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Celebrating dogs…and cats…on National Dog Day

“Dogs are the partners of our souls” (from the National Dog Day website)

Meet Bug and Tipsy, the partners of my soul

Tipsy (left) and Bug (right)

These Chihuahuas weren’t always this happy. When I first saw them at an animal shelter in New Mexico, Bug was skinny and losing her hair. Tipsy had just undergone surgery, and they were unable to save her right front leg.

Since they joined our family, they have thrived. Bug is now is now fat with a thick white coat. Tipsy is now the fastest dog in the neighborhood and runs on two legs when she wants to go really fast.

Just watching Tipsy’s positive, “nothing is impossible” attitude makes me realize on a daily basis just how small my problems really are.

National Dog Day—August 26

Bug and Tipsy also remind me of the importance of National Dog Day. Held on August 26 each year, National Dog Day encourages adoption to make sure amazing dogs like Bug and Tipsy find a loving home. It also celebrates the many selfless things that dogs do for us humans.

Search and rescue dog (Image credit: How search and rescue dogs work)

They help police officers sniff out bombs and drugs.

They aid search-and-rescue personnel in finding victims after natural disasters.

Most recently, they’ve begun to assist doctors in detecting diseases like cancer.

And, yes, they even work to save cats.

Dogs saving cheetahs?

You may be surprised to learn that one domestic dog breed is helping to save cheetahs in Africa.

Some fast facts about cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) from the Encyclopedia of Life:

  • They’re the fastest land mammals in the world—clocked at up to 74 miles per hour. They can accelerate from 0 to over 62 miles per hour in three seconds – about the same as a Maclaren F!
  • They inhabit most of Africa and parts of the middle East. In Africa, they live in a wide range of habitats and ecoregions—including dry forests and thick scrub, grasslands, and deserts.
  • With black spots on yellow fur, they’re often mistaken for leopards. However, the black tear lines that run from the corners of their eyes to their muzzle make them easy to recognize.
  • Gestation periods average three months with female cheetahs giving birth as early as two years of age.
  • In areas where there is significant competition from other predators, cheetahs will hunt primarily during the day. They eat their catch immediately, leaving the carcass behind once they are satiated.

These hunters are also Vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List, although some species like the Asiatic Cheetah are critically endangered. Cheetah populations are estimated to have declined by at least 30% over the past three generations, with only 6,700 known to remain.

Livestock Guarding Dog Program

As a large predator, the cheetah is particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. In Africa, they are now known to persist in only 10% of their historic range. One contributor to their plight is human/animal conflict. When a cheetah threatens a farmer’s livestock, they threaten the farmer’s livelihood. As a result, farmers often trap or shoot cheetahs to protect their farms.

One of our conservation partners, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CFF), has taken a creative approach to help solve this dilemma. They breed Anatolian shepherds and Kangal dogs and give African farmers the dogs as puppies. The puppies bond with the farmer’s herd. As they grow, their large size and loud bark scares cheetahs away from the farm and livestock.

This “Livestock Guarding Program,” which is assisted by contributions from many of our member institutions, has been highly effective at decreasing predation rates by cheetahs (by 80-100% in some cases). It is believed that this approach has helped to double or triple the cheetah population in Namibia since its start in 1994.

Helping cheetahs come out into the SPOT-light!

In the US, member institutions are also using domestic dogs to help shy cheetahs gain the confidence they need to become zoo ambassadors. Cheetah cubs who are rejected, injured or not thriving under mom’s care can become a bit introverted. Several zoos have found that by pairing domestic dogs with these shy or singleton cheetahs, the cheetahs can gain an exercise partner and the companionship skills they need to become more confident and participate in education programs. These “odd couples” spend most of their time together, although they are separated when eating as the dogs will often eat the cheetah’s food.

Cheetah cub playing with dog playmate (Image credit: San Diego Zoo)

Surrogate siblings and playmates

San Diego Zoo’s ambassador dog Elvis (Image credit: San Diego Zoo)

For example, San Diego Zoo currently has five domestic dogs (preferring Labradors, mixes and mutts) that act as animal companions and participate in presentations. Four of these dogs are paired with cheetahs, and one is paired with two wolves.

The dogs also help make conservation messages more fun and interactive. Some dogs in Africa are trained to find cheetah scat, allowing researchers to know more about the cheetahs without disturbing the animal itself. At the San Diego Zoo, “Elvis,” an exuberant, loving, smart golden retriever-yellow lab mix, demonstrates how this works—finding fake cheetah scat hidden on stage so audiences can better connect to conservationists work.

