Dingoes use tools to solve novel problems

By Tom Lawrie 23 December 2011
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
Dingoes are more intelligent than we think – they have been filmed opening latched gates to get food.

DINGOES ARE MUCH SMARTER than humans give them credit for, according to new research.

While the native canines are known for their smarts in hunting skills, they are also able to figure out ways to snatch morsels of food that includes rudimentary tool use.

Staff at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Melbourne found nametags had been mysteriously and repeatedly removed from the fence wall of a steel mesh dingo enclosure, from a height of 1.7m. Dr Bradley Smith, who was doing PhD research on cognition and behaviour in dingoes at the time, discovered the nametags were in fact being snagged by 18-month-old dingo Sterling.

Intrigued, Bradley set up small plastic envelope containing dry dog food was placed in a similar position to that of the missing name tags, and pointed cameras on the area to catch any unusual behaviour. To his surprise, the footage showed Sterling climbed a table and lent against a fence to get to the food.

“After several unsuccessful attempts at jumping for the envelope, Sterling ‘solved’ the task by first moving and then jumping up onto a trestle table,” Bradley wrote in the paper, published in the journal Behavioural Processes. “Apart from some basic obedience training, Sterling had never been trained or encouraged to exhibit this behaviour.”

Sterling the dingo opens a latched gate.
(Footage coutesty of Bradley Smith)

First canine tool use

Dingoes have been shown to understand human gestures but this is the first known instance of a member of a canine species deliberately using tools and innovative problem solving – something which doesn’t work through trial and error.

“Though there are innovative individuals in any group, [tool use and problem solving in dingoes] is definitely quite unique,” Bradley says.

In another incident, Sterling moved a plastic kennel, a move Bradley believes “serves as somewhat of a ‘look out’.”

Professor Gisela Kaplan, from the University of New England, Armidale, says the discovery was “very remarkable,” though she isn’t surprised, considering what dogs can learn and accomplish.

“Dingoes are highly intelligent,” Gisela says, “and sometimes hunt collaboratively and very cleverly.”

Dingoes have already been reported to walk around barriers and gates, and like chimps, parrots and cetaceans such as dolphins, join the growing list of animals that more intelligent than we give them credit for.

Sterling the dingo climbs on a table and leans on a fence to get out-of-reach-food.
(Footage coutesty of Bradley Smith)

Dingoes can open latched gates

Another dingo, Teddy, manipulated a latch on a gate in order to be with his mate, pushing it open with his nose and using his body weight to swing the gate open. When he had his mate in the same enclosure, he didn’t attempt to open the gate again, but once she was moved, he tried after just 13 seconds.

So far, this behaviour has only been exhibited in order to achieve a goal, whether it is to get to food,  find a mate, or establish what Bradley believes to be a ‘look out’ position.

The dingo is now classified by conservationists as vulnerable due to prolific interbreeding with domestic dogs, and Gisela asserts that “we need to make absolutely sure they don’t go the way of the thylacine.”