Welcome to Dog Tales, a series where author and animal advocate Rob Laidlaw shares stories and facts from his travels and work in dog advocacy.
I’m always amazed at how wild dogs can exist in the midst of heavily urbanized environments. A year ago I even saw a big coyote casually trotting down the sidewalk of a busy downtown street. But it’s not that surprising when you think about it. Both wild dogs and feral domesticated dogs have integrated themselves into human environments for a very long time and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.
One of the dogs that criss-crosses that amorphous dividing line between wild and domesticated is the dingo, a wild dog found everywhere in Australia except on the island of Tasmania. With a short, usually golden-yellow or brown coat, dingoes are stunning dogs that inhabit a wide variety of habitats. They tend to live in pairs, but can occasionally be found in small family groups.
While no one knows for sure how dingoes came to Australia, genetic testing has confirmed that they are descendents of dogs that probably came from southern China many thousands of years ago. Their scientific name is often cited as Canis lupus dingo (meaning it is a subspecies of the grey wolf) or Canis familiaris dingo (meaning it is a subspecies of the domesticated dog). There is a lot of argument about which one is right.
When Europeans first arrived on the remote island continent, they discovered dingoes living in relative harmony with Aboriginal people, sometimes serving as camp sentries or as hunting assistants.
When sheep farming was brought to Australia, dingoes found a new and easy food source. Unfortunately, killing sheep led to dingoes being treated as pests and they’ve been mercilessly hunted and killed ever since.
To keep dingoes out of southeast Australia, a 5,614 km (3,488 mile) fence was erected. Construction of the 180 cm (5.9 ft) high fence began in the early 1880s and was completed in 1885. North of the fence, dingoes are treated as wildlife, while south of the fence they were killed as pests. That’s still the case today.
However, the biggest threat to the dingo now is hybridization (breeding with domesticated dogs). Pure dingoes are very rare and many wildlife experts consider them an endangered species.
Primitive dogs, often dingo-like, can be found around the world. The New Guinea Singing Dog is a primitive dog that is thought to have been brought to the island several thousand years ago. Left alone, they developed into their own breed. Other early dogs are North America’s Carolina dog, sometimes called the American dingo, Israel’s Canaan dog and the Pariah dogs of India.
Wild and feral dogs have been with us for a long time and for much of that time they’ve been mercilessly persecuted. That’s been the history of coyotes in North America—people waging an endless war against them. But coyotes have beaten the odds and they’ve survived and prospered. I hope the other dogs do too.