Setting His Own Dinner Table: Spontaneous Tool Use by a Dingo

The name tags kept disappearing, and the staff at Melbourne’s Dingo Discovery and Research Centre was mystified. After romping around the grounds of the dingo sanctuary, Sterling, an 18 month old sub adult male, and his two canine companions spent time in an indoor enclosure that had a name tag posted on the outside of the steel mesh wall. The tag was positioned 1.7 meters above the ground, well out of dingo-reach. Still, it kept vanishing.

As reported in a paper published online last week in Behavioural Processes,1 the caretakers decided that it was time solve the mystery. First, they hung a small plastic envelope filled with food near the name tag and watched to see what the dingoes would do. The dingoes were having none of that, however – as long as observers were around, the dingoes studiously ignored both the name tag and the envelope of food. Since the direct approach clearly wouldn’t work, the staff resorted to sneakiness, rigging up a video camera and then leaving the dingoes to their own devices.

Success! When the staff returned to the enclosure, they found that the food was gone and, more importantly, that the videotape reflected perhaps the first documented instance of tool use by a member of the Canid family. As described in the Behavioural Processes paper:

Big deal, Lassie; when Timmy fell down *my* well, I hoisted him out using a system of pulleys. (Sterling at Dingo Discovery and Research Centre, photo by Dingo Lyn)

[A]fter several unsuccessful attempts at jumping for the envelope, Sterling “solved” the task by first moving and then jumping up onto a trestle table (1.2 m × 0.6 m × 0.73 m) which allowed him to gain the additional height necessary to reach the food item. To move the table, Sterling clamped his mouth onto the strut between the legs of the table. He then walked backwards, dragging the table approximately 2 m, until it appeared that either his back leg or tail touched the enclosure mesh. He then jumped onto the table, but as he was still at least a body-length away from the envelope, he had to span the gap between the table and the enclosure mesh by propping his front paws onto the mesh gradually moving them towards the envelope. At full stretch, he reached the envelope on his second attempt.

While this account of Sterling’s actions may sound impressive, it’s even more striking when seen on video:

Bradley Smith of the University of South Australia and his colleagues noted in their paper that Sterling’s behavior appeared to be spontaneous – he had never been trained or encouraged to position the table in order to reach food (or name tags) – but they cautioned that they had to rely on information provided by the sanctuary’s staff regarding Sterling’s (lack of) relevant training in the past.

No problem, just bring me a socket wrench, a crow bar and three sticks of gum... (Sterling at Dingo Discovery and Research Centre, photo by Dingo Lyn)

Sterling, for his part, was no one-hit wonder. According to sanctuary staff, from an early age Sterling was adept at manipulating his environment to serve his purposes. For example, during one breeding season he used his front paws to roll a barrel to a wall, jumped up on the barrel, scrambled over the wall, and approached a female dingo in another area of the sanctuary. Also, the staff and research team later videotaped separate occasions in which Sterling used his mouth to drag a plastic dog kennel to differing locations around his enclosure, allowing him to stand on the kennel and peer over walls into neighboring dingo enclosures.

Thus, while the researchers couldn’t exclude the possibility that Sterling’s problem-solving abilities were the result of observational learning or that they had somehow been reinforced when he was younger, they rightly recognized that he appeared to be engaging in “high order behaviour” in using tools within his environment to solve complex problems. (Indeed, on the face of it, Sterling’s problem-solving is quite very reminiscent of Kandula the elephant’s insightful use of a box within his yard to solve an out-of-reach food challenge.)

So, now that you know what canines are capable of, please feel free to ask your dog Barkley when he’s going to get around to assembling that futon you bought at Ikea. No more excuses.

_____

ResearchBlogging.org1Smith, B., Appleby, R., & Litchfield, C. (2011). Spontaneous tool-use: An observation of a dingo (Canis dingo) using a table to access an out-of-reach food reward Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2011.11.004.

2As we’ve noted in previous posts (see, for example, the post on the poison rat and the tuskfish tool post), scientific authorities have defined the concept of “tool use” in various ways. In the Beck and Shumaker treatise discussed in the poison rat post, the authors describe a couple of anecdotal instances that may qualify as canid tool use under their broad definition, including an account of a wolf mother who used meat as a “baiting” and “enticing” tool to distract her young pup. Fox, M. (1971). Possible Examples of High-Order Behavior in Wolves Journal of Mammalogy, 52 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1378613.

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54 Comments

  1. Dingo Lover

     /  December 8, 2011

    That is amasing, but those enclosures are so small. Three dingoes in such a small space

    Reply
    • I agree – the enclosures do seem awfully cramped. If you look at the pictures of Sterling I’ve included in the post (or browse around the sanctuary website, http://www.dingodiscovery.net/), however, it does appear that the dingoes also get time to run around outside in a larger area. Additionally, I under that the sanctuary now has new enclosures, although I’m not sure how large they are.

