Painted Dogs

painted dogs"Somewhere in woodland, a gnarled old umtshibi spread aloft towards the Southern Cross, its tangled evergreen canopy twinkling to the light of a half moon.

We spoke of earthly things, of evolution and of wildlife and its survival - the place each species rightfully has on this earth until natural struggle and conflict between them determines their niche or failure; how only Man's concern and wisdom can give some hope and fairness to their fate.

The night with its unknown shadows, its apparitions of uncertainty and fantasy, was keenly silent but not eerie. We felt an affinity with the profound touch of nature. Unknown to us one of the most moving experiences of our lives was about to unfold.

The silence was intense. To breathe was an effort.

The sudden disturbance of dry leaves, some fresh, some burnt and tarnished by time and an unforgiving sun, was exaggerated by the acuteness of our senses. Adrenaline made it deafening.
Patter patter, patter patter . . The pattern was familiar to those who love animals. The large elongated paws, designed by evolution for sustainability, for running down prey to fulfil essential needs of life, began circling us unseen.

There was scuffling as animals came together - perhaps in play - then continued with their reconnoitre. They became bolder, inquisitive, shortening the distance to metres between us. Our eyes strained hard to gather in the struggling light of the moon, to put shape and feeling to the concealing shadows of the night. They circled us again.

Suddenly they were there - lean, ghost-like shapes in the moonlight with Mickey Mouse ears; wearing their dappled coats of black, tan and gold, like ink spots on blotting paper. Only a new day would reveal their full beauty. Only Man could hope to prevent their extinction.

The Painted Dogs then melted into the African night like phantoms as quietly as they had come."

Extract from Prose of C.D. McClelland


NAMING: African wild dog, Painted hunting dog, Painted dog, Cape hunting dog, African hunting dog 

Scientiific name: Lycaon pictus  The first name denoted to the species from a type specimen in Mozambique was the Cape hunting dog  (Temminck, 1820). Lycaon pictus translates as `painted wolf-like animal', which highlights the varicoloured patterning of the dogs as well as indicating the similarity in appearance only with true dogs genus Canis whilst at the same time recognising the uniqueness of the species. The name wild dog developed during the era of persecution of all predators when the name was derrogatorily applied to feral dogs, hyaenas, jackals and Cape hunting dogs. 

Order: Carnivora Family: Canidae Sole member of the ancient genus Lycaon 

HISTORIC DISTRIBUTION: Throughout Africa excluding true rain forest and desert.

CURRENT DISTRIBUTION: Patchily distributed in sub-Saharan Africa reaching south Africa. Stronghold populations in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, south Africa. Known populations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia. Senegal, Cameroon and Ethiopia. Sporadic sightings elsewhere.

HABITAT AND TERRITORY:  From semi-desert, to grassland though savanna woodland mosaic and forest which probably preferred. Although their preferred habitat is woodland and scrub, wild dogs have been recorded in widely varying environments. Where habitat is suitable and good resident prey populations exist, painted dog densities average only one pack per 400sq km (150sq mi), while in less optimal habitats, densities as low as one per 2,000sq km (770sq mi) are not uncommon. In keeping with the nomadic nature of the dogs, territories are not fixed in space though they may remain constant over a  wet or dry season, and then shift as circumstances change. Consequently, on the whole, territories do not overlap at any point in time and just drift seemingly in relational avoidance with neighbouring packs.  This drifting territoriality has intriguingly been seen in another highly social species The European badger Meles meles in England dogs seemingly avoiding one another. The mobility  of the dogs is impressive with the dogs easily ranging 20-30 kms in a day and often at speed.  On record from Zimbabwe was a pack that traveled 43 km in two and a half hours with full stomachs bringing food back to the den. Long distances have also been recorded with animals dispersing with distances in the order of 250 km as the crow flies from the last territory being recorded.

SIZE: Head–body length 75–120cm (30–47in); tail length 30–44cm (12–18in); shoulder height 75cm (30in): weight 20–32kg (44–71lb). No variation between sexes. Dogs from Southern  African populations are larger than E African ones and consequently approximately 3-5 (6-11lb) kg lighter.. 

