Dingoes, dogs and the feral identity

A free-ranging (dingo-like) dog in Kakadu National Park. John Tracey

On a stop-over in Thailand, CSIRO scientist Laurie Corbett noticed some familiar-looking, ginger dogs wandering the streets. This encounter set him thinking about the origins of Australia’s dingoes, a subject that has intrigued naturalists since William Dampier first saw the footprints of a “wolf” on the West Australian coast in 1688.

Dingoes are a type of dog. As Terry Pratchett says, “Men made dogs, they took wolves and gave them human things”. Dingoes were probably made by accidental and purposeful selection of tamer grey wolves that scavenged around the camps of people living in southern China less than 16,300 years ago. Corbett showed that they were dingoes he saw in Thailand and that, from morphometric, archaeological and anthropological evidence, they probably arrived in northern Australia with South East Asian seafarers and traders about 3,500 to 5,000 years ago.

Genetic studies conform with this approximate date range, but with broad confidence intervals out to 18,300 years ago. Whatever the mechanism and timeframe, the adaptable, generalist dingo was spread throughout mainland Australia when Dampier first saw its spoor.

Europeans and other immigrants have brought many breeds of dog to Australia over the past 200 or so years. These have not always been restrained or separated from free-ranging dingoes and so genetic intermixing has occurred. Today, we have many free-ranging dogs throughout the country, ranging from “pure” dingoes to various crosses with more modern breeds. The ginger/yellow colour is dominant and so it is impossible to tell a pure dingo from some ginger cross-breeds by looking at them. Some dingoes are black-and-tan but so are many kelpies.

The most recent DNA study shows that most free-ranging dogs in south eastern Australia have some dingo genes but about 95% have domestic genes. The gene-pool of free-ranging dogs is more diverse now because of the crossing of dingoes with a range of dogs previously selected for different characteristics. Whether this broader gene-pool has adverse or beneficial impacts on free-ranging dogs and their roles in different ecosystems remains to be determined. However, even in regions with a high proportion of cross-breeds, there are pure dingoes.

Map of free-ranging dog DNA distribution showing areas with higher dingo purity. Grey areas are either where no samples were taken or where free-ranging dogs are absent. Danielle Stephens

Given that there are more than just dingoes out there, what should we call these animals? “Feral dog”, “wild dog” and “dingo” have different meanings and value weightings to different people. We choose to call them all “free-ranging dogs” because it is the most inclusive and value-neutral descriptive term we can think of.

Whatever their breeding, free-ranging dogs have various known and possible impacts on the environment and agriculture. Attacks on livestock, pets and people (rarely) are known negative impacts. Peter Thomson long ago showed that predation of sheep is inevitable once free-ranging dogs move into an area and will continue until the dogs or the sheep are separated or removed. The relationship with cattle is less straightforward, with some producers preferring to retain free-ranging dogs for control of competition from kangaroos whilst others prefer control to prevent predation on calves.

Preliminary analyses suggest that the annual cost of dog predation and control to Australian livestock industries exceeds $48.5M.

The social impacts of free-ranging dogs are more difficult to measure. What we think and how we feel about free-ranging dogs influences both what we choose to do about them and to what extent we accept others’ management preferences and decisions. This is a particularly vexatious problem because most people regard dogs as “man’s best friend”. That special relationship influences our attitudes and behaviours towards their free-ranging kin. A better understanding of community attitudes and free-ranging dogs’ socio-economic impacts is needed to help make and implement broader policy and local management decisions.

The current debate among scientists about ecological roles of free-ranging dogs, particularly dingoes, influences strongly held views in the community. Some scientists regard the dingo as an essential component of Australian ecosystems, beneficial to faunal biodiversity through suppression of foxes and feral cats. Others are more circumspect about the broadscale application of this idea. The topic is currently undergoing research by a number of different groups, including our own in the temperate environments of north eastern NSW.

Most free-ranging dog populations are left alone, and are only controlled to prevent negative impacts. “Control” and “management” are not synonymous terms. Control of dogs is generally accepted to mean their removal or the prevention of their access to a resource of value to humans. Erecting a fence around a refuse tip, culling problem individuals on Fraser Island and reducing populations by poisoning them in and adjacent to areas with livestock production or bridled nailtail wallabies are all examples of control.

People use exclusion fencing, livestock guarding animals (such as dogs, llamas, and donkeys), shepherding, poisoning, trapping and shooting as control tools. Management is a broader term including all the strategies and tools for control or conservation.

We think it best to manage free-ranging dogs on the basis of their known impacts. Where the welfare of livestock and other domestic animals are affected, reduce the probability of their interaction with free-ranging dogs through integrated population reduction and exclusion. Where biodiversity is proven to benefit from free-ranging dogs or the dingo is valued as a breed and it is appropriate to conserve it without adversely affecting livestock or human health, then enhance its populations and exclude other genetics. In other places, it might be best to do nothing. Regardless, we must seek to identify and carefully address the range of needs for managing free-ranging dogs.

The location, nature and scale of free-ranging dogs’ impacts and the social, economic, environmental and welfare imperatives must be established before proposing a course of action that might impinge upon one or more of them.

Information about distribution of dingo genes across Australia comes from Danielle Stephens’ PhD thesis. Danielle’s research is the broadest genetic study of free-ranging dogs undertaken to date.