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The social behaviour of the African wild dog

9 June 2014


In their social behaviour the dog-like animals or canids show a high degree of adaptibility and lack of specialisation with remarkably similar patterns despite being ecologically and morphologically diverse. This has allowed them to live in a wide range of habitats. Some of the canids, such as the African wild dog, live in packs, while others are almost solitary in their habits. The African wild dog forms a pack but it shows some specialisation in response to ecological conditions that is aimed at maintaining pack cohesion and to reduce aggression within the pack. The primary function of the pack of the African wild dog is to find sufficient food for the survival of all the pack members. To do so, it seems to be the only canid that kills large prey throughout the year. Moreover, cooperative hunting has developed to enable large packs to hunt successfully.

The pack is a cohesive, extended family group which hunts and travels as a unit. A dominant pair of adults determines the movements of the pack by direct leadership or by refusing to follow the lead of subordinate pack members. The degree of relatedness of dogs of the same sex is much higher than in a pride of lions. Only the dominant pair usually mates and reproduces but all the pack members feed and care for the pups. The pack primarily functions as a hunting unit and its members cooperate closely when hunting and in mutual defence of the pack by subordinating the survival of an individual to the benefit of the pack. There also is a strict division of labour in a pack. The dominant male and female are not related but all the other pack members and the young are litter mates or the offspring of the dominant pair. Pups older than four months ususally form 25 to 50 per cent of the pack and yearlings 25 percent.

The size of the pack varies from region to region and from time to time in the same region. Some packs only consist of an adult pair but others can contain up to 50 members where prey is anbundant. In one study in the Kruger National Park the packs varied from three to 28 animals, with a mean size of 13 members. In earlier times, the wild dog packs in large, wild regions may have been extensive, with unconfirmed reports of packs containing many hundreds of dogs that once followed the major migrations of the springbok. It is, however, possible that such large packs may have formed by the temporary amalgamation of several individual packs in response to this abundant food source.

The pack maintains a strict and clear social dominance hierarchy and new packs form by the fusion of groups of males or females and litter mates from different packs. However, the formation of new packs varies regionally. In the Serengeti, young males are only recruited into their natal pack when pup survival is low or when the dominant male has died, but in the Kruger National Park they often remain with their natal pack. Sometimes packs will split to form two new packs which will include subordinate dogs of both sexes. Litter mates of young females will move away from their natal pack to form a new pack by combining with a similar, but unrelated, group of males. Such dispersal usually coincides with a change in a pack’s dominance hierarchy. Because of litter size restrictions, dispersing groups of litter mates seldom number more than six animals. Nevertheless, some packs retain their unity for a long time.

The density of African wild dogs in the wild mainly varies from two to 35 wild dogs per 100 km2 and appears to be related to the availability of prey, except in the Kruger National Park where wild dogs have their lowest densities in areas of high prey density. There, this low density is probably related to the presence of high densities of lions and spotted hyaenas in prey-rich areas since these two types of carnivore are responsible for high mortality in wild dogs. They also appropriate many of the wild dog kills which forces the wild dogs to expend high energy levels to maintain their own energy requirements. This implies that areas which aim at the conservation of the African wild dog should rather have low densities of lions and spotted hyaenas.

www.leopard.tvBecause the social behaviour of the wild dog is so highly ritualized, there is little aggression in a wild dog pack. There is a clear dominance hierarchy but in contrast to the wild cats the pups are given priority to feed. In the Serengeti, the small packs never have large young dogs with them, but the larger packs may represent at least three generations. Unlike sociable wild cats, wild dogs cannot function as individuals and consequently nomadic wild dogs are rare. However, the entire pack may be nomadic for much of its life, except during the denning period which lasts three months.

Wild dogs communicate in different ways. When pack members meet they have a distinctive greeting ceremony during which various dogs run around excitedly while they twitter and whine. They are highly vocal and the most distinctive call is a bell-like hoo-hooo which is mainly used when an individual becomes separated from the pack. This call consists of eight to ten wailing hoots which are audible for up to 4 km on a still night. It is most often heard when the dogs hunt at night and causes the whole pack to run to the stray dog within a few minutes. Unlike the wolf, wild dogs do not howl but they do bark like a domesticated dog. Some wild dogs also growl with or without barking, while the pups whine when they become separated from the pack, are distressed, greet the adult dogs or beg for food. The adult dogs whine at a den entrance to get the pups to emerge. Excited wild dogs raise their tails higher and higher as their excitement increases. The white-tipped tails help the dogs to maintain contact when hunting.

Although the African wild dog does not have a tail gland, it uses urine extensively to scent-mark its territory. It also rubs the secretion of the anal glands as scent marks on objects, rolls on the ground and rubs the body against objects and the vegetation through which the it passes because wild dogs may have sebaceous glands all over the body. Faeces and urine are deposited repeatedly in the same spot but their use in scent-marking seems to be confined to the dominant pair. When an individual wild dog lingers at a kill after the pack has moved off, it is believed to use the secretions of interdigital glands or traditional pathways to relocate the pack, as also happens in the Asiatic red dog or dhole.

The intricate social system of the wild dog must be considered in any attempt to etablish a pack in a large conservation area. Lack of understanding the social system invariably leads to failure to do so.



Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pp 145 -150.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds). 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 475 - 480.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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