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Owning a dingo

Keeping a dingo in captivity

So you have decided a dingo is for you; you are in for a wild ride but if you can get the basics right it is one that will be both rewarding and amazing.  Those who have adjusted to life with a dingo are adamant their dingo is the best dog they have ever owned

A secure enclosure, exercise, stimulation, socialization and being the leader of your pack are the key to ensuring that your dingo will be a content, well socialized adult.

The best gift you can give your dingo is a long walk. Then, when you get home, assume the dominant position. If you do not, your dingo will. Even if you do not feel calm, project it. Dingoes do not respond well to nervous or angry commands; they just become anxious themselves. Lastly, never pet a dingo when he is being aggressive. It teaches him that he is being good.

Selecting your dingo

The first few hours/days of your dingo pup’s life is crucial if your dingo is to be well adjusted to life in captivity.  These suggestions are based on members observations of dingoes in captivity and their history.

Ask the breeder if the litter of dingo pups has been imprinted.  Imprinting will make a difference to your dingo’s temperament especially in the presence of strange humans.  Dingoes are naturally timid, bonding very closely with their owners and often reluctant to interact with strangers.

Personal observations of dingoes over more than 40 years suggest that dingoes that have been imprinted at birth will be more outgoing and comfortable in the presence of humans.  Members first noted that dingoes delivered by caesarean section were more outgoing and comfortable with humans as adults.  We then followed a litters of pups that were imprinted and as adults they are very confident in the presence of humans; far more confident than those not imprinted.

Imprinting describes behavior learnt in the first 24 to 48 hours after birth.  In the classic example, the first moving object a newly hatched ducklings sees is their mother, so they follow her.  However, if the first moving object a duckling sees is a human, or even an old boot, they will followed the human or old boot, whichever they see first (Hess 1958).  The literature suggests that imprinting in dogs occurs later than in birds, but personal observations suggest that the first 24 hours are crucial for dingoes.

Imprinting involves being present when the bitch is whelping and gently massaging the newly born pups.  Imprinting is irreversible and establishes an individual animal’s preference for a certain species.

Imprinting of foals in the first 24 hours has been shown to result in a learned behavior that resulted in decreased self-defense responses when handled at three months of age (Spier et al. 2004).

Exercise

In the wild dingoes have territories from a few kilometers square, to many kilometers in the desert areas.  They have developed over centuries to traverse in excess of 10 kilometers a day, therefore they require daily exercise.  In captivity they also require these distances on a daily basis.

The daily walk also provides for enrichment, they observe many moving animals and birds.  A four month old male is happy to walk up to four kilometers and is always keen to chase birds, rabbits and geckos.  At twelve months he was running eight kilometers.

Stimulation/enrichment.

Boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for behavior problems in dingoes in captivity.  This makes sense because they are meant to lead active lives. In the wild they spend about 80% of their waking hours hunting and scavenging for food.  In the domestic situation we have to find substitutes for hunting behaviors.

If left to their own devices, dingoes in captivity are notorious for finding stimulation.  This may be in the form of rearranging and destroying such things as shoes, bedding, curtains, upholstery in the lounge room and the car.  With some planning and for thought stimulation can be provided in the form of:

  • Adventure play grounds.  In the wild dingoes love to sleep on a raised rock or plateau where they can observe activities in their territory.  In captivity platforms up to three meters in height will provide an area where they have a sense of safety and can observe their territory.
  • With a little ingenuity food can be used as a form of stimulation, so rather than a daily or twice daily feed which takes less than five minutes to eat, try some of the following:
    • Hiding small pieces of food in their enclosure so it takes ‘time’ for your dingo to find its food.
    • ‘Kongs’ are ideal as a chewing and play item, hopefully taking the place of those things that should not be chewed.  Fill with peanut butter or cream cheese, and during hot weather freeze.  My young boy spends hours trying to get the last bit of peanut butter out of a jar.
    • Throw feeding; that is throwing dry food around their enclosure or hiding it is grass so they have to find it to eat.  They work for food in the wild.
    • Feeding novel foods such as fresh and hard boiled eggs and allowing the dingoes to work out how to access the egg.
    • Food puzzle toys that require your dingo to ‘problem solve’ how to access food.  These can be purchased at the large pet barns and on-line.  If you use dry food in these, they can be used either inside or outside.
    • Large beef bones.  My butcher saves me large chuck bones which are the spine of cow; they have lots of corners which are filled with meat and my dingoes chew for hours.  It also keeps their teeth very healthy.
  • Daily walk where they can experience smells and other canines; remember your dingo is a pack animal and is stimulated by contact with other canines and the need to mark a territory.  Female dingoes will also mark their territory and even lift their leg.  It is important that you lead the walk and your dingo walks on a lose lead.  You are the ‘alpha’ and your dingo is subordinate so you control both the pace and the direction of the walk.

