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What makes your dog, a dog? Ask a dingo

A new Penn State study looks at the evolutionary step in between dogs and wolves.

What makes your dog, a dog? Ask a dingo
[Photo: AlizadaStudios/iStock (dingo); Tanasiri/rawpixel (background)]
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If you want to truly understand your dog, look no further than dingoes, the whip-smart wild canines that live in the Australian outback.

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Dingoes are, broadly speaking, a sort of genetic and behavioral midpoint between the wolf and dog. Dingoes understand what human pointing means, yet hunt and live independently, sometimes alone, and can sometimes outsmart dogs. “Part of the reason I’m so fascinated with dingoes is that if you see a dingo through American eyes you say, ‘that’s a dog,'” notes Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at Penn State, who just published an extensive study of dingoes. But they’re not dogs, Shipman notes: “A dingo is a wolf on its way to becoming a dog, that never got there. In evolutionary terms, dingoes give us a glimpse of what started the domestication process.”

Your dog has a couple of pivotal traits that the dingo does not. Your dog can:

  • digest starches
  • closely bond with humans

Your dog achieved these feats because dogs evolved alongside humans, eating a human agricultural diet of starches (maize, rice, potatoes, or wheat), and being bred by humans.

Dingoes evolved near Indigenous Australians, but the arrangement was different: Indigenous Australians would take puppies from their mother’s dens and raise them, but the puppies were left to go breed their own offspring in the wild. Indigenous Australians did not manipulate dingo breeding, and thus today dingoes remain wild, albeit somewhat accommodating to humans: They’re generally wary, often spotted by locals.

Distinguishing between wolves, dingoes, and dogs can be tricky. The species can sometimes interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Because of this inter-species fraternizing, very few pure dingoes exist. Though dingoes arrived on Australia at least 4,000 years ago, and dogs just 370 years ago, today’s dingoes usually have some domestic dog ancestry.