Changing Planet

Mysterious Bush Dogs to Be Bred: Behind the Elusive Species

The bush dogs of South America know how not to be seen.

Camera traps miss them. Local indigenous people hear but don’t see them. Weighing in at about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and resembling little bears, they’re among the cutest ninjas in the wild world.

A zookeeper holds a six-week-old bush dog pup during a veterinary check-up at England’s Chester Zoo on July 9, 2010. Photograph by Phil Noble, Reuters

“The biggest problem with studying them is that they spend almost half their day underground in burrows … You can be walking right over a bush dog and not know it,” said Karen DeMatteo, a National Geographic grantee and biologist at the Washington University in St. Louis and the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute. She has been studying bush dogs since 1998.

“There are people who have camera traps out—hundreds of camera traps. Out of thousands of thousands of photos, they might get one photo of a bush dog,” DeMatteo said. One colleague of hers has had camera traps set up for over a decade and has never gotten a picture of one. (See a rare picture of bush dogs taken in 2008.)

Elusive though it may be, the bush dog is considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and vulnerable in Brazil—and this has spurred some to act.

Various Brazilian agencies have just started a program to breed bush dogs in captivity at the Park Zoobotânico Parauapebas in Carajás National Forest.

The bush dog is also being bred in international zoos, including Twycross Zoo in England, where three pups were born in August—the first litter at the zoo in nearly a decade.

Dog Dangers

Though the bush dog is protected by most local governments and native groups, their biggest threat is domestic dogs.

Bush dogs have partially webbed feet, excellent for digging for prey such as armadillos, which they do in teams, with one bush dog doing the tunneling and the another clearing the dug dirt away.

But they also like to use old dens dug by either armadillos or large rodents called paca. Hunting dogs trained by their owners to look for paca will come to those dens. Sometimes the bush dog and the domestic dog will get into fights—and sometimes the hunter kills the bush dog.

In addition to direct conflict, “domestic dog diseases will kill bush dog groups pretty quickly,” DeMatteo said.

“We experienced that in Brazil with mange: A little mange knocked out an entire group of bush dogs.” (Also see “Dog Disease Infecting Tigers, Making Them Fearless.”)

Add to this that bush dogs are social with each other, if not with us: They live in extended family groups with no dominant member or pecking order, and families share everything from food to parenting duties to disease.

“That’s the bad thing about being a social canid. If one gets mange you all get mange. If one get distemper you all get distemper.”

Scat Sniffer

Bush dog habitat, including the protected areas where DeMatteo studies them in Argentina, is very fragmented, making bush dog groups increasingly isolated from each other and exposed to risks.

DeMatteo’s main goal is to identify corridors through the habitat that allow bush dogs to roam without getting into conflict with domestic dogs.

Fortunately, she has an ally poised to help bush dogs—and ironically, he’s a domestic dog.

Train, a rescued Chesapeake Bay retriever, knows how to sniff out the scat of various species in the wild, samples of which provide huge amounts of information other research methods can’t. (Related: “Train the Scat-Sniffing Dog.”)

He can search off trails and find evidence under the grass that people might not see with the naked eye. He’s like a detective that’s able to trace a suspect from credit card transactions—the bush dogs are just leaving him a different kind of trail.

On the first comprehensive survey of bush dogs in Misiones, Argentina, in 2011, for example, Train located 34 scat samples representing 22 individual bush dogs.

That may not seem like much, but it’s a gold mine to researchers of this secretive animal, providing a ton of information about how to build those biological corridors, including a baseline number of individuals and which lands they were using.

“Those samples were our first piece of the puzzle for that species in the region,” DeMatteo said. (Watch a video of Train at work.)

Happy Breeders

Making connections between wild bush dogs is important, but making love connections between captive bush dogs is equally so.

“With bush dogs we’re lucky in that they’re a species that seem to breed very well in captivity, unlike a lot of carnivores,” said DeMatteo, who has done a lot of research with captive bush dogs, including working with captive-breeding programs internationally.

“With bush dogs you can pretty much put a male in with a female and they’re happy. They love to breed! They are compulsively social and hate to be alone.”

Don’t get her wrong: These are definitely not casual hookups. The efforts that go into maintaining a healthy population of captive bush dogs probably make human matchmaking services look like a coin toss.

“There’s an international studbook as well as regional studbooks in Brazil, Japan, and the U.S. that work together to maximize the genetic diversity among the populations. That’s key to keeping the population as healthy as it is”—an especially important element because it’s hard to get new animals from the wild.

Captive facilities also provide genetic resources for studying how these elusive animals fit evolutionarily with other canids in the world, which is information crucial to controlling disease, for instance.

The captive population in zoos and other facilities also allows the public to learn about a species they may never see in the wild. Even Train, whose remarkable nose has helped gather so much information about them, has never “met” a bush dog.

Maybe someday he’ll get to find more than their receipts.

Follow Liz Langley on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at
  • batsdude

    There’s nothing here about raising them as a pet, which is kind of a shame, as they seem like they’d be perfect for even an apartment based on their size.

  • Liz Langley

    Funny, I thought that, too, because they’re small and cute but I think because they’re protected they’re not kept as pets – am going to check on that and get back to you.

  • Liz Langley

    @batsdude I checked with Karen DeMatteo who said that in most countries they’re not allowed to be kept as pets. Also, they have marking behaviors that would “not be cool” in an apartment – males have a fine urine spray that can go two meters and females do a handstand & mark vertically! She said she can report firsthand on being marked and doesn’t exactly recommend it. 🙂
    Thanks for the observation!