Training

Dingoes are very smart and can learn new tricks very quickly, but can forget or ignore learnt behavior if there is something more interesting happening.  Dingoes are very good at sitting and remaining seated when food is on offer, but when there is no food they seem to completely forget any tricks.

Some of own members take their dingoes to obedience and we do quite well, but there is always the risk that the dingo will find something more interesting!  Berenice Walters who established the Bargo Dingo Sanctuary took her first dingo Napoleon to CD standard.

Dog Whispering

Training also includes learning their place in the pack; that is the members of the household, whether humans or dingoes or dogs.  Neither dingoes nor dogs understand human behaviour; they can only understand canine behaviour, so we must communicate in canine language.   Cesar Milan, the host of the popular TV show The Dog Whisperer has developed a process we can all use to interact with all canines, including dingoes, so we can all live together in a happy pack with a human pack leader and relaxed dingoes.

Being Leader of Your Pack

Dingoes are a pack-oriented species, so they require everyone to be either dominant or submissive. If you do not establish yourself as dominant over your dingo, he will assume the role. This can lead to problems: He may become tense, overprotective, or possessive when people come near you; he may become territorial about your home or suffer from separation anxiety when you go out; he may become hyperactive. These things happen because you’re not in control and he’s not taking his cues from you.  Dingoes with separation anxiety can be very destructive.

Many people are submissive to their dingoes without realizing it. For example, it’s much easier to let your dingo run out the door in front of you so you can close the door and lock it. But in the dingo world, the pack leader always goes through narrow openings first.  When I feed my dingoes I always go out the door first, if they push past me I go back to the preparation bench until they have settled, then we try again.  When I first did this it took about ten minutes for them to understand what was required.  I remained calm and gave no instructions, just walked to the door with their food, and the minute they passed me I returned to the bench.

Another common mistake is feeding your dog before you eat so he’ll stay away from your dinner. Again, this signals that he is dominant. Pack leaders always eat first. Does your dingo lean against you and “demand” to be petted? These are all clues that your dingo has assumed the dominant position. This might sound scary, but most of the time it can be fixed easily. You see, most dingoes do not care if they are number one or number two. In fact, the pack leader has a lot more stress and responsibility. To assume control, make sure you always eat first, this may just be eating a dry biscuit while your dingoes are waiting to eat, and you decide when petting and playing begin and end. Be consistent and benevolent in your leadership and you will be on your way to top-dog status.

How to Have a Happy Dingo

The two primary needs of a dingo are exercise and a dominant pack leader. Provide those and you will have a happy dingo.  Spending a lot of time sleeping and resting can make your dingo agitated, tense, and difficult to work with. So before you do anything else, make sure your dingo exercises for a minimum of 45 minutes daily. I take my dingoes on a four kilometre walk every day.  When my dingoes were younger we often walked up to 13 kilometres on each day of the weekend.

Key to Walking a Dingo

Make absolutely sure you are leading the walk. Dingoes follow the pack leader. When you walk your dingo he can be beside you or behind you, but not in front of you. In particular, his eyes have to be able to follow your movements. This signals to him that he is submissive because he has to watch you for stops, changes of pace, and turns. The pack leader never says, “Stop!”  He just stops. Visual cues are critical. If your dog goes ahead or pulls at the leash, react quickly. Shorten the leash and walk fast, then keep just a little tension to guide him. After a while, you’ll feel that you are in “the zone”— in fact, if you drop the leash, your dingo will simply follow you; it can be done.