COAT: Variable in length with each individual having a unique pattern comprising of  black gold and white.  There is no bilateral symmetry in the pattern which though is random does show inherited characteristics in various signature markings and the percentage of the various colours.  Pups are born black and white with the white remaining with the individual for the rest of their lives whilst some of the black turning to gold.  By the age of two and a half the colour pattern has finished evolving. All individuals have a dark muzzle, a central saggital stripe, dark ears with characteristic hair tufts inside, and most individuals having a white tip to the tail. Dogs from E African African populations are generally darker than those in Southern Africa. 

BREEDING & DEVELOPMENT: Gestation 70–73 days. Eyes  open at 10-14 days with the ears becoming erect at 2-3 weeks.  The ears grow rapidly to the point at 12-14 weeks when they are even more seemingly disproportionally large. By the age of two years the dogs have finished growing skeletally however they do not seem to complete filling out  muscularly until two and a half  to three years which interestingly coincides with the completion of the coat color development.
LONGEVITY About  8  years in the wild with the oldest dog known being  from Zimbabwe and at least 11 years old when last seen.  

CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered, with only 2500 dogs known from the stronghold populations. A further 1500 may collectively occur in populations elsewhere.


Of all the canids it is the most unique both in morphological and physiological design and amongst mammals it has a social system that may be classed as being at the top of the hierarchy. 

This fascinating species is classified as a hypercarnivore which relates to the niche of the meat specialist, with a diet comprising more than 70% meat. This ecological specialization  is also associated with specific changes in the skull and dentition that include the facial portion of the skull shortening to deliver  a high bite force, as well as a carnassial that increases the slicing component relative to the grinding component.  Meeting these criteria, Lycaon has a short, powerful muzzle housing an array of shearing teeth, that  due to the extreme compression of the skull often seem crowded. as they possess a unique molar/premolar configuration that improves carnassial shear and is a diagnostic characteristic for the genus. On the carnassial, the inner cusp of the talonid is missing, providing not a basin for crushing but an additional cutting blade. The first upper molar is correspondingly modifed with, both features indicating the highly predaceous habit of the species. Correspondingly the nasal opening is large with a big internal surface area, being an adaptation to inhaling large volumes of air as well as recouping water that could  be lost through exhalation.

In contrast to wolves, the canine teeth sit slightly proud of the jaw-line and are buttressed with additional bone strengthening.  In conjunction with exceptional teamwork, the end result of these adaptations enable both bone and meat to be rapidly removed from a fresh carcass. Also distinct from other canids, the species has completely lost the fifth digit – the dew claw – on the front feet. The legs are long relatively thin enabling top speeds of 70 kmph with their distinctive, large, ‘Micky mouse’ ears probably aid cooling,  At full tilt, the dogs are an impressive sight in many ways resembling a cheetah, having a very flexible back and a leg extension so great that the belly almost touches the ground when the legs are fully outstretched. These adaptations in conjunction with the ability to lose heat without losing much water  and tolerate high body temperatures enable them to be endurance runners in relatively high ambient temperatures and if necessary out distance their prey without running into lactic acid problems often experienced by performance runners. Their long legs also enable them to maintain a steady, near effortless trot at  12-14 kmph for hours in cool temperatures whilst searching for suitable prey items. 

The social system of the dogs can only be described as exemplary and at the top of the social pinnacle.  In contrast to wolves and most social primates, fighting is rare to non-existent with hierarchies being reinforced by etiquette rather than dominance.  Alphas seem to be ‘chosen/accepted’ for leadership qualities rather than by physical stature. This was borne out in research in Zimbabwe where on two occasions the alpha male had only three legs as a consequence of being snared and the dogs chewing their legs off in order to escape and another alpha being recorded as having no tail. Were physical dominance the selecting criteria, such handicapped dogs would never have make alpha status.  Overt conflict is rare in the dogs, and  seemingly it is being resolved before it occurs with the dogs constantly reinforcing  bonds  without there seemingly being any obvious reason to do so other than to maintain cohesion.

In many ways this behaviour could be classed as pre-emptive conflict resolution which is rarely recorded in any other species. Greeting ceremonies are undertaken when pack members wake up prior to activities such as meeting the pups or going hunting. Such ceremonies comprise of each dog actively seeking out other pack members and with head lowered and back arched greeting each pack member in a seemingly submissive fashion with the mouth slightly open.  This is reinforced by ‘spooning’ where the head is placed under the belly of the other dog and it will be partially lifted. These interactions may be accompanied by soft high pitched yelps and begging squeals which form part of the dogs’ enormous repetoire of vocalizations.  This expansive auditory language is supported by numerous visual postures and cues by the ears, tail, mouth and back positions Consequently, the combined effect, is an ability to communicate at a very high level as would be required to operate at such a high level of social complexity.