      Reply
  2. I had a rott/lab/cattle dog (dingo) mix who could perform at least 30 tricks including when I was playing fetch with her I could lift my chin and she would hold her tail still while in a down stay prior to being released to get her toy that I threw. I am not at all surprised by this behavior. She just passed away 2 months ago at almost 17 years old and was one of the smartest dogs I ever owned.

    Reply
  3. Our Blue Heeler and our poodles have used tools. The heeler would use a stick to get things out of reach, like a ball under something. The toy poodles move the blanket to hang off the sofa and then clamber up the blanket to sit on the sofa.

    Reply
  4. I meant to say the poodles pull the blanket that is already on the sofa so it hangs down and then they can use the blanket to get up.

    Reply
    • Very cool! I have a feeling that there are lots and lots of stories like these (not to say that your poodles and Blue Heeler aren’t special! :)).

      Reply
  5. Not only is this dingo “using a tool” in the common sense, but altering the terrain of the enclosure to solve a problem. Even MORE impressive!

    Reply
  6. Molly D.

     /  December 9, 2011

    I also have dogs who have spontaneously used tools without being taught. Everything from using a toy to retrieve another toy, or moving a chair in order to scale a baby gate. I even had one of my intact male Chihuahuas build a pile of blankets in order to get high enough to jump into an x-pen containing one of my females in heat (which resulted in a successful breeding despite my girl being “retired”). It doesn’t surprise me one bit that a dingo is able to move a table a few feet to aleviate his boredom in a small and overcrowded run.

    Reply
    • no breeding stories please, enough dogs are being bred in every country, every pound/shelter/foster home is full to overflowing because people like you

      Reply
      • rosemary

         /  December 13, 2011

        How can you say that? Molly may well be a responsible breeder who finds lovely homes for all her pups and treats her dogs well. Criticise the irresponsible breeders, but not all breeders.

        Reply
        • ally

           /  December 25, 2011

          If she was a “responsible” breeder, (if there is such a thing), she would not have allowed a “retired” breeding bitch to “successfully” breed once again.

  7. Julia

     /  December 9, 2011

    Very neat video about his working to get the treat, however, I feel bad for the poor thing in the kennel to the left. First it is mounted and then gets in trouble for trying to stand up for itself! These enclosures are WAY too small….there is no good reason why they couldn’t have larger enclosures…..feel bad for them :-( no wonder he has developed different behaviours he is bored out of his mind in there!

    Reply
  8. @Molly D. and @Julia. I totally agree that the enclosure looks too small! If you look at the pen on the left, it does look like the dingoes can actually leave the enclosure through the back – not sure where that leads to… Also, as I noted above in reply to @Dingo Lover, the dingoes do apparently get to roam around outside (not sure what percentage of the day) and per the Behavioural Processes research paper the video of is of the sanctuary’s old enclosures, which have since been replaced.

    Reply
  9. One explanation of his behavior could be frustration at not being able to get the food. He wanders away, then grips what’s closest ( the table) in an expression of frustration, and pulls ( common canine behavior) When he notices the table is now closer, he uses it. I think that’s how behaviors develop from instinct and then become learning. If the table was moved back and the set up was repeated, did he begin to go look for the table and move it with increasing frequency? Not a scientist, just a keen observer of doggy behavior . They are truly remarkable creatures in so many undiscovered ways.

    Reply
    • Hi Julia,

      That sounds like a very plausible mix of instinct, observation, insight and learning that could well account for some or all of Sterling’s behavior. And you’re right, they are remarkable creatures! :)

      Paul

      Reply
  10. Patrice

     /  December 9, 2011

    I read about a stray mamma dog who put her newborn puppies on a blanket and then dragged the blanket down the side of the hwy where she was rescued with her babies.

    Reply
  11. A bit of a stretch to call this tool use. A previous poster suggested he grabbed the table out of frustration which seems probable, since he shows no “plan”. He only jumps up on it after another animal has already jumped on it. If, after his first attempt, he pulled the table closer, I would be VERY impressed! Instead he makes another attempt from the ground, then finally tries to lean on the fence again. This just looks like random attempts that any animal might make. Habitat manipulation maybe, but tool use is a little generous. This is not to say that dogs and cats are not capable of some very amazing things! :-)

    Reply
    • Hi Ken,

      Points well taken, although it also looks a bit like perhaps he would have dragged the table further, except that the other eager and excitable dingo jumped up on it and weighed it down. :-)

      Also, for whatever its worth, “tool use” tends to be used as a technical term of art, at least in scientific research on animals, with the definition not including any requirement of “planning” per se, and perhaps differing a bit from how one person or another might typically think of it. For example, in the most comprehensive and (arguably) authoritative recent treatise on tool use, the concept was defined as “The external employment of an unattached or manipulable attached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds and directly manipulates the tool during or prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool.” (Animal Tool Behavior: The Use and Manufacture of Tools by Animals, Shumaker, Walkup, Beck & Burghardt, The Johns Hopkins University Press (April 15, 2011), ISBN 0801898536.)