Meeting a New Person

When you introduce your dingo to a new person it is important that they project a calm assertiveness.  Many people when they meet my dingoes want to go straight over and pat them.  In the language of dogs and dingoes this is very aggressive and confusing, especially when people present a clenched fist and then move their hand over the dingo’s eyes and try to pat.  Inevitably my dingoes will throw their head back as they are not ready for contact.  Instead, ask people to wait for your dingo to come over and smell and check them out. While your dingo does this it is important that the new person ignores your dingo.  There should be no eye contact.  Once the new person has been assessed, your dingo will give you an appraisal, either he will back away or he will indicate that that the new acquaintance is worthy of more than just a smell and is happy for pats. Either way, it is your dingo that will appraise the new acquaintance and give you a signal that he may be patted.  If you avoid these things until he gives you a sign, you will make him feel at peace with you.

Owners Who Love Too Much

Simply loving your dingo does not make you a good dingo owner, and showering your pet with nonstop affection is a common mistake. Dingoes are not children or soul mates as this is unhealthy. Dingoes need three things: exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order. In the dog world, there is no affection. The pack leader does not lead a hunt, then turn around and say, “Hey! Great job! Let us go to the Pet Barn!” the alpha eats and leaves the remainder for the subordinates.  Make your dingo work for your affection. Before you pet him, make him come to you or sit for you. Do not go over and pet him out of the blue. That is a submissive behavior coming from someone who is supposed to be dominant, and it can be confusing.

Communicating Like a Dingo

Never discipline your dingo when you are angry. In the natural world, a pack leader is always calm and assertive, or the others will not follow. This is why, when you see people in the dog park screaming their heads off, their dog will not respond. Would you run obligingly to someone who is growling at you?  This does not mean you should not use your voice to get the dingoes attention. When I want a dingo to come to me, I say, “Hey!” but not in an angry way. If I said it angrily, I would be undermining my position of authority. If the dingo does not listen, I move away and make a noise.  My dingoes will usually follow if I make a noise and go to ground as they will want to know what has happened to the alpha.  Dingoes communicate through touch, eye contact, and energy. A pack leader can bring a misbehaving dog in line with a stare. Many people cannot do this, though, so the leash is a good tool.  Of course, you have to use it properly. Correcting by pulling back on the leash is bad. Instead, pull it to the side. When you pull back, the dingo resists you. When you pull to the side, you unbalance him and break him out of his undesirable cycle. Think about fighting another guy. If you pull him backward, he will resist and want to fight more. If you push him to the side, he will look at you and say, “Why did you push me?” His cycle is broken.  I can discipline my dingoes with a very low growl and a stare, especially inside when one of my dingoes has their feet on the kitchen bench.  Remember that the biggest and strongest in the pack has the deepest voice, so it can help if you use a very deep growl.

Managing the escape

If your dingo does escape and is on the loose, do not chase him, as he perceives this as you following him, the alpha.  Rather, walk the other way, making sure he is noticing you; you may need to yell or run, then fall over and keep making a noise (yes, this does sound stupid).  If you have established yourself as the pack leader your dingo will follow, you must be ready to reward with a treat and then catch.  But then we are all very responsible dingo owners and no dingo will ever be off lead out of their enclosure.

Truly Understanding Your Dingo

Homeless people have the best dogs. They are always moving around and exposing their dogs to different environments. Instinctively, dogs like to migrate, so these dogs are stimulated and happy. Farmers, hunters, and disabled people who rely on their dogs also have this dynamic. In each of these cases, the dog is given a job to do, completes it, and is then rewarded. These four groups of people have happier, healthier dogs than any lawyer, architect, or movie star. “Domesticated” means dogs/dingoes will not hunt for food, but it does not mean they will not work for it. It is natural for them to work. If you have a dingo that pulls on the leash, try putting a backpack on him and letting him carry water. You will see his head go up with pride because he has a job.  Young Whiskey (a dingo) was always walked with a backpack and carried his human’s car keys and money; he walked so proudly and was a joy to walk with.

References

Hess, EH 1958, ‘”Imprinting” in animals’, Scientific American, vol. 198, no. 3, pp. 2-8.

Spier, SJ, Berger Pusterla, J, Villarroel, A & Pusterla, N 2004, ‘Outcome of tactile conditioning of neonates, or “imprint training” on selected handling measures in foals’, The Veterinary Journal, vol. 168, no. 3, pp. 252-8.