Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids

bio conserv

 Click on the cover above to go to this book at

This book brings together research on a wide variety of wild canids, such as wolves, foxes and jackals, looking both at the dog family as a whole, and at single species. It is especially useful for readers interested in conservation, since many of the contributors are actively involved in efforts to conserve wild canid populations, such as wolf packs in the US. Readers will find a basic understanding of biology to be an advantage, but the writing is accessible to non-biologists wiho are interested in the dog family.

The editors decided to omit domestic dogs from this volume, but even so there is plenty to interest dog owners who want to understand more about the ethology of dogs, especially in the chapter on canid societies. The dog family has much in common, for example, leg cocking, and canids as a whole are very communicative, using posture, smell and voice to get their messages across. Dog owners can understand much of the language of wild canids, because it is so familiar. There are similarities across the dog family, and there are also differences. Wolf-type canids (including domestic dogs), for example, may snarl and growl, while fox-type canids tend not to do this. It is also larger, wolf-type canids which tend to live in packs, though pack size can vary, for example, according to how much food is available. Canids are very adaptable, changing their behaviour according to circumstances. This adaptablity that the authors emphasise, helps to explain why some dog owners are adamant that certain behaviour is 'natural' to dogs, while others are of the opposite opinion!

One question the authors ask is why some canid species tend to live in packs and others don't. They are also curious as to what influences pack size. The authors note that a key advantage of living in a pack seems to be that it is easier to catch large prey, and what is maybe more important, that it is easier defend the kill against other carnivores that might want to share the meal. Canids living in large packs may actually catch less food per pack member, so a large pack may not be more efficient in terms of maximising how much food is caught per canid. However, the amount of food available to a large pack may still be greater, simply because a large pack can more easily defend a large kill, so there is less waste lost to other carnivores. A lone wolf may not have to share a large kill with other pack members, but is far less able to defend a large kill, such as a moose. Small canids tend to eat small prey, like voles, and small prey can be eaten fast, so there are fewer advantages for smaller canids to live in packs. Large canids can also eat small prey immediately, but small prey is not usually enough to keep them going. Living in a pack also makes it easier for canids to defend a territory, and if the prey is able to run long distances, as happens with moose, the territory may be very large.

The authors stress that food availability, and the type of prey that canids eat, have a lot to do with their social lives. Domestic dogs tend not to catch large prey, we feed them small amounts at a time, rather than large amounts of cow or deer. If dogs squabble at meals times, this may be 'natural', since larger canids tend not to share small prey, and their bowl of kibble may seem like small prey to them. Yet, from what we learn about wild canids, it is also 'natural' for dogs to be able to share, if the prey is big enough. The same dogs may also be willing to share large toys, though much less willing to share small chews!

Domestic dogs tend to have far smaller home territories to defend than do the wild canids of similar size described in this book. Dog owners are familiar with fence barking, and other aspects of canine territoriality. One crucial difference between domestic dogs and wolves is perhaps that we walk our dogs over a wider territory outside the home, in parks and fields, or on city streets., sometimes taking our dogs into close proximity to strange dogs. Wolves, on the other hand, tend to avoid non-pack members. Are we trying to force dogs to behave 'unnaturally' when we expect them to behave well with strange dogs? This is an interesting issue, and the answer is perhaps 'sometimes'. We have changed the environment so much that what is 'natural' for domestic dogs is not the same as what is 'natural' for the wild wolves described in this book, living in very different environments. Domestic dogs tend to lead pampered lives, compared with these wolves. Our dogs don't have to defend a large territory in order to eat. This may help to explain why domestic dogs, if given a choice, are often friendly towards some strange dogs, while the authors tell us that wolves are likely to avoid non-pack members. We can't hope for our pets to like every strange dog they meet, but we can often teach our pets to learn to ignore strange dogs they meet away from home, especially if they have enough space, and are away from their home territories. Sometimes we are even able to introduce new, adult, members to domestic packs, in a way that is less common among wild canids.

Curiously, the authors note, pack membership is often fluid among wild canids. Pack members may leave and then return. Wolf packs tend to accept returning family members on their territory, while being hostile to non-related packs they meet at the border. Packs may even adopt unrelated cubs. Does this mean that domestic dogs are more likely to get on if they are related? Not necessarily! We tend to confine dogs to small spaces, and choose who they live with. Wild canids have more chance of backing off and hiding if there is conflict, and of leaving the pack, if conflict becomes serious, Some dog owners do, indeed, report keeping two related dogs together in harmony, while others report serious conflict. What is 'unnatural' here may be trying to keep dogs together in a confined space when they don't get on. We have also accentuated the differences between different breeds of domestic dogs by selecting for particular character traits, or physical differences, such as size, or strength of jaw. Breed differences make it very difficult to generalise, for example, smaller dogs may be more easily accepted into domestic packs, because they appear 'puppyish', or they may be seen as prey, and attacked. Some breeds seem to be far more tolerant of strange dogs than others, and some dogs have had too little contact with other dogs to want their peace disturbed by any newcomer, however cute.

The family life of wild canids has long fascinated biologists. The authors note that many larger canids have just one breeding pair in a pack. Other pack members help to raise the pups, both by guarding them when the parents are out hunting, and by feeding them. Subordinate females are less likely to have pups, and if they do give birth, their pups are much less likely to survive. Dominant males try to prevent subordinate males from mating. Dominant females may reject subordinate males, though in the case of Ethiopian wolves, they may accept subordinate males from other packs. Young males may leave the pack at sexual maturity, in order to have a chance to breed. Domestic dog owners have often noted conflict between breeding bitches, if they are allowed near each other, something that is 'unnatural' in wild canid society. Conflict in domestic packs is more likely to happen between dogs of the same sex. However dogs of the same sex can live together peacefully, even entire males, and this is just as 'natural' as conflict. So long as one male defers to the other, there is no reason for conflict between males. Some bitches can live peacefully together, though allowing two bitches with litters to have access to each other is taking a risk.

This books perhaps raises more questions for dog owners than it answers. It is a useful reminder that 'natural' canid behaviour can vary a great deal according to the environment, and we, as owners, can control our dogs' environment. You may find that this book gives you few hard and fast answers, but it can provide enlightenment towards understanding the wolf at the hearth.