South American Bush Dog–Smallest of the Wild Dogs

The smallest of the wild dogs is the South American bush dog, weighing in at less than 15 pounds.  No bigger than a terrier, it has a solid little body and short legs. The bush dog is built low to the ground so it can dart through the underbrush of the rainforest without being seen.

The problem with their small stature is that bush dogs can’t even see each other in tall grass and thick bushes. They make up for this with a repertoire of grunts, squeaks, whines and growls that carry over long distances at ground level. They “talk” almost constantly, telling each other where they are and what they’re doing. Bush dogs also mark their paths of travel with frequent urine marking.

Bush dogs have soft, reddish brown fur.  With their short ears, round heads and blunt noses, they look more like weasels than dogs. When a bush dog jumps into the water, it looks like an otter, paddling with its webbed feet.  Bush dogs dive underwater like experts and swim with their eyes open to catch fish, turtles, and other water animals. Because of this ability, they usually live near rivers. To watch a video of bush dogs catching a turtle  click here.

Holes vacated by armadillos and other burrowing animals often become the homes of bush dogs. Others move into hollow logs. If they can’t find anything ready-made, bush dogs dig their own dens (photo).

Hunting together during the day, a pack of bush dogs fans out over the forest floor. Occasionally they hunt alone, listening and sniffing their way along. As a pack, they work together so intelligently that they can bring down prey as large as peccaries and tapirs—some weighing over 500 pounds.

When a bush dog pair has pups, other adults in the pack stop mating.  This allows the group to focus on one litter at a time. For several weeks, the babies stay hidden in their den.  The extended family makes sure no predators get close. When the pups finally emerge, pack members share the job of protecting and feeding them.  Their aunts and uncles carry them in their mouths just like their parents do.

As the pups outgrow nursing, pack members bring them food–chewing it first and then transferring it to the babies’ mouths.  The pups paw at the muzzles of the adults to them know they’re hungry.

Among the friendliest of the wild dogs, bush dogs greet each other joyfully after a separation, wagging their stubby tails. They sleep close to each other (click here), travel in an orderly way (single file), and rarely fight over anything. The packs have no clear ladder of dominance the way other wild dogs do. They treat each other as equals. It’s hard to say who’s running things in a bush dog pack.

Little is known about these secretive animals because they stay so well hidden in the rainforests of South America, mainly in Brazil. Much of our knowledge of their behavior comes from zoos helping to preserve the species in captivity. Zoo staff find them friendly and sociable, much like pet dogs. As of 2010, the American public could see bush dogs in only five city zoos—Oklahoma City, Palm Beach, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Little Rock.

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