Five of the World’s
Weirdest Wild Dogs
Almost a quarter of all UK households own at least one dog. They are easily the most popular pet in the world and they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. By and large, wild members of the dog family – also called canids – are not quite so varied, but there are still a few oddballs in the group. To continue our celebration of Dog Day, read on to find out about five really weird wild dogs that we share our planet with.
We start with a wild dog that you probably haven’t heard of. The second-largest canid in South America (the biggest is Number 4 on this list), the culpeo is also known as the Andean fox. Despite that name, though, it isn’t closely related to the true foxes. It lives in the west of the continent and is most common on the slopes of the Andes Mountains.
The culpeo doesn’t look very much like a weird wild dog. It doesn’t even behave that strangely. But I have included it on this list because it is believed to have given rise to the only domesticated dog breed that isn’t descended from the grey wolf. This domesticated form of the culpeo, known as the Fuegian dog, was found only in parts of South America and is now extinct. Though these little-known dogs may have been useful for hunting small animals and were said to gather around their owners to keep them warm, they were also described by some South American explorers as displaying a lack of loyalty to their masters. Others noted their fierce nature, claiming that they were ‘dangerous to men and cattle’. Perhaps this led to their extermination, for Fuegian dogs had vanished by the early 20th century.
2. Short-eared Dog
To find this next weird wild dog, you need to stay in South America but travel east from the Andes. There, in the depths of the Amazon, lives one of the rainforest’s most mysterious residents: the short-eared dog. This cryptic carnivore is probably the least-studied wild dog in the world. It has a slender body, a fox-like muzzle, a bushy tail, and short, rounded ears. Though it was first described in 1883, scientists spent over a century largely in the dark about this almost-mythical animal. Shy, seldom-seen and notoriously elusive, little is known about the enigmatic short-eared dog even today.
Unlike many canids, the short-eared dog is solitary and deliberately avoids other animals. It is said to move with grace and lightness that is more reminiscent of a feline than a dog. Its paws are partly-webbed because it spends quite a bit of its time in swamps and around rivers, hunting for fish. In fact, it is so unlike all other wild dogs that it has been placed in its own genus. This means that it is not a fox, wolf, coyote, or jackal; it is a distinct canid, not closely related to any other in the world.
3. Bush Dog
The only other canid native to the Amazonian basin is the bush dog. Standing just 30 cm high at the shoulder, the bush dog has a small, squat, low-slung body and short legs, which are well-suited for running through dense undergrowth. It almost looks more like a large mustelid such as a wolverine than a wild dog.
Like the short-eared dog, the bush dog also has webbing between its toes, small rounded ears, and a highly elusive nature. This animal, too, is so evolutionarily distinct that it sits in its own unique genus. But there the similarities between the short-eared dog and the bush dog end. Unlike its more cryptic cousin, the bush dog lives in packs of up to 12 individuals and is highly sociable, often trotting in single file along well-worn paths through the forest. The females are almost always in front, led by the most senior, with the males following dutifully behind. By working together, packs of bush dogs commonly hunt pacas, agoutis and peccaries, although they can also bring down prey as large as capybara and even tapir.
4. Maned Wolf
South America certainly has its fair share of weird wild dogs because we’re at Number 4 now and we still haven’t left the continent. The maned wolf is, by far, the largest canid in South America and the closest living relative of the bush dog, even though the two animals look nothing alike. In stark contrast to the bush dog’s short, stumpy legs, the legs of the maned wolf are disproportionately long and slender, as if they have been stretched out beyond their normal length, making this animal as tall as an Irish wolfhound.
Perhaps surprisingly, these legs are not an adaptation for running, since the maned wolf has a curious loping gait and is not particularly fast. In fact, the way it moves both legs on one side of its body at the same time, rather than lifting alternate diagonal pairs of legs as other canids do, is somewhat reminiscent of a camel. It’s little wonder that when Charles Darwin first spotted a distant maned wolf during his South American journey, he thought he was seeing some sort of antelope. The legs of the maned wolf instead enable the animal to easily walk through and see over the very long, dense grass of its natural habitat.