Most of the vocal communication is high frequency which can only be heard at very close range and probably serves to avoid being detected by other predators such as lions and hyaenas which have been known to kill both adults and pups should they detect them.  Intriguingly the dogs do have a long distance  “hoo” call which can even be heard by humans as far as 2 km away. This call serves as a distress signal and can either be given by an individual that is lost or one that is looking for another.  Pups also seem to use it for some days after the loss of a same sexed sibling.  Every dog has a unique signature to its hoo call thus enabling pack members to know exactly who is lost and most importantly if it is another member of their own pack. Pack members soon reassemble after tracking the direction and distance of the calls. Such is the need to maintain pack integrity, painted dogs are one of the few species that will look after their sick and old.  In the case of injured individuals, it has been noted that on the whole one individual seemingly assumes the role of “Doc.” When it comes to cleaning wounds and ‘guarding’ the injured dog.  Every pack member will however regurgitate food to injured or old dogs as appropriate.


Painted dogs do everything together whether foraging, resting or caring for pups. The average pack comprises  an alpha pair, who initially are supported by their brothers and sisters, and later by their own pups when they reach yearling age class.  The average pack is 6-12 adults and yearlings with pups.   Very occasionally packs swell to 30 -50 individuals when they are established and have a couple of years with good litters and high pup survival, however this is usually only for very short periods as the pack then usually reduces in number sometimes by fission, but  more usually with the sibling males and females born into the pack dispersing to try and form a pack of their own. This normally happens just after the mating season or shortly after the litter of the year is weaned. Dispersers leave in single sexed units with females leaving when they are two to three years old and males leaving when they are three to four years old. Males disperse much greater distances and have been recorded 240 kms from their natal home range whilst females are more prudent and generally disperse into familiar territory.  The difference of dispersal strategies is of great consequence genetically as it greatly reduces the likelihood of inbreeding. Packs are formed when a group of females accepts an unfamiliar group of males and then an alpha pair forms. Occasionally, females that do not take the alpha position secondarily disperse, however the males usually stay with the pack for the rest of their life.

The alphas generally are the only ones that breed though occasionally a second litter is born to a subordinate female, though it is rare.  Sometimes subordinate males will gain mating access to the alpha female and this may be more common than at present suspected. As males in general show much greater fidelity to the pack, this is one o the possible reasons that they stay.  The dogs can have very large litters with 21 being the maximum recorded, though on average litter sizes are 8-12

The literature always reports a male bias in packs which  studies have now discovered is a consequence of males showing more fidelity to the pack and  a bias in the sex-ratio of the  litters. Litters born to maiden bitches  are called primiparous and contain a higher proportion of males.  Second litters to now multiparous females are half and half , with subsequent litters being biased towards females with this trend increasing as females get older.  The implications of this are twofold. Firstly this system may have developed as an evolutionary stable adaptation. Because males show more fidelity to the pack,  the birth of males will ensure a supply of helpers, and in particular, when they reach the age of two to three, provide experienced hunters. This will facilitate the long term survival of a new founded pack, whilst at the same time ensuring that once it has reached stability, dispersing females will ensure it doesn’t get too large for its own good. The tragedy however is that this evolutionary stable strategy could well be undermined by human induced mortality.  It could increase pack turnover to the point that the majority of females would only have one litter and then the pack would be extirpated.  This scenario could upset the fine tuned natural strategy with devastating consequence as females could become in very short supply.

In most places pups are born to synchronize with the coldest time of the year.  They are born in a hole, called a den and is often very deep and sometimes has multiple entrances. The dens always bend so that no light enters the denning chamber and consequently it is impossible to see down. Painted dog dens are easily recognized even from the air as because the dogs work as a team to excavate or modify the hole, and consequently they are characterized by a  long sand piles that can extend several metres from the den mouth.  The den is accessed by only the alpha female who stays down there for most of the first two week period after the pups are born.

