Dholes: Whistling Dogs

We are all familiar with the barks, growls, woofs, and whines that members of the canid family produce. But have you ever heard a dog whistle? Would you believe there is a group of canines that uses this call so frequently that they are famous for their whistling? The canines I’m alluding to are dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs! If you haven’t heard of a dhole (pronounced “dole”), you are definitely not alone. Just a short while ago I didn’t even know what a dhole was, and now I am spending over 20 hours a week with these magnificent whistling canines!

Dholes are a medium-size dog but actually look rather fox-like—with a red-brown coat, a white neck and stomach, and a thick, bushy tail. In the wild, dholes are rarely seen; this is because dholes are extremely skittish, often taking cover in the brush whenever they sense anything (and I do mean anything!) remotely out of the ordinary. But besides their anxious disposition, dholes are hard to locate because they are endangered, and their numbers in the wild are only decreasing.

This is where I come in! By studying the behaviors of the nine dholes at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, I am adding to what is currently only a small knowledge base about dholes, especially dholes living in zoos (the Wild Animal Park is one of just a few institutions in North America to house these animals). This information can then be used at other facilities that have dholes in order to maximize care for this endangered species, helping them to live healthier lives and to produce more offspring to increase the population.

The Park’s dholes are housed at an offsite facility—which, unfortunately, means that the dholes are not viewable by the public. At this facility, the dholes are split into three enclosures: a family group (father, mother, and four six-month-old puppies), a male/female pair, and then a single male dhole. Their yards are next to one another and divided only by chain link fencing. The separation of the dholes is necessary for social reasons and breeding purposes, but being such social animals, this layout might affect how they behave. My study is focused on examining dhole behavior and seeing how those behaviors, as well as the space utilization of their yards, changes when visual barriers are constructed between the enclosures.

My past research experience includes behavioral studies of Asian elephants and hormonal studies on African lions. I am excited to be working with the Institute this summer, and I am truly enjoying studying the dholes. I am interested to discover how removing visual access to other enclosures will affect the dholes’ behavior over time—and I hope I’ve got you interested, too! I will keep you posted throughout the summer as I find out more through my observations, so check back for updates!

Katie Graham is a biology major at the University of Portland and the 2010 Neeper Endowed Fellow working in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read a previous post, Chinese Dholes.

17 Responses to Dholes: Whistling Dogs

  1. You’ve got me interested! I’ve never heard of dholes before and now I can’t wait to read your updates.
    I wish them success in increasing their numbers at the park. The six-month old pups must be really cute.
    I hope your research provides many answers that can insure their survival.

  2. I have seen dhole before at Toronto Zoo where they successfully bred them in 2006, and from my understanding you guys have one of the pups born from here “Lucius” ?

  3. I learn something new every single time i visit this web page … which is almost every day!! I’ll enjoy reading your updates about the ‘Dholes’ behaviour … frequently, I hope!!! whistling dogs … I never would have dreamed … NATURE IS THE GREATEST!!! (And you guys at the SDZ are pretty amazing, too!)

  4. Wow! these sound like very interesting creatures!! Thank you for informing us about another of God’s amazing creation.

  5. Is there any chance we could actually get an audio of the “whistling” sound?

  6. Why are they endangered? For fur coats or diminishing habitat?
    Very interesting post…

  7. #2 Calvin
    I’m glad you have been able to see dholes before, it is a pretty rare experience!

    You are indeed correct about Lucius: he is now part of the pack here in San Diego. In fact, he has puppies of his own; he is the father in the family group I mentioned in my post.

    #5 Jan
    Good idea! We will try to record the whistling sound and post it for readers.

  8. I’d love an audio clip too. Hope your research goes well. Fun stuff.

  9. #6 Dianna
    The biggest reason dholes are endangered is because of habitat loss and human/animal conflict. Dholes continue to lose the areas they need to breed and hunt due to land development. In some areas, dholes are unfortunately seen as vermin and are sometimes purposefully extinguished because of this reputation. Dholes can also catch disease from domestic dogs, such as rabies and canine distemper. This transfer of disease between canine species has contributed somewhat to the decline of wild dhole populations.

    It was estimated in 2008 that there were less than 2,500 dholes in the wild, so these animals need our help and protection!

  10. Waiting for the whistle!

  11. This is fascinating. I have never heard of dhole dogs either and they are so pretty. I’d love to hear the whistling sound they make. Are any in Australian zoos? Is there somewhere we can send a donation for the preservation of tese animals? UK zoos have adopt an animals programs.

    Moderator’s note: One way you can help is to join the San Diego Zoo’s Global Action Team!

  12. Wow never heard of them before. I am so gald to have The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park out there doing all kinds of research and protecting the animals. You are the best. I love your website and visiting there. I just wish I lived closer, but very happy to have the website.

  13. What a beautiful animal. Could you post a bigger pic so we can see the entire dog?

    Moderator’s note: Perhaps we can post one on Katie’s next post.

  14. Interesting! Good luck with your research.

  15. #11 Diana
    I am not sure about dholes in Australian zoos, but doing some quick research, I believe the Windaroo Zoo might have dholes. Also, after asking the keepers here at the Wild Animal Park, they thought that the Taronga Zoo used to have dholes, but they are not certain if that is still the case. I hope that you can find a place to go see some dholes, they are truly neat animals!

  16. Toronto Zoo and The Wilds in North America have dholes on display to the public

  17. Minnesota Zoo now has them too.

    I was so excited when I found out San Diego had dholes only to be disappointed to find out that the public wasn’t allowed to see them. I found out about the ones in Canada,but I don’t have a passport and have never dealt with trying to travel outside the United States before. When I found out that Minnesota Zoo now has some for the public to view, I was over-joyed. That’s a long ride for me too,but atleast I don’t need a passport. I’m looking forward to the day I can go visit the Minnesota zoo.

    I haven’t heard much about The Wilds before.Does anybody have any more information on it?