Emmett the cheetah with his dog pal Cullen (Image credit: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium on Twitter)

At Columbus Zoo, the pairing of domestic dogs (including mostly Labrador retrievers and two Anatolian shepherds) not only helps socialize shy cheetahs but also allows the zoo to better tell the story of CCF’s Livestock Guarding Program. In the past year, their ambassador cheetahs and their companion dogs have assisted Columbus Zoo to raise $96,000 that was donated to cheetah conservation!

The dogs travel with the cheetahs for program events, helping to calm the naturally more skittish cat and give them confidence in new situations. The zoo’s confident “big brother” have also helped raise several other animal ambassadors such as baby warthogs, black-backed jackals and kangaroos.

Cheetah cub and puppy at Columbus Zoo

Nanny for orphaned cubs

Australian shepherd Blakely with the five orphaned cheetah cubs (Image credit: Cincinnati Zoo)

Cincinnati Zoo, which also supports the Livestock Guarding Programs throughout Africa, has paired domestic dogs with cheetahs for another important purpose – that of a surrogate parent. When five cubs were left as orphans, the Zoo’s resident nanny, an Australian shepherd named “Blakely” was put to work in the nursery to provide snuggling, comfort and a body to climb. Climbing is important to their initial development as it helps them build muscle tone and get their guts moving. As the cubs grow, a nanny dog’s role shifts from being a climbable warm body to that of a playmate and role model. Although Blakely retired last year, he played an important role helping to raise orphaned zoo babies like these cheetah cubs.

Wild dogs are also endangered

Like cheetahs, many wild dog species are also in need of protection.

The endangered African hunting dog (Lycaon pictus) is a prime example. This colorful carnivore native to Africa holds IUCN priority status for conservation in Africa. Also called the African wild dog, African painted dog, painted hunting dog, Cape hunting dog or painted wolf, it is the only remaining member in the genus Lycaon. Primary threats to survival include habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with livestock and game farmers, loss of prey populations, accidental snaring, road kills, small population size and infectious disease.

African hunting dogs have mottled hair with yellow, grey, white and black patches. No two dogs have the same markings, so it is easy to tell them apart in the field. They have very large ears and long legs, which allow them to run up to 44 miles per hour.

The species has unique feet with four toes per foot whereas other dogs have five toes on their forefeet (counting the dewclaw). They live in tightly knit social groups of between 6 to 20 (or more). Before populations declined, packs of up to 100 were counted. Only the dominant male and female will breed, the rest of the adults help rear any litters, which can be as high as 20 pups.

African wild dog mother and cub at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, a Species360 member (Image credit: ZooBorns)

Major threats to the African hunting dog

Range reduction of African wild dog (Image credit: Population Ecology Research Group, University of Zurich)

It is estimated that less than 7,000 individual African hunting dog remain in the wild, and they are listed as endangered on the IUCN red list. Their historic range has shrunk by almost 90% —a significant issue as wild dogs need more space (300 to 800 square kilometers) than most large carnivore species.

Similar to the cheetah, human/hunting dog conflicts occur when a human’s livelihood depends largely on livestock. But using domestic dogs as livestock guardians would not work for deterring the hunting dog. While cheetahs are typically solitary hunters, African hunting dogs hunt in packs. They act as a team and are much more aggressive than the shy cheetah.

How Species360 members are helping

Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area” (March 2014-March 2019)

As their population continues to decline, Species360 members are taking action. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in addition to other conservation organizations, developed the “Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area” (March 2014-March 2019).

The plan details numerous activities that are needed for conserving the African hunting dog in the Zambezi: research and monitoring, tourism, education and awareness, political commitment, legislation, and land use and development These objectives could be adapted for use throughout Africa.

African hunting dogs at Zoological Society of London

Population planning data from ZIMS

Currently, over 100 Species360 member institutions in six regions hold almost 700 African hunting dogs, and they’re recording critical data about these animals in ZIMS to support more effective animal management and breeding programs. The African hunting dog is a studbook species for AZA, EAZA, PAZA, WAZA and ZAA. The species is a yellow Species Survival Program (SSP) for AZA and a European Endangered Species Program (EEP) for EAZA. Our members are clearly interested in the conservation of this species, and the ZIMS studbooks provide them with the data they need for intensive population analysis  and management.

The global Population Overview in ZIMS shows a consistent population with a very good Age Graph for potential future reproduction. (Download PDF version)

(Wo)Man’s Best Friend

Adrienne with her pups

Back at my house, Bug and Tipsy are taking their work seriously as well. Although they aren’t helping to save the endangered cheetah or African hunting dog, they have saved me over and over with their warmth, unconditional love and comical interludes.

I hope you too have a “partner of your soul.” to celebrate National Dog Day with.

Many thanks to Nicki Boyd at the San Diego Zoo, Shannon Swint at the Columbus Zoo and Linda Castaneda at the Cincinnati Zoo for their assistance with the cheetah/dog companion information.

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