Usually at this age the pups first emerge and are shown to a very expectant pack.  After this period the pups will be cared for by the whole pack, and when the pack is out hunting, the pups will usually be guarded by a subordinate dog who will either alert the pups to danger and send them scurrying down the den or will even chase away the danger. There is on record an instance where the presence lion caused a yearling male baby-sitting 12 week old pups to move them a distance of 1.8 km away from the danger.  Other potential advantages of baby-sitting are that the mother who is often an experienced hunter, may be allowed to go back sooner to hunt if a subordinate dog guards the litter. This enables the alpha female to get back into vital body condition post whelping.

This is essential as she is the only breeder with the remaining females being are reproductively suppressed. Unless disturbed, painted dogs will only move den once ,maximum twice during the whole denning period, however they are easily disturbed by humans and sometimes lose pups when moving them at this vulnerable period.  As long as there is plenty of provisioning power from the adults and yearlings who all contribute to feed the pups by regurgitation, the pups, which have one of the shortest suckling periods of any mammal of this size are often are totally weaned onto solid food by three weeks of age.  On average packs stay at the den for 10-14 weeks after which they become nomadic again and will hide the pups when out hunting.  This is known as caching and here the pups will also be guarded by a baby sitter.

At about 18weeks, the pups follow the dogs on the hunt and are cached as soon as the chase starts and then are led to each kill as soon as it is made. There, the pups are allowed to eat first until they have had their fill. Only then do the adults feed on whatever is left of the carcass. This pup privilege is ceases as soon as the new litter is born.


The species is best described as diurnal to crepuscular, hunting in the cool of early mornings, late evenings and when there is sufficient light for them to hunt by the moonlight. The hunt usually commences with a pre-hunt greeting ritual after which all dogs will set off in a seemingly determined direction.  Classically the dogs have been labelled sight hunters, and whilst they are light limited, their ability to operate in dense woodland and  low light levels would indicate that they are using auditory cues at a much greater level than currently believed. Packs generally only hunt when  their stomachs are empty or nearly so and even will often be seen to regurgitate the last stomach content to un-accompanying pups. It is estimated that each dog consumes 2.5 -3.5 kg live prey weight per day, and as the dogs have very  elastic stomachs, if the dogs eat to capacity  on a large animal they may not hunt for two to three days.  

Painted dogs regularly hunt most non defensive antelope species, though will occasionally opportunistically ‘test’ and if lucky take a vulnerable member of defensive species such as  buffalo calves, sable  and rarely zebra. Consequently proportional to abundance, in southern Africa impala, kudu, nyala and duiker  form  the bulk of the dogs’ diet. In East Africa, impala, thompsons gazelles, wildebeest form the main prey with dik dik being taken heavily where they are locally abundant,  Some packs occasionally become specialists in more unobtainable defensive prey such as warthog or zebra, however when this occurs, it seems to be a result of one individual learning the behaviour and then relaying the information by cultural transmission.  Such a tradition was recorded in east Africa, however it died out as it did with one dog in a pack in Hwange, Zimbabwe that became a warthog specialist.  This behaviour stopped as soon as the dog in question died.

The dogs do not scavenge and will forage over large distances   to ‘select’ those individuals that are compromised either due to age, injury or environmental stress. Yearlings participate in the hunt and assist in the kill, though they are often a hindrance in as they misjudge chases, with the consequence that the pack either fails, aborts, or has to deal with greater chase distances. During the hunt periods the dogs walk large distances interspersed by chases in an attempt to secure prey.  There is no real such thing as the ‘average hunt”, for in the same way that each species has its own anti-predator strategy, the dogs have different strategies to capture different species.  The dogs do however try to decrease the ‘flight distance’ between them and the prey and they will either achieve this by using the vegetation as cover, or decrease the distance by stalking with ears laid flat in plain view of the staring prey. This latter strategy at least seems to gain them 50-100 metres before the prey takes off.

The dogs which weigh 25-30 kg and are competent hunters regularly able to tackle large prey such as kudu bulls (230 kg) and when they are in large herds wildebeest which out weigh them by factors of 8:1 and 6:1 respectively. To assist achieve subdue such large prey, painted dogs use the 'twitch' hold (nose hold) very effectively to subdue large prey. The success of this is hold is believed to be a consequence of b-endorphin release causing when the 1st cranial nerve is damaged. This technique which is used by humans with bulls and horses, creates an almost trance like state called catatonia which makes the animals tractable. Sensationalistic historic comments such as they ‘chase their prey until it is exhausted’ and ‘dying from loss of blood caused by pieces taken off the animal whilst running’ are not founded.   Outstanding teamwork on behalf of the dogs ensures that prey is rapidly intercepted in flight and as soon as the prey has been secured either by the flank throat or nose,, it is disemboweled and usually dead within 60 seconds.   Due to the exceptional strength of the dogs, smaller antelope weighing <30 kg are killed instantaneously as they are dissected into several pieces.  The dogs dispatch the carcass with astonishing speed, as they cooperate in the most astounding way, with there being no selfishness and each individual assisting the other to maximize on the meat retrieval.  Such a system ensures that should lions or hyaenas arrive to steal their prey there is not a lot left. 

