Can you domesticate an African wild dog?
Not in this lifetime… and probably not ever.
They are one of the most hard-core renegades of the animal kingdom. “Wild” is even in their dang name!
I was once in the South African bush, monitoring African Wild Dogs. We had lost sight of the pack and needed to find them to do a daily check of their health and to make sure none of them were caught in a deadly snare, so common in the area.
Myself and another monitor had to walk off the road to get a visual of the hidden spot to which we tracked their radio collars.
As we cautiously trekked through the brush, I could see nothing but trees and scrub, with the hot, sunny sky above. Walking out in the African bush is serious business and not for the untrained or inexperienced. A myriad of dangers are ever-present in the dense bushveld, and disturbing them could easily spell a quick demise.
Alert, while still watched by the rest of our group nearby, we stepped up to a particularly thick treeline that seemed to drop down into a gully. The head monitor decided it would not be prudent to walk into that shroud of brush so we stopped, straining our ears and eyes, searching for signs of the pack.
Then I heard it: a deep, guttural, crackling growl that seemed to rattle on, unevenly for way too long. It sent shivers up my spine. I had to fight the urge to high-tail it outta there like a wild impala. We had found them.
A few seconds later we realized we were half-way surrounded by silently stalking members of the pack. It was terrifying. They could shred us from head to toe in 30 seconds flat if they wanted to. But this pack was used to us and had seen us every single day, at least twice a day, for years. Even so, they were warning us to get the heck out of their space. We slowly backed out of the brush and toward the truck.
They all appeared as if out of nowhere, one by one, all safe and sound for the time being. Two of the dogs in this current pack of six, had only 3 legs, and one had a piercing scar that ran all the way around his head, neck and through his mouth. Their snares had been removed, saving their lives, and now they were back out living wild today because of our emergency veterinary intervention. But they still didn’t want us around.
African Wild Dogs may have many similarities to Canis lupus, the wolf from which we domesticated today’s dogs- but they are far from our lovable pets in reality.
Painted Dogs (aka African Wild Dogs, Painted wolves, species name: Lycaon pictus) live in tight-knit packs with many family members - much like wolves.
They hunt in a similar cooperative fashion to wolves. They communicate with a complex variety of noises and body language, like most other canines.
They sure look a lot like the familiar wolves and domestic dogs we have today, but the similarities are about to “get kenneled.”
Painted Dogs have only four digits on their front feet, a trait diverged from all other canids millions of years ago. They are the only member of the Family Canidae to exhibit this adaptation which is thought to allow this predator to run farther and faster while chasing prey.
Their coat colors are some of the most varied among all mammals, indicating a rare and ancient diversity of genes.
Their teeth and jaws have adapted differently to allow for specialized shearing of meat and crushing of bone, allowing them to dispatch every part of the kill almost before it can hit the ground.
My favorite adaptational behavior is their almost altruistic actions toward those in their pack who cannot fend for themselves. Rare among the animal kingdom, they bring food back not only to their young, but also to sick or injured pack members, as well as their faithful puppy Babysitters. If you could not go on the hunt for any reason, you will still be taken care of, fed and defended by this caring group of canines.
They also exhibit far less, and milder infighting than most other predators, and do not attack or kill the weak and old of their own species just for the sake of competition, as lions and some others do. In fact, hierarchical dominance is most often a very peacefully transferred possession in Painted Dog packs.
These unique painted wolves diverged from all other Canidae millions of years ago and never looked back. They evolved in a place full of horns, teeth, tusks, claws, spines, thorns, not to mention the largest animals on land, and more! Such an open melee of fighters has honed a truly fierce, contentious, and a … very wild dog!
Because of this, Painted Dogs have proven to be extremely difficult to raise and keep in captivity. They become aggressive to people very early in life, just past the puppy stage. Bites are common, requiring a higher level of training and caution by keepers. They simply are so wild, that they have never been successfully and safely contained as a pet.
For reference, it’s actually much easier (though still a terrible idea for many reasons) to keep Spotted Hyenas or full-grown Tigers as pets! Although these are not “domesticated” either, simply tamed. (spotted hyena kept as a pet in the photo below)
Some individual Painted Dogs are kept in captivity in AZA accredited zoos or other proven conservation facilities. They are closely monitored and cared for meticulously, bred only according to the International Species Survival Plan which takes into account the genetic diversity, needs, and conservation plan for each species.
The worldwide population of Painted Dogs is at an all-time low of only 3,000–5,500 individuals (which is less than 650 breeding pairs) and falling rapidly. The outlook for this unique and ancient species is dire.
From altruism and peaceful power transfers, to pre-historic jaws and excited “high-fours,” the African Wild Dog is without parallel in the animal world. Even your buddy Rover has to admit.
If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating and Critically Endangered species, consider visiting, volunteering or donating to these accredited conservation groups: