• Emily Costello

Democracy for Dogs

Sometimes, there is no possible way to compromise.

The chances of finding a candidate for prime minister that everybody in this country is happy with would be very slim. There will always be days when not everybody in the family agrees on what they want for dinner. Whether it’s a big decision or a small one, quite often we as human’s resort to a good old-fashioned vote to settle the matter – majority rules. Turns out that we are not the only creatures on this planet who show a form of democracy:

Introducing the African wild dog.

Found living across Savannah's in countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania, these carnivores are one of the world’s most endangered mammals. There may be as little as 6,000 individuals left in the wild, and yet some of you may never heard of them before. Similar to Hyenas, these guys live in packs, with a dominant female and male breeding pair leading the group. The pair will be the only individuals to breed and often family members within the pack will help rear their pups. The main reason for living in a pack, among others, is probably the same as all other animals that choose to live in groups – safety in numbers.

Young pups and adolescents that are still learning how to hunt require the protection of adults, and the breeding pair require adults to hunt for a substantial amount of food to rear their pups. Everyone benefits from being together so splitting up is never an option. So, who decision is it to move the pack on from a resting spot, and who oversees where they go?

Whilst the easy option would be for the leaders (the dominant pair) to call all the shots, this is rarely the case in group-living species in the wild. If all other group members were totally against their leader’s choice, the leaders are outnumbered and risk losing control of their group. There needs to be some sort of consensus.

For wild dogs, this is seen when the group is moving off to hunt. Before a hunt the dogs will start a ‘rally’. They jump up and wag their tails in excitement, rub against each other to strengthen their social bonds and make all sorts of yips and yowls. If you ever witness one of these rallies, there is one other sound you may hear – and that is sneezing. Yep, they sneeze. Just like your dog at home may make sneeze-like noises when playing or rising from a nap. However, it seems these sneezes have more of a purpose than previously thought.

When a sneeze is heard, it is often followed by other sneezes from the other group members. If enough sneezes are heard from a majority, then the group will begin the hunt. However, if there are not so many responses, then the rally subsides, and they return to their resting spot.

Effectively, this is a vote! Majority rules.

You may be thinking, ‘what is the point of having a leader of the group if they all vote on it anyway?’ and this is where it gets interesting. Recent studies have shown that if a dominant adult sneezed first, a maximum of 3 sneezes is needed before they go and hunt. However, if a subordinate sneezed first, 10 or more sneezes must be heard before a decision is reached. It seems they have some kind of a threshold which varied depending on who began the rally. This all supports the idea that a group in the wild with a single leader or dominant will simply not function unless there are rules in place. A dominant individual may seem to be in control of their pack, however, it’s discoveries like this one that allow us to realise that in certain situations, it is beneficial to reach some sort of consensus in order for the pack to stay together and for everyone to benefit.

This is maintaining the stability of group-living and is one of the many reasons animals that live in groups are common in the animal kingdom and thrive in the wild.

So, if you’re ever out on safari, now you know - what may seem to be a pack of African wild dogs having a sneezing fit, may actually be this form of democracy. Democracy for dogs.

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