More than fifty years ago, Jane Goodall made a discovery that shook some scientists — particularly those that had long lists of all the things that made humans unique and superior to nonhumans. She saw Chimpanzees using tools.
Since then, other researchers have found other nonhumans using tools, from dolphins who use sponges to protect their beaks to elephants using tools to scratch itches, reach food, and plug water holes. Even crows use tools. But, as far as I know, no researchers have studied whether dogs use tools.
I’d argue that Koala, a guide dog educated at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, uses tools.
Koala had a problem. When she tried to chew on her antler, it would move. Sometimes it would slip out of her paws — oh, if only she had thumbs — and skitter across the floor. She loved the noise it made (especially when Deni was on the phone), but it was not efficient. She wanted to chew.
Koala has another chew toy, a nylabone ring. It’s not as nice to chew on as the antler, but it’s OK. Its primary advantage is that it’s not as slippery as that antler.
As the photos show, Koala figured out how to solve her problem using the ring as a base to hold the antler steady. She tried it with a different nylabone as well, Deni reports, but the ring-and-antler combo works the best. Koala’s quite the little toolmaker!
An accepted definition of “tool use” is “using objects external to the self to accomplish a goal.” I might argue that, using this definition, every pet dog and cat in the world uses humans as a tool, but that’s not really what we’re going after here.
We could come up with countless examples of dogs showing their problem-solving ability, but most wouldn’t include actually using a tool.
My dog Jana used a tennis ball to massage her back (I do the same thing, and I think that counts as tool use). She was a very creative problem-solver, too. There was not a treat toy on the market that could keep Jana occupied for more than about 30 seconds. And a friend’s dog tugged on a pool cover to haul in a ball that had landed in the pool, which should count as tool use. They join Koala in the small group of dogs I know to use tools. I absolutely believe that it is possible. Of course a couple of anecdotes do not make a defensible research study, but it’s certainly a topic worth exploring.
Though Jana and the friend’s dog were not trained guide dogs, both had received extensive training in preparation to work as service dogs (neither actually did work as a service dog, though). My hunch is that teaching dogs, as young puppies, to think and problem-solve encourages a mindset that is necessary for tool use. Most pet dogs do not get that kind of training. Many training approaches do not encourage dogs to think and problem-solve; they emphasize obedience or doing something very specific in response to a cue. Service dogs and guide dogs often need to act in ways that go beyond the confines of a narrowly defined response to a cue, so their training is more likely to encourage thinking.
I am sure that there are many other stories out there. Have you seen a dog do something that might count as tool use? Does your dog use tools? Send me your stories!