Bless you! Now let’s go hunt…

Pamushana | November 2020

My husband and I have a border collie dog that we absolutely adore (obviously). I have always been fascinated by ethology (the study of animal behaviour) and I spend a lot of time observing and learning more about this. I noticed that whenever I sneezed Jagger (our dog) would came rushing over to me with great excitement that I thought might be concern for my health! He also does a repeated sneezing behaviour whenever we feed our beloved geriatric cat, while racing round and around with great exuberant excitement. I put this down to general border collie lunacy.

And so, it was with much interest that I read about some research this week that suggests that African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus)“cast their votes” to go on hunting expeditions by sneezing!

Research has revealed that the decision for a pack to get up from rest and hunt together is a democratic one, whereby votes are cast by way of sneezes. The dogs that wish to participate in the vote do so by sneezing, and once a certain number of votes has been reached the pack will obey the results of the vote and get going.

It appears that higher ranking members of the pack have to sneeze less often in order to achieve quorum.

Lower ranking dogs can achieve the desired results if they are persistent, and sneeze often enough. As such, the “will of the group” may override dominant preferences when the consensus of subordinates is sufficiently great.

Wild dogs have high levels of cooperation as packs and achieve excellent hunting success rates. They also have peaceful pack dynamics, with a dominant (alpha) female and male governing reproduction, and other pack members assisting to keep pups safe and fed.

The use of voting mechanisms is seen in other species, including meerkats, capuchin monkeys, and honeybees. The exhalation of air to communicate is also seen in dingoes and coyotes, but it appears that wild dogs are the only dogs to use ‘sneeze voting’ in decision making.

The research was conducted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta by Reena H. Walker and her colleagues from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, and the Universities of Swansea, UK, New South Wales, Australia and Brown University, US. The information in this story was from and you can read the full report here: The Royal Society, Reena H. Walker, Andrew J. King, J. Weldon McNutt, Neil R. Jordan: “Sneeze to leave: African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) use variable quorum thresholds facilitated by sneezes in collective decisions

This month Sarah Ball spent a very hot afternoon watching our Malilangwe pack of 17 wild dogs at Hwata Pan. She describes how they were lying in the sparse shade of a tree, adults to one side, pups in a tangle of their own. As the afternoon drew on, they slowly became more alert, a few lifting their heads momentarily before slumping back into the dust. As the sun started to dip one of the adults slunk over to the pups, head low, ears flattened, and pounced, initiating mass excitement, with much yipping, yawning and welcoming stretches. After the greeting rituals were over the dogs wandered to the water, the pups watching as the adults bounded in the water before starting tag games of their own. They played tug of war with each other’s legs, and hide and seek in the nearby Ilala palms.

These lovely photos of the African wild dogs that Sarah sent me, the research I’ve related above, and my dog’s behaviour made me wonder if there is more to Jagger’s reactions to sneezing and his sneezing behaviour than I previously thought. Domestic dogs are related to African wild dogs, albeit very distantly. Maybe Jagger thinks my sneezing is the alpha female (me, I hope) saying, “Let’s go hunt!”? Hence his excitement and “concern.” (His hunting translates into chasing the frisbee we throw or wildly herding our chickens at feeding time.) His exuberant sneezing performance when we feed the cat could be him thinking his pack is on the hunt and at a kill (a bowl of cat biscuits!).

Of course this is all my conjecture with a generous dash of imagination thrown in, but there may be a grain of truth to it regarding the way domestic dogs use and interpret sneezes as a form of communication.

Photographs by Sarah Ball