopt. So her program coordinates a network of individuals and nonprofit organizations that see to it the animals get the medical care they need, then transport them to other states and into new homes.

Kim Kelly, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said programs like HEART are keeping many more animals here from being euthanized.

“Up North, any breed of dog, any puppy, is being adopted,” Kelly said.

“They’re to the point where people go to the shelters and there really aren’t enough dogs or puppies to adopt. So we’re sending them dogs from the South.”