In the human dominated environment the dogs were reported to be putative cattle killers and as a consequence under this auspice they were mercilessly persecuted throughout Africa and were eradicated from National Parks. In Rhodesia, a 10 shilling bounty was paid on surrender of the tail and the skin of the head and neck (Rhodesian Agricultural Journal, 1906). They were classified as vermin from 1906 until 1975 and slaughtered. For example, in Zimbabwe alone, during the 5 year period 1956±1961, at least 2674 dogs were destroyed with the impetus for such slaughter being fuelled and justified by irrational, unfounded, prejudicial comments about “cruel” killing tactics. With figures for real predation on domestic livestock being biased or unobtainable. More recently in Zimbabwe and Kenya, real figures for the impact of painted dogs on livestock were obtained and it was found that the whilst the  dogs do occasionally take stock, it was the exception rather than the rule with wild game seemingly being preferred by the dogs.  In fact in one cattle region of Zimbabwe the dogs were responsible for 1.7 % of all losses whereas poor management accounted for 43.9% of the cattle lost!


For this species in the past prejudiced public perception and ignorance pushed his species close to extinction, and in most areas where the species remains it is managing to hold on. Tragically, they are persecuted by humans, particularly in southern Africa, where they are still regarded as vermin by ranchers and are often run over by cars sometimes deliberately. In East Africa, they are seemingly susceptible to epidemic infectious diseases, rabies and parvo-virus, which persist in reservoirs of wild species or domestic dogs. In southern Africa and in the Selous, though disease has reared its ugly head, the dogs are able to build up sufficient antibodies to so far stop it being catastrophic demonstrating that the species has the ability to cope with disease and may not as a species be as susceptible as once thought.  However this does not rule out that certain populations, and particularly those environmentally stressed are not vulnerable as in east Africa they are.  As well as stress, it has also been hypothesised1 that loss of genetic variability may render wild dogs more vulnerable to diseases and parasites. Vaccination of wild dogs is contentious, as some people believe that stress from intervention may have contributed to the extinction of the Serengeti wild dog population by disease. However, vaccination of domestic dogs living on reserve boundaries would reduce local disease reservoirs and indirectly benefit wild dogs.

In the natural state the dogs can struggle if lion or hyaena density increases particularly in open areas where they are more easily detected. Both lions and hyaenas will steal the dog’s hard earned prey, with lions directly killing dogs if the opportunity arises. Dogs normally hunt for around 3.5 hours per day, but must increase this to 12 hours if they lose 25 percent of their food which is an impossible feat and so even a short spate of kleptoparasitism can rapidly wipe a pack out. 

More worrying is the loss of the dogs’ habitat, with habitat quality shrinking in face of an expanding human population poverty, and a declining prey base caused by poaching with snares that also accidentally kill the dogs. Consequently these issues need to be addressed in order for the population to expand into new areas and hold on in others.

As the dogs need vast areas of land on which to hunt and have territories that are not fixed in space over time these nomads frequently roam out of protected areas where traditionally they have been killed.  In Zimbabwe education, outreach, awareness and community conservation has reversed the decline, resulting in hardly any persecution and a significant increase in the Zimbabwean population. Being so social, maintaining pack numbers is key, for packs are so sensitive to even the loss of a few individuals, and as a consequence small packs easily crash. As most of the populations are in isolated reserves the future of the species hinges on prevention of direct persecution, as well as on the management of land that promotes sustainable prey populations.  Ultimately to achieve good conservation for this species, and to enable it to survive, the species needs corridors or at least “stepping stones’ to enable populations to link, combined much better tolerance outside reserves.

Further reading:

Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs - 2004 Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Claudio Sillero Zubiri, Michael Hoffmann, & David W. Macdonald

Running Wild: Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog. John McNutt, Lesley Boggs, Helene Heldring, Dave Hamman by John McNutt, Lesley

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