Social Behavior

African wild dogs are highly social carnivores that live in packs. Differences in the degree of sociality between wild dogs and gray wolves (distant cousins of wild dogs) are reflected in a number of ways. One is in resting patterns in which wild dogs maintain physical contact or relatively short distances between individuals. Also, unlike wolves, they typically disperse in groups. Lone dogs and peripheral pack members are extremely rare. Pack living is obligatory. Compared to wolves, aggression is generally muted. A high degree of cooperation is key to survival and reproduction.


Pack formation in wild dogs is a social process that usually involves more than two individuals. Although this formation affects both individual fitness and population dynamics, and therefore is highly relevant to the conservation of this endangered species, little is known about the process in the wild and the proximate mechanisms that influence outcomes.


Typically same-sex relatives emigrate and join opposite-sex groups. Our observations in the field suggest that group compatibility can influence whether stable reproductive units form. When opposite-sex groups join, they undergo what has been termed a "trial courtship" that may or may not result in the formation of a stable reproductive unit. If a new pack does not stay together, it annuls. Any given instance of pack annulment may be due to one or more causal factors that vary both temporally and regionally. An analysis of resting patterns suggests that spatial relationships mirror the relative strength of social bonds and thus the degree of social integration between females and males. In newly formed packs, same-sex associations were more common in those that eventually annulled, suggesting that opposite-sex members were incompatible.


A pack consists of any group of wild dogs with a potentially reproductive pair. Packs are typically composed of related females, related males, and pups. If a pack contains more than two adults, the reproductive pair consists of the dominant male and female. Usually only the dominant pair breeds and subordinate members help care for pups. The breeding female selects a den site, such as an abandon aardvark hole, and then contours the underground chamber prior to giving birth. The average litter size is about 8 pups. When pups are about three weeks old, they appear above ground pug-nosed with black and white coloration, and small ears that readily develop into oversized proportions. Yellow markings begin to appear at four weeks. Babysitters keep a close eye on them while other family members hunt and return to the den to regurgitate food. Pups are moved to different dens during the season. When pups are around 10–12 weeks old, packs resume their nomadic way of life. By the time the pups are about 4 months, they are already familiar with what is expected as pack members.


Although wild dogs will sometimes hunt at night during certain phases of the moon, they usually rest during the heat of the day and hunt in the early morning and evening. The fact they are one of Africa's most successful hunters is due largely to their high degree of cooperation. When chasing down prey they can run up to 60 km/h. In more enclosed habitats, packs tend to split into hunting groups, with single dogs often taking down prey before leaving it to bring back other pack members to feed. Pups are the first to eat. Prey preferences vary regionally. Spotted hyenas sometimes follow wild dogs on hunts and try to steal their kill.