With its strange, leggy appearance and rich, rusty-coloured coat, the maned wolf is sometimes called a ‘giant red fox on stilts’, but that name doesn’t do it justice. In any case, it isn’t a fox; nor is it, despite its name, a true wolf. Like the last two canids that we’ve looked at, the maned wolf is unique, not closely related to any other in the world – it is the only member of its own genus, Chrysocyon (‘golden dog’).
As if all this strangeness wasn’t enough, the maned wolf also has an odd diet. You might expect a canid of its size to be a meat-eater that hunts big game, but instead it survives on a diet of small mammals, ground birds and lizards. Oh, and fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. In particular, the green tomato-like lobeira fruit (lobeira is Portuguese for ‘wolf’s plant’) comprises around half of a maned wolf’s diet.
A solitary animal, the maned wolf typically hunts and forages alone, using its exquisite sense of smell and a pair of extra-large, highly mobile ears. Monogamous pairs may share and defend a territory, but outside of mating and rearing cubs they rarely come into contact with one another. Though the maned wolf can emit a loud call known as a ‘roar-bark’, it communicates primarily by using very pungent urine, which can be detected over great distances. This urine has a very distinctive smell, which has been likened to hops or cannabis (and after working in a zoo that houses maned wolves, I can certainly confirm this). In fact, the resemblance is so close that police were once called to Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands to find a pot smoker, only to discover that whoever had made the complaint had been fooled by the scent of maned wolf urine.
5. Raccoon Dog
On 20 March 2020, the latest game in the hugely popular Animal Crossing series, New Horizons, was released on the Nintendo Switch. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The COVID-19 pandemic was spreading and many countries were just starting to enter lockdown, with people advised to stay at home as much as possible. With Tiger King already binge-watched, it made sense for us here at The Nature Nook to escape the horrible things happening in the real world by entering the cute, relaxing virtual world of Animal Crossing.
Why am I talking about Animal Crossing in an article about weird wild dogs? Well, anyone who has even the slightest interest in New Horizons or its predecessors will be aware of Tom Nook, the entrepreneurial anthropomorphised raccoon who you will spend much of the game paying off your mortgages to. Except, despite what many people assume, Tom Nook isn’t a raccoon – he’s a raccoon dog.
It’s easy to see how this strange, shuffling, charismatic animal acquired its name. With its thick, grey fur, very short legs (it stands only 20 cm at the shoulder, shorter even than the bush dog) and distinctive bandit-like facial markings, the raccoon dog looks very much like… well, a raccoon. Rest assured, though, it’s definitely a member of the dog family, albeit a very primitive one – an early offshoot from the line of animals that became modern canids.
Apart from its unusual appearance, the raccoon dog also has a couple of odd quirks that set it apart from other canids. It’s the only wild dog in the world that (semi) hibernates during the winter, for example, and it’s one of just two that regularly climbs trees (the other is the grey fox, another primitive species).
The Japanese subspecies of the raccoon dog is called the tanuki and it has featured heavily in Japanese folklore since ancient times. The tanuki of legend is said to be a master of disguise, a trickster that loves causing mischief by using its shapeshifting abilities. Oh, and it also has magical giant testicles.
Yes, you read that right. Magical giant testicles.
The reproductive organs of the real raccoon dog, I should clarify, are standard in size (and, obviously, non-magical), but the legendary tanuki can stretch its scrotum and enlarge it to whatever size it wants. It can then knead and massage its private region into various shapes. Drawings and old tales depict tanuki making parachutes, blankets and drums out of their own multi-purpose scrotums – even, in one instance, a boat to save people from a river.
Although tanuki remain very popular in Japanese culture, the rest of the world is usually only exposed to them via exported Japanese media. In some Mario games, Mario himself can wear a ‘Tanooki Suit’, whereupon he takes on the appearance of a raccoon dog and gains the ability to fly, spin his tail to attack enemies, and shapeshift into a statue. The Pokémon Zigzagoon is also based on the raccoon dog, and so, too, as we have already mentioned, is Tom Nook of Animal Crossing-fame. We can only be thankful that he doesn’t boast any oversized anatomy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of some of the planet’s weird wild dogs in celebration of Dog Day. Be sure to also check out Alex’s article about her top five favourite dog breeds!