Do Dogs Use Tools?

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.

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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!

 

 

About Pam Hogle

Pam Hogle is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on dogs. Her Thinking Dog Blog (www.thinkingdogblog.com) looks at how dogs think and learn and encourages readers to challenge their dogs' minds as they improve their relationships with those dogs. Pam also teaches at the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, California, an accredited university that focuses on the human-canine partnership. She lives in Petaluma, California with two thinking golden retrievers, Jana and Cali.
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3 Responses to Do Dogs Use Tools?

  1. Contact@hammedownphotos.com' Melissa Hammaker says:

    My dog uses the wall as a tool to push toys into his mouth. He typicallyikes to carry more than one but has trouble fitting them and uses the wall to get a better grip or to fit multiple in his mouth

    • Pam Hogle says:

      That is hilarious! And shows great intelligence!
      My dog recently discovered that my very expensive wooden bookcase makes a great backstop for her antler … She wedged it under the bottom of the bookcase so she could get a better grip with her paws and chew. Smart. Not allowed though!

  2. Barryng@bellsouth.net' Barry Gorodetzer says:

    I have an 8.5 year old dog classified as a Lab mix by both the Humane Society and my vet but DNA indicates a mix of mostly Rottweiler and Pit with a little Chow. No Lab at all and he obviously does not have an iota of retrieving instinct. For his first six years he was apparently well taken care of by an elderly couple but it does not appear he received any consequential obedience training or was well socialized with other people or animals. I initially worked with him doing basic obedience. He was a fast learner but it was clearly not something that interested him and only continued reinforcement was needed to sustain a reasonable level of compliance. Overall he is a very effectionate laid back guy that is brilliant when it serves his needs but stubborn and uninterested when there is nothing in it for him. He communicates his wishes very effectively with body language and a multitude of vocalizations.

    I buy him dog ice cream. It comes in small Dixie cups. Initially I would hold it for him while he licked it out but I quickly got tired of holding it so I now just set it down on the relatively slippery tile floor. He quickly learned, on his own, to pick the cup up from the slippery tile and carry it a small area rug that provides more friction with the bottom of the cup so it does not slide around while he licks the ice cream out of it. In my mind he is clearly using the rug as a tool. I never expected a dog to have the cognitive ability to make an association between a desired action and an unassociated object that can be used to facilitate the action.

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