      In this case, it could be asserted that (a) the table is an unattached environmental object, (b) it allows Sterling to more efficiently position himself, and (c) Sterling directly manipulates and orients the table prior to using it.

      All that said, again, I agree with you that Sterling tries to get at the food in a variety of ways, and it’s not as if he systematically improves the position of the table to get better access after realizing it was a little to far away after he pulled it the first time.

      Paul

      Reply
  12. Here in the USA owners of New Guinea Singer Dogs (a close relative of the Aus Dingo) have often reported similar behavior (ie: the use of other objects to obtain something out of reach, or to get over fences), though I don’t know that anyone’s managed to catch it on tape.

    Reply
    • Interesting! Well, in this day of smart phone video cameras, I suspect it won’t be very long before somebody videos this behavior. :)

      Reply
      • My understanding is that the hard part of catching it on tape is that, like Sterling, they tend NOT to do so when there are humans around (they’re not stupid, they know the human wants them to stay INSIDE the fence). But its not hard to figure it out when the doggy-igloo has been dragged halfway across the pen to the fence and the Singer is no-where to be found.

        Reply
        • Good point. Also makes you wonder what they’ll be able to accomplish once they figure out how to cover their tracks after engaging in mischief!

  13. glennis

     /  December 11, 2011

    rani one of my dingos climbs a gum tree to peer at the world

    Reply
  14. victoria vruno

     /  December 11, 2011

    great story.very intellagent dingo. thanks,papa

    Reply
  15. the three dingos to the left are also interesting as they show pack behaviour and controlling outcomes by an assertive leader. I would be more fascinated by the fact that the animals didnt want humans to see them retrieving the items. Their silent language still evades us, we just dont listen and dont want to think of them as being more intelligent than we are – theirs is just a more simplistic world which we complicate for them

    Reply
    • Yes, don’t you wish they could speak our language, or we theirs, even for a brief moment? It would be so cool to have a real glimpse into their world.

      Reply
  16. Dingo Lover

     /  December 15, 2011

    We have seen the video, but how do we really know that there has not been training with a food reward.. How do we know that the owners of Striling did not train him how to tow the table for a food reward? It makes great reading, and appears very plausable, but I am sure that I could easily train my dingoes to do a similar act, especially if there was a food reward. I cannot understand how a journal editor would allow this article to be printed.

    Reply
    • All good questions, and I you’re right that we can’t be sure about the lack of prior training. While the paper does provide detail regarding Sterling’s upbringing and lack of known training, the authors do make it clear that they have had to rely on what they’ve been told by the sanctuary’s staff as to certain aspects of Sterling’s prior history.

      Reply
  17. Laura

     /  December 15, 2011

    Very cool! This sounds a lot like something called adjunctive behavior in behavior analysis.
    The animal learns the component behaviors and puts them together into a composite behavior. It looks spontaneous but can be something the animal has learned in pieces and is putting together in a novel way.

    Check out the following video and corresponding paper:

    http://drrobertepstein.com/downloads/Epstein-Insight_in_the_Pigeon-Nature-1984.pdf

    Reply
    • Great links, Laura! I encourage everyone to check out the video and read the paper! Even if Sterling wasn’t formally trained in the component behaviors through conditioning/reinforcement, it does seem like he had previously learned, one way or another, to move objects (such as the barrels, as described in the anecdote above) in order to extend his reach. In any event, his being able to combine the pieces in a novel way is still pretty impressive.

      Paul

      p.s. I’m also impressed by the pigeon. :)

      Reply
  18. For whatever it’s worth–a rottie mix of mine once pulled my futon off the frame and over to the window so he could look out. And he absolutely was not trained to do that, it wasn’t my futon and it cost me money to replace it. I’m sure he was indeed bored as a housemate inadvertently shut him up in my bedroom. He also would climb up the apple tree to pick his own apples to eat!

    Reply
  19. If my sprockers were this insightful we’d all be in trouble! ;)

    Great post

    Reply
  20. Reblogged this on Animalis.

    Reply
  21. We have a heeler x from an aboriginal village (rescued camp dog) and think she is a Dingo hybrid because of her face and behaviour… she is very smart and independent, ‘too clever for her own good’.

    I used to tie my previous dog outside shops with a knob that opens when you pull in the loose end… However, it took our heeler x about 5 minutes to figure out to pull in the loose end when she was a puppy – and off she went. She is very opportunistic, exploring and unpredictable, and highly motivated by getting/stealing food – she often comes up with new ways to get things that she has never done before. Although we love the dog, I think I am relieved that our other dog is not a Dingo hybrid:-)

    Reply
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