  • Greg

    Not pet material, these animals are the only aquatic member of the canine family. They have large family units and all of them utilize wetlands and diving areas. None of these can be replicated in a home let alone most zoos.
    Do not let their size fool you, they hunt animals up to 600 pounds in the wild.

  • J. Martinelli

    That’s a really cute animal. Are they really a breed of dogs or something else? Wish I could raise 1 as a pet as well. At first, I thought it was a Tasmanian Devil. The bush dogs look like they might be vicious like the Tasmanian Devils are.

  • Botshelo Gonyane

    Its a Shame that the species is so Cute, yet cannot be bred as a pet.

  • Linda Workman-Crider

    @batsdude a large number of invasive species began by someone thinking the animal,fish,amphibian,reptile,insect,plant was cute. A much better way to love on these animals is to protect their habitat and support research. I definitely do agree that the bush dog is cute though 🙂

  • Linda Workman-Crider

    @ Liz Langley This ” The bush dog is also being bred in international zoos, including Twycross Zoo in England, where three pups were born in August—the first litter at the zoo in nearly a decade” And this……..“With bush dogs we’re lucky in that they’re a species that seem to breed very well in captivity, unlike a lot of carnivores,” said DeMatteo, ” Do not seem to match up well. I realize this is short article but including some numbers aside from the three bush dog pups in the last decade may be helpful.

  • Joseph R. Graniczny

    Wonderful article. For sure a great and educational read. I also love the humor at the end. This is my introduction to the writing you do and I plan to continue to follow.



  • Tomas Adamec


    There are four pretty puppies in the Prague Zoo at this moment.

    Photographer of Prague Zoo

  • Sarah

    You would NOT want these guys as pets. I’ve worked with them at zoos, and firstly, like they say they are burrowers. They WILL dig through carpet, not to mention they have a bite to rival that of an angry pit bull (jaw strength, locking) and they are MUCH more aggressive than any average dog, basically, you’re gaurunteed to get bit. I’ve worked in zoos that have them and while the’yre cute they are NOT for the indoors, no matter how prepared you think you would be.

  • Jen

    @Sarah: Agreed that these guys should not be pets. That said, I’m distressed that you have perpetuated the myth that pit bulls have locking jaws and are somehow stronger than other medium/large dog breeds. This is completely untrue. Look it up.

  • Liz Langley

    Wow, lots of comments for the bush dogs! Glad so many people are taking an interest in these cool & unusual animals.

    Thanks @Tomas Adamec for sharing the Prague Zoo links – great photos! 🙂

  • Emilee

    They are cute! Even though I would love to have them as a pet, it wouldn’t be right.

  • licgloriagarcia

    ojala que nunca los vayan a vender como mascotas conformense verlos en fotografias, imaginense el día de mañana tomandose fotos de como los matan y los hacen sufrir y subiendolas al face, es letal entregarlos a la plaga humana

  • Karen DeMatteo

    Hi Linda Workman-Crider. Your question about the two statements is understandable. Let me see if I can help add some more details that help clarify things.

    The pups at Twycross Zoo were born to a young male-female pair (about two years old) that was just transferred to the zoo less than a year ago, late 2012. Prior to this pair of bush dogs, Twycross Zoo was actually without bush dogs for six years, since 2006, which really explains the large gap in births for this zoo.

    Historically Twycross Zoo has been a place very successful in breeding bush dogs with births almost every year from the late 1980’s until early 2000’s. This pattern is in general true for the 41 worldwide institutions that house pairs of bush dogs with an ten year average (2002-2012) of about 36 pups born each year and an average of about 3 pups per litter.

    I hope this helps explain the discrepancy between the two statements but if something is still not clear just let me know.

    Thanks everyone for your interest in bush dogs. They are truly amazing critters in so many different ways.

  • Neville Buck

    For those interested, there have been 28 bush dog pups born so far this year in the global captive population. Twycross have their bush dogs in a mixed exhibit with coati. So far this appears to be working!
    Just in case those of you who are following Karens work are not aware of her fundraising efforts, please check out her link .
    It’s the last days for you to help Karen & Train. If you can’t donate, just spread the word 🙂 Cheers Neville

  • Gina Olarte

    Hi, My name is Gina i’m a biologist in Colombia and i’m very interested in this specie. Although it’s distribution covers my home country, their reports a very few. In my research I have found most of the literature of Dr. DeMatteo and I wonder if it could be possible for me to volunteer in one of her projects, maybe Missiones, Argentina or somewhere in south americas. I just want to learn more and help in the conservation of this sp.

  • Kathy Robertson

    Size is not a good indicator. Sometimes the fiercest are the smallest. Ever heard the term “gentle giants”? 🙂

  • Jennifer M

    They’re like a cross between a dog and an otter — adorable! I just watched an old clip of one on the Johnny Carson show with an adult female bush dog. She loved to be held on her back like a baby and be scratched on her tummy. Joan Embry held the bush dog right up in her face and cooed to her like she would to a baby and nuzzled her. And now I see we can’t have them as pets? Damn. *sigh*

  • Bonita

    So fantastic abou the conservation efforts for this little creature. So frustrating about all the comments of people who want them as pets. This is what encourages poaching and the destruction of species. You couldn’t offer an appropriate lifestyle to the animal and wouldn’t be helping it’s conservation. Get a designer mini dog that you can keep happy.

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