Monday, April 22, 2013

Pitty Penny - the Carolina Dog

Having fallen quite winsomely in love with her yard now that it's fenced in, Penny has begun exhibiting another apparently defining Carolina Dog behavior, the digging of small, shallow holes.  Her features are a giveaway, especially that crook or whiplash tail - but her behavior is telling on her too.  And I think more and more about the implications of her amazing breed.  In fact - she's something more elemental than the mere human-conceived idea of "breed" - she is a dog, unadorned.  She is both beyond my reach in those arbitrary traits humans came to feel it necessary to manipulate - and yet so utterly in synch with me as another species, it's all the more amazing she *wasn't* custom-made to adhere to artificial/practical preferences.

(Perhaps obviously) I'm not one of those people who get wrapped up in breeding.  The particulars of her features aren't deal-breakers for me, and I didn't pick her based on anything she might have "been" in that context.  Finding out was, indeed, a complete accident.

I am, however, the sort of person quite fascinated by the anthropology and genealogy of the relationship between humans and canines - and, very interestingly indeed, Penelope is part of a breed the study of which may be shedding light on the depth into history our relationship goes.  It's possible the dog was domesticated as far back as 100,000 years.  We have thought as little as one *tenth* that time frame might encompass the human-canine bond; the idea it's such an astonishingly long relationship is exciting.  (Plus, the scientist who put forth evidence of this theory, Robert Wayne of UCLA, has a name I happen to like.)  It looks like we have worked with dogs longer than we've worked the earth itself, in the sense of recognizable agriculture.  An intriguing, startling idea.  This is the one factor which could someday contribute to my having Pen genetically tested; though her ancestral provenance seems pretty darn clear indeed.  (Note:  Carolina dogs were not part of Wayne's research; their fascination lies in their history on this continent, and the relationships to dogs on the other side of the land bridge, such as Korea's chindo-kae and the Australian dingo, which got Dr. Brisbin thinking about the American "yaller dog" in the first place.)

Even the breeding patterns of the Carolina are unlike most modern domesticated dogs, and may reflect high frequency and quantity breeding in the wild, and even may reflect the availability of prey in the wild.  The digging of the little pits (supposed to take place only in autumn - which Penelope had to wait for, not having a yard until this spring - and largely characteristic of the female Carolina) has as yet no explanation - but shoot.  Dogs dig.  They can hear and see a thousand things you and I can't; so for us who don't speak puppy so well to figure out their whys and wherefores will take some time.  The Carolina's hunting patterns are unique as well, and I can almost see in Pen's simple mannerisms some of what is described (killing a snake by whip-like movements - she is nothing if not whippy).

Also exciting are the facts of these dogs' survival, so unadulterated, and the geography that has preserved their position at the base of the genetic tree of canine development.  Though their discovery has been somewhat south of my own neck of the woods, there is at least a glancing sense that I came from the same earth she did.  Even if she has been native to it for many millenia longer than my line.  If I serve her well, maybe I can serve my piece of the earth with some responsibility (all the while letting her dig snout-holes in her piece of my piece ...).

All dogs are, of course, part of an age-old line linking us as species - but to think that my little girl is family with the oldest breeds in America is just neat to me.  She's a beauty and a dear, and needs no terms but her own to earn my most sickeningly sincere devotion - but she may also be a part of an eight thousand year American lineage is too much for this history/anthropology/archaeology/DOG nerd to bear without a little more peeking.

One of the things that captures my imagination, about the possibilities (likelihoods) of Pen's breeding, is that her behavior seems to be so typical of what is described in certain aspects (her shyness, her snout-holes, even her barking patterns and ability to bond while still being somehow wild) is that her more general demeanor begins to beg questions in my mind.  Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of her personality is that the fulcrum of all her behavior is based on me.  Her need to please the alpha - and her fundamental recognition of me as such - tempers every action.  She's excitable, to be sure; but, even at her most wriggly and easily distractable, she quite literally, physically looks to me.  She's not always easy to guide, but the speed with which she's come from complete insecurity to a pretty sophisticated role within our little motley pack is dizzying.  The day she first came home, she could have submitted to the cat as easily as to me as her alpha - but today she responds to me physically, verbally, and indeed emotionally.  Her dependence upon me is firm, and she expects my protection and my guidance.  She responds now to signs alone for commands - it has become amazingly easy to get her to sit, down, and even to stay (this last one is the command most easily broken by distractions, but as she grows older I have no doubt she'll get better) and now she is learning the key command of "back."  She obeys in varying contexts, and with either hand I use.

The speculation I go to, off this, is how intense the communication can be.  If we have communicated with animals like her for eight thousand years, and she is a modern manifestation of a breed not much altered by human interference - how old is this communication, this obedience, which is so key to the specie-al relationship between human beings and these amazing companions?  If they have been domesticated since before her own ancient line ever began, how innate is this dynamic?  With her, it seems to be deeply hard-wired.  I've never seen a dog so palpably driven by this guidance.  Penny is brilliantly smart, but there is something beyond intelligence in the imperative between us, it is a balance of such symbiosis as I have literally never encountered before.  I've loved every animal I was ever blessed to live with; everyone here who's read any entry older than this past year knows how deeply I wanted to be *good enough* for Sweet Sid, and how much my cats have all meant to me, in their beautiful and different ways.  Even among bonds such as these, the literal *working* relationship I have with Penelope is something special.  She awes me in a way I haven't experienced - simply because I never worked so hard *myself* to communicate with any other animal.  Not in ways which accomplished such practical outcomes.  My Pen is remarkable even among my remarkable puppy (and kitty) loves.

Fact sheet on Carolina dogs.

Smithsonian Magazine with a brief word on Carolinas.

Nat Geo on the Carolina.


Unknown said...

You may be interested in a Facebook group called Carolina Dog History and Research. They are also having a gathering this fall at Lynches River Carolina Dogs and Dr.s Don Anderson and Brisbin will be there talking about the breed...

DLM said...

I don't do FB, but that sounds pretty fascinating - may have to look it up! Thank you very much for the tip and the comment.