Australia's Wild Dogs

The Warrigal

The Australian dingo is unique to that continent. It is sometimes called the warrigal. Although thought to have originally arrived from south-east Asia thousands of years ago, its isolation from other canines and the demands if its environment has seen the dingo become a unique individual. Ancient characteristics which have been retained have resulted in them being given the scientific name of Canis lupus dingo. Dogs with dingo characteristics can be found through south-east Asia.

Dingoes are Australia's largest terrestrial predator. It is tough and resilient,well suited to living in the outback. The dingo has been largely regarded as a pest because of its raids on cattle and sheep, especially the latter. Unfortunately it doesn't always kill for food but will kill or injure a number of animals in a 'killing spree' as the sheep flee in panic. It usually attacks the hind legs or hindquarters as the sheep runs from it.

Dingo(56062)Credit: Wikimedia

The average height of the dingo at the shoulders is 52 to 60cm with a length varying from 117 to 124 cm from nose to tail tip. The legs are long. The average weight is between 13 and 20 kg with a few individuals exceeding that. The males are generally larger and heavier than the females. Dingoes from the north and north-west of Australia are larger than those from the central regions and South Australia.

The hind feet have no dewclaws.  Mostly they are sandy to red brown in colour but tan is quite common and occasionally black, white and light brown are seen. The fur is short and thick although both depend a little on the climate and the tail is bushy.

There are often small white markings especially on the muzzle, chest, legs and paws. 'Red' dogs may have distinctive, small, dark stripes on the shoulders. The eyes are oblique and almond-shaped, varying from yellow to amber-brown in colour. The small, rounded ears are naturally erect. The head is broad tapering to a pointed muzzle. The hindquarters are lean and muscular.

Dingo trottingCredit: Wikimedia

Dingoes howl and whimper more than domestic dogs although they bark less. Generally the bark is short and of a single syllable and is thought to be used only as a warning to other dingoes. Their main form of communication is by howling. Researchers have detailed three basic forms of howling together with at least ten variations. There is a regular rise and fall 'bark-howl', long, persistent moaning and a short 'snuff'. It seems that variations on these three themes depend on the time of day, season, migration, mood and other factors. Dingoes howl over long distances to attract other pack members, to keep intruders out and to find other dogs. It is believed that dingoes can assess the size of another pack by the howling variations without needing to see them. It is also possible that the variable chorus makes a pack seem larger than it actually is. Howling is also more common when food is in short supply. Dingoes also scent-mark, males more often than females.

Dingoes are carnivorous predators and are most active early morning and late afternoon although they may be nocturnal in hotter climates. Although dingoes are generally shy towards humans, they can become accustomed to their presence to the point of becoming a nuisance and even a danger around campsites and in national parks. The claim by a mother that a dingo had taken her baby caused international interest back in 1980. Azaria Chamberlain was taken from her bassinet at a camp-site. The mother was convicted of murder but later released. In 2001, a nine-year-old boy was attacked and killed by two dingoes on Fraser Island.

Their diet varies from region to region depending on what is locally available. Mammals form the main part of the diet. Rodents, lizards, wild pigs, small marsupials, rabbits, wallabies, possums and wombats are all eaten as well as domestic livestock. On Fraser Island, fish has become part of their diet. While the dingo mostly hunts alone or in pairs, they form packs from time to time to tackle larger prey.

Dingoes are mostly solitary but belong to a social group which are permanently together during the mating season. The packs have clearly defined territories which rarely overlap. Packs consist of an alpha pair, their litter from the previous year and the current litter. One litter per year is raised. Females are sexually mature at two and they mate for life. The usual litter is five after a gestation of 61 to 69 days. Mostly, underground dens are used either in rock formations, under large spinifex, in abandoned rabbit-burrows or in hollow logs. Pups first leave the den at three weeks. By three to six months they are independent. Usually only the dominant pair mate. Pups of a subordinate female may be killed by the alpha female.

There is no migration although during periods of drought dingoes can and do travel long distances in search of food and water.

The life span in the wild is 5 to 10 years. This increases to 10 to 15 years in captivity. The main causes of death are humans, crocodiles and other dingoes. Wedge-tailed eagles have been known to kill cubs. Some succumb to injuries sustained from cattle or water-buffalo.

In the 1920s, thousands of miles of dog fences were erected in South Australia and in 1946 the Dingo Fence was completed. This fence connected with others in New South Wales and Queensland and was meant to stop dingoes straying from their own area. 'Doggers' were then employed by pastoralists and graziers to trap and bait dingoes. This method of control eventually gave way to government approved aerial baiting.

Although there are those who defend the dingo as a domestic pet, it cannot be recommended. Much seems to depend on the individual dog. There are plenty of examples of lovely dingo pets but they are problems in waiting for inexperienced owners. Those reared with humans and socialised from a very young age may make acceptable pets but some retain their wild instincts and a need for hunting and roaming. Dingoes are wild animals and need to remain so.