Dog parenting skills: calling social services

Science popularisation article on the parental behaviour of domestic dogs
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Nov 2012

Dogs in science

If you’re a regular, you’ll know that I am nuts about two things:

  1. Dogs; and
  2. Science

I am constantly burrowing through a mountain of research papers so, once in a while, I resurface with a gem like this one. It’s about dogs’ parenting skills.

Lord, Kathryn; Feinstein, Mark; Smith, Bradley and Raymond Coppinger. – 2012 – Variation in reproductive traits of members of the genus Canis with special attention to the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Behav. Process. (2012).


The researchers compared the parenting skills of dogs and their closest cousins’. Dogs make for pretty lousy parents, as it turns out.

Before you assume it’s because we, humans, baby-sit for them, get this –over 80% of ‘domestic dogs’ are stray dogs and 99% of the studies below observed stray dogs.

EIGHTY percent!

Why do we care?

  • I treasure every trinket of knowledge, no matter how trivial. So there, live with it.
  • The more intimately we understand population dynamics, the more effectively we’ll manage stray dog populations.


Kathryn Lord and her colleagues dug through a mountain of literature on how dogs and their relatives reproduced.

The looked at all species in the Canis genus:

C. lupus Gray wolves
C. simensis Ethiopian wolves
C. mesomelas Black-backed jackals
C. dingo Dingoes
C. latrans Coyotes
C. aureus Golden jackals
C. adustus Side-striped jackals
C. familiaris Domestic dogs

They focused on three dimensions:


  • How many times per year they bred,
  • At what age they reached sexual maturity,
  • Whether they had breeding seasons.


  • How long mating pairs (couples to you and me) stayed together
  • Whether they were faithful
  • Whether mom looked after the kids alone, or whether dad lent a hand.


  • At what age they wean their young
  • How often parents bring food to their young.


Sexual stuff

Age at first litter

Domestic dog females could have their first litter before they turn one. Coyotes and (two species of) jackals came close seconds at around twelve months.

All remaining species’ females reached sexually maturity around two years – one whole year later than domestic dogs.

Frequency of breeding seasons

(Domestic dog) males could breed all year round, but gray wolves (males) could only (physiologically) to do so during a brief period, once per year.

(Domestic dog) females came into season every seven months (on average), whereas all other females came into season once per year (at most, some every two years).

All Canis species –except the Ethiopian wolf and the domestic dog– bred seasonally. Even more interesting: most species bred seasonally even when held captive (so even if they did not strain under seasonal fluctuations in food supply and temperature). This points to a hardwired biological imperative.

Stray dogs, on the other hand, bred seasonally only if tolling under ecological pressure (e.g. Indian stray dogs followed the monsoon season). Given a steady supply of food and shelter, they could breed all year round. So, for dogs, the breeding season is an environmental imperative, not a biological one.

Relationship stuff

For all species (except dogs), the breeding pair formed long-lasting relationships (from one season to a lifetime).

Paternity tests did reveal that Ethiopian she-wolves occasionally duped their partner into rearing another’s cubs, but that wild Ethiopian indiscretion is nothing compared to the domestic canines’ sexual revolution.


Female dogs did not even bother to pretend they were monogamous —they openly bred with several different males in the same oestrous season.

Parenting stuff

Of all the Canis species, dogs and gray wolves weaned their young the earliest at about 7 weeks old. Coyotes, on the other hand, got the molly-coddling prize, weaning their young at around 11 weeks of age. As a fellow mammalian female, I could only sympathize with the late-weaning coyote ladies — those sharp teeth

All Canis species — except, you’ve guessed it, dogs — consistently regurgitated food for their (just-weaned) young. Some, like the (gray) wolf, kept bringing food for months and months, sometimes as much as one year into the cub’s life. Most other Canis species brought food supplements until the pups reached at least three months of age.

What about domestic dogs? Well, only a few females were witnessed to only occasionally regurgitate food for their young. It did not appear to be a hard-wired habit for domestic dog mothers. So, if you’re a (dog) pup, it’s ‘the sweet teat of mother’s love one day’ –to borrow a sarcastic expression from Arrested Development– and ‘you’re on your own’ the next.

Onto fatherly care: for all Canis species (except the dog, and a couple of jackal species that could not be studied), the father was actively involved in rearing the young. For some species, it even went beyond the father: the entire group was lending a hand.

In contrast, the dog world was ripe with single mothers and deadbeat dads, Mr. Fido being more into “wham-bam-thank-you-madam” than nappies and sleepless nights.


So, dogs’ “family morals have disintegrated” –to borrow an amusingly demagogic soundbite from our conservative friends. It’s perfunctory care from mom, and none at all from Dad. As dogs invest less in each pup than their relatives, and as they have a constant food supply, they breed more often than all other canids.

Ever keen to offer a human analogy, domestic dogs are like a bunch of drunk horny teenagers who skipped the bit about contraceptives in sex-ed.


I love to read your comments.  Particularly if you are an ethologist or zoologist and you’d like me to cover a particular article.

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

Follow Canis_bonus on Twitter

This entry was posted in Dog behaviour and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Trackback

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>