All bonding attempts, the methods used and the respective outcomes are summarized here (link to pdf). It is hoped that sharing of and access to this information, including numbers of males and females, relatedness of dogs, length of time spent in bomas and success or failure of boma attempts, for example, could be used to make better informed decisions when it comes to artificially bonding wild dogs. All these aspects must be considered before attempting to artificially bond groups of wild dogs to form new packs. Given the constraints imposed by working with an endangered species it is not always possible to choose the perfect combination of dogs to bond but to use what is available at the time.Past experience and field knowledge must be drawn upon to give clues as to what will contribute to success of artificial bonding in the future.
Things to consider when artificially bonding wild dogs
‘Smaller groups are more likely to accept foreign conspecifics than large groups and thus where possible new packs should be formed by two equal sized small groups (in this way, if aggression should occur between the groups, one group should not be able to overpower the other by strength in numbers). The resultant new pack must, however, still be sufficiently large (>6 individuals) to offset the inherent dangers that small packs of wild dogs face. It is well established that a minimum pack size is vital for the persistence of a pack because of negative density dependence effects (Courchamp and Macdonald 2001, Courchamp et al. 2002). Bonding attempts may thus be designed to exploit the strong evolutionary selection pressure for group augmentation in wild dogs. Further work is needed to determine the optimal single-sex group size to ensure maximum bonding success and subsequent survival upon release.’’ – Potgieter 2009
Relatedness within and between groups
Although not usually observed in the wild, unrelated individuals of the same sex have been artificially bonded in the metapopulation prior to introduction to a group of the opposite sex (Graf et al. 2006, Potgieter 2009). This does not, however, necessarily ensure that unrelated individuals will contribute to the pack in the form of pup provisioning once released (Potgieter et al. unpublished). Thus, we recommend that, where possible, single-sex groups should consist of related individuals that incur indirect benefits when they remain in the pack and help to raise their relatives’ offspring. Given the endangered status of wild dogs, however, this may not always be possible or practical.
Length of time in boma
Gusset et al. (2008) stated that increasing the amount of time groups spend in a boma improves post-release survival. Not only does this allow for successful social integration but also familiarises the animals with the release area and breaks homing tendencies. It is important not to rush the process for any reason. The exact length of time that groups are kept in bomas is case specific and the level of social integration, and a packs’ readiness for release, should be judged accordingly. This highlights the importance of behavioural monitoring of the wild dogs while in the boma.
Use of additional aids (saliva, scat etc)
The largest risk when forcing unrelated single-sex groups of wild dogs to bond is that one group will reject the other and fatal aggression will occur. An additional technique that can be implemented to reduce aggression by making the groups seem more familiar to one another is to use saliva and scat. This method involves collecting saliva (when individuals are immobilized for transportation) from each group and placing it on their unfamiliar conspecifics. If the groups are to be initially held in separate bomas scat from each group can be collected to be placed in the adjacent boma. By using these techniques each group will become familiar with the scent of the other and individuals themselves will smell more familiar.
Example of decision making process when artificially bonding wild dogs
A recent development in the domestic canine world may hold promise for the artificial bonding of wild dogs, namely the D.A.P collar. This collar has in recent years been used during bonding of wild dogs, however the impact on the bonding process is still not clearly understood. The D.A.P., or Dog Appeasing Pheromone, collar is commercially available from most vets and has been proven to help comfort both juvenile and adult domestic dogs when placed in challenging situations. The collar releases a constant stream of synthetic dog appeasing pheromone for a period of about four weeks. Dog Appeasing Pheromone, in its natural state, is produced by a lactating bitch to reassure and calm her pups as they begin to explore their surroundings. The pheromone is proven to have a positive relaxing and calming effect on adult dogs, increasing their confidence and making the process of accepting new stimuli or conspecifics easier and less challenging. The collar costs approximately R150.00 and will perish and fall off over time, thus not requiring a second immobilization to remove.
It is very important to continue assessing the situation throughout the bonding process. The flow diagram below presents an example of the kind of decisions that may need to be made when bonding two unrelated groups of wild dogs in a boma in order to form a new pack. It must be emphasized that this is merely an example and the permutations are numerous and each situation should be assessed individually.