To Get at Treats, This Dingo Uses Tools

By Veronique Greenwood | February 24, 2012 3:44 pm

Dingoes are in the news lately: the infamous “a dingo ate my baby” case may be nearing its conclusion, 32 years after an Australian baby disappeared on a family camping trip; her mother, who long claimed the baby was stolen by a dingo, has been vindicated by an inquest this week noting that dingo attacks on humans have been well-documented in the intervening decades. But dingoes can use their cleverness for less gruesome purposes, as well. What is apparently the first tool use in a canid was observed recently, in a dingo named Sterling who really, really wanted to chew on something out of his reach.

As you can see in the video above, Sterling is trying to get a hold of a piece of food placed on his enclosure at the Dingo Discovery Research Center in Australia, after researchers caught him on tape yanking down a name tag from the same location. He has never been trained in any similar tasks, as far as the researchers know, but after jumping fails to get him close enough, he heads off to the back of the enclosure and hooks his teeth around the leg of a white table. Then the table begins to move, as Sterling pulls it towards the front of the enclosure. Once he gets it near the front, one of his compatriots jumps on, but then stands around doing nothing. Sterling hops on, pushes the offender out of the way, and, after several false starts, manages to walk his forelegs across the wire mesh to bring the food within his reach. He promptly tears his prize to the ground.

Sterling’s use of the table—and his similar use of a barrel to get over the enclosure wall, perhaps to chase after some females—is a fascinating example of a creature not previously known to use tools making use of objects around him to get what he wants. The researchers can’t be sure that Sterling’s behavior is something that dingos as a species do, or whether it is something he picked up living in the sanctuary, but if further observations find that such behavior is natural, dingoes may be joining crows and dolphins in the select club of animals that use tools.

[via The Thoughtful Animal]


  • Bren

    I do not understand why, people continue to be amazed that animals have intelligence.

  • Tiktaalik

    One of my dogs does that. She’s an Australian Cattle Dog, a breed that includes dingo in its ancestry. She pushes the dog food container around to use as a step stool to get up on the counter. Not quite as complicated as this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of canids do something similar. Smart dingo…

  • Kevin N

    This is interesting, but I would never go so far as to say the dingo is “smart”. This behavior requires the barest of cognitive skills, and the dog can still barely pull it off. When it falls off the table, it tries to jump at the food again, clearly forgetting that it couldn’t do this 20 SECONDS AGO.

  • Peg

    @Kevin: Doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. People repeat previously failed attempts too, knowing full well it didn’t work last time. Sometimes it just comes from being angry. Other times it comes from not wanting to believe one can’t have what one wants.

  • Iain

    @ Kevin N
    Yes, but still, it went back to the FAILED table attempt scenario and reinvented the outcome to get the treat. So that would indicate some cognitive ability. Something not to be scoffed at, just because we have a lot more cognitive ability. Just as you wouldn’t scoff at a lion stalking you as supper. All of us animals have different skill sets and the thrill is to find more of our specialty in other animals. But if one was to look at it objectively, cognition is a scale and we will find it in many, many different creatures in many, many different levels and many, many special instances ( or focus’s ). We creatures are all experts in our fields.

  • Geack

    @Bren 1.
    People, scientists in particular, like to record and study the world around them. No one has observed and publicly recorded a dingo or other canid using a tool in this way. Therefore this is exciting news. It adds to our understanding.

    Most people have heard stories about how smart their neighbor’s dog is. But attempts to get reliable repeatable data of tool use in dogs (independent use, not behaviors taught be people) have turned up nothing. This counts as reliable; now we’ll see if it’s repeatable.

  • Yulek

    Well, dogs can operate handles on doors to free themselves, can work in teams and while I have not seen a dog moving items to get somewhere they normally can’t get, it is not beyond their capability to do so.
    Also, being able to train an animal to do something it means that animal has understood what you want it to do (for example sniffing dogs know, that they will get a treat if they sniff say drugs and expect to get it).

    So most likely all animals have cognitive abilities, after all, they too have brains and those brains are neural networks, just like human brain.

  • Tiara

    I saw a goat push an igloo style dog house in its pen used for shelter over to the fence and climb out.
    I was doing morning chores and the dang goat had gotten out twice already. The second time I put it back in, I noticed the igloo was not in the same spot it had been all winter. It had been frozen in place.

    With spring thaw, this canny capricious caprine, butted it close enough to the fence to leap out. I didn’t believe this possible at first but moved the igloo back away from the fence. The third time it got out, the igloo was again closer to the fence. I was getting pretty certain this time that teleportation was unlikely and a hard head was. I moved it away again and went out of sight.

    Sure enough within a few minutes, that dang goat started to butt it closer to the fence. He stopped twice, jumped on top and seemed to gauge the distance, butted it closer and was just crouching for a jump when I stepped in sight and bellowed at him. I had a halter and lead rope ready and moved him to an indoor stall until some fence posts were pounded in around the igloo to make it immobile.

    Was it deliberate? perhaps not at first. The goat may have been simply toying with it by butting it. Butt–pardon the pun, when the igloo was close enough, he did take advantage of its proximity to get out and later on it was clear, he was moving it with purpose, butting on the side away from the fence, not random butting.


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