Photos courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography
By Ranny Green
She won’t wow you with her looks or body language, but chances are you’ve never seen a dog quite like Sandy.
A rather, nondescript rescue dog, the 30-pound, short-coated tan animal is a Carolina Dingo (otherwise known as an American Dingo or Indian Dog), whose breed’s homeland is the lowland swamps and forest regions of the Southeast United States. In Georgia and South Carolina the Carolina Dog is often called “Old Yaller” because of its coat color.
According to some historians, they closely match paintings and drawings near Indian settlements in the region, as well as resembling the structure of Neolithic dog bones from Native American burial sites thousands of years ago.
Discovered and named by Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., a University of Georgia biology professor, the Carolina Dingo is believed to be a direct descendant of the ancient pariah dog that accompanied Asians across the Bering Straits land bridge 8,000 years ago.
While the breed appears to be an evolutionary remnant of ancient dogs with an adventurous spirit, it is adaptable to domestication, raptly attentive and has the potential to become an excellent family pet, according to experts. Once socialized, it is excellent with children and other dogs. While it is an excellent hunter, it is not aggressive by nature.
True to her origins, it’s all about environment when it comes to Sandy’s confidence and comfort zone. She is literally a tail of two settings. Put her in an open field away from traffic, strangers and other dogs, Sandy’s outstretched tail, smooth gait and leaps are a thing of beauty. But place her in a busy, populated setting, her demeanor flips to caution, fright and curled tail carriage beneath her body, reflecting tension.
Steve Erickson and his son, Kyle, of Auburn, adopted Sandy July 15, believing they were bringing a German shepherd mix into their family. The adoption-form indicated Sandy came from the San Bernadino, Calif., area and was approximately 10-11 months old.
“She looked cute and was so well-mannered,” Kyle Erickson recalls. “She was the perfect size and looked sad like she needed a home and a family.” The family had owned beagles previously.
Quickly, however, Sandy began testing their resolve. Shortly after they arrived home, she managed to get loose and scrambled beneath their deck and out of sight for three to four days, says Steve Erickson. “Finally, we turned the hose on the deck to get her out.”
In the interim, they contacted longtime dog trainer Dana Babb, at Paws-Abilities Total Dog Center, in Fife, for handling and care tips.
“While discussing techniques to retrieve her,” says Babb, “we talked about transplant shock and the trauma dogs experience not only as a stray but also the shock while in the shelter system and then to this new house in a matter of days. I touched on general rules I give most families like talking softly, not hovering or making eye contact, and the need for hand feeding.”
Babb also suggested that once Sandy exited her hiding place, the owners attach a permanent line to her collar. That, she emphasized, should be used for interaction as well as for safety’s sake. Following that advice, she arranged to meet with them.
Upon seeing Sandy, Babb questioned her breed identity on the adoption form.
In the mid 1970s, her family lived in Albuquerque, N.M., where they had seen a few Indian reservation, or rez dogs, which were typically small, dirt-colored animals with short coats and pricked-up ears. “I made friends with members of the Acoma tribe and was told that these were ‘true’ dogs, bred by Mother Earth to hunt in the desert.”
Through the years, she maintained added interest in these dogs. “Sandy looks more like the ‘rez dogs’ than a shepherd mix,” Babb adds.
Because there is an Indian reservation in San Bernadino County, it dawned on her that Sandy had likely been born wild and was a true feral dog.
This totally altered the dynamics for the Ericksons and Babb’s training approach with Sandy, who was enrolled in a puppy obedience class last month. In other words: special dog, special challenge.
While everyone has seen slow progress in Sandy’s confidence and interaction during the class at Paws-Abilities, Babb recommended Sandy segue into a puppy-level agility class, which will “build not only her self-confidence but the family’s confidence in handling her.
“Sandy needs to be able to make sense of her new world,” explains Babb. “And since she is more comfortable off-leash, teaching her to jump up and wait on a pause table will ultimately help her understand the command to lay down on a rug in the family’s living room. Weaves will teach her to watch, follow and trust her new owners in a fun environment.”
Babb believes the agility environment will be more to the Ericksons’ liking, too, allowing them to approach Sandy’s training from a sports perspective rather than an obedience point of view. “This will make it easier for them to relate to her. They are new to the world of dog training. Agility is understandable because they can see how the obstacles come together as a course. As they learn the basic body language cues, they will naturally learn to lead her rather than feel sorry for her past.”
Babb sees unlimited potential in Sandy’s agility prospects. “She is built for speed and has the feral dog’s total sense of her body. When she runs loose, she is beautiful and self-confident. Running loose and free in the agility ring would be the best combination of her past and present worlds.”
On a recent field outing near Auburn, the high-octane Sandy bounded through high grass with liquid, smooth grace and her ears perked up at every noise nearby. “That’s her environment,” Kyle Erickson smiles, “and we try to get her out there two to three times a week.”
On Labor Day weekend, the Ericksons took her camping and she loved every minute of it. But as soon as they returned home, she reverted to timidity around everyone.
The early challenges have been plentiful, admits Kyle Erickson. For instance, she doesn’t grasp eating or drinking from a bowl; she carries her tail between her legs and cowers from strangers; and she has dug out of the fenced backyard twice.
“She has required a lot more patience on my part,” admits Kyle Erickson. “I am getting more confident handling her, and can now take her out front of the house without the fear she will run away off-leash. She is responding to me more and more as I call her name, and wags her tail now.”
One of the biggest shockers came when Sandy barked for the first time. “She had never made a sound, so we didn’t realize it was her,” adds Kyle Erickson. “She whimpers and whines like a little puppy, but we haven’t heard her bark again.”
While every day is an adventure with Sandy, her naturalness remains a beguiling adventure, the owners admit. “We’re at the beginning of a journey with her,” says Steve Erickson, “which I am sure will be full of many twists and turns.”