Small canids (≤10 kg) represent a diverse group of species that have been a part of collections before zoos first opened to the public in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. Twentieth-century zoos have changed the way species are managed with a focus on conservation programmes. Large-canid programmes have flourished but the development of programmes for small-canid species has been slower. In the last decade, zoos have increased their work with small-canid species creating several conservation programmes and more are proposed in the future. However, these programmes still have several obstacles to overcome, including the dearth of data available from in situ populations, the need to refine (or develop) husbandry protocols, inconsistent reproduction, limited space and uninspiring exhibits. Nonetheless each of these areas represents opportunities for shaping the future of how ex situ populations of small canids will play a role in global conservation efforts. In this article, we review the history of small-canid species in captivity, drawing on examples from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Within this context, we highlight work that remains to be done and challenges that must be overcome to improve conservation of small-canid species.