Dogs’ ability to understand us and respond to our attempts to communicate with them has long been considered a fundamental part of the close relationship we share. More than two decades ago, researchers first provided evidence that dogs can follow human pointing gestures.
Many studies since then have shown that when humans point at one of two identical objects to indicate the location of the food, dogs respond by choosing the one pointed more often than we happened to expect. This may sound like an easy skill, but maybe that’s because it’s so easy for us. The idea that another species can respond to our hint is a big deal.
As with any significant discovery, this topic has been extensively discussed. Behavioral questions mainly revolve around whether dogs are learning what this gesture means from spending so much time with us, or whether they can naturally understand that pointing is a way to get their attention to something interesting.
It is difficult to study for practical and ethical reasons. Most adult dogs have a lot of experience with humans. Raising dogs without such contact for the purposes of scientific study would be cruel and totally unacceptable. It would also be pointless because such dogs would be so poorly socialized and so fearful that they would not be able to participate in studies. However, puppies are a different matter.
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In a recent study, researchers used the fact that young puppies have limited experience with humans to examine their ability to respond to human pointing gestures. The 375 participating puppies were between 7.3 and 10.4 weeks old (mean age 8.4 weeks). The puppies were loaned out by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit group that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities. The 203 females and 172 males came from 117 litters. As for the breed, there were 98 Labrador Retrievers, 23 Golden Retrievers, and 254 Golden Retriever / Labrador Retriever crosses.
In the study, the pups had a choice of two containers, one of which held a piece of snack food. While one person was holding the pup, another caught the pup’s attention and either pointed and looked at the food reward container, or showed the pup a marker (a small yellow block) and then placed the marker next to the correct container. Based on the dot gesture, the pups chose correctly more than two-thirds of the time. They correctly picked almost three-quarters of the time the person communicated the location of the food by placing the marker.
In control trials, where puppies were not directed and were likely to choose based on the smell of the food, their decisions had a success rate of 48.9 percent – essentially random and slightly worse than you’d expect based on chance alone. These experiments showed that puppies could not find the food by sniffing it out.
Multiple replications did not appear to improve the puppies’ performance. This suggests that they don’t learn the task while studying. (They either had already learned the task even though they were so young, or they could do it without having to study.) Previous studies of adult dogs – both lap dogs and assistance dogs – found similar success rates for the pointing task, and were even higher Success in the marker task.
Another aspect of this study examined the genetic basis for the variation in dogs’ ability to find food based on human information about their location. They found that 43 percent of the variation was due to heredity, confirming a long-standing belief that genetics play a role in dogs’ social and cognitive abilities. This is an important finding. In order for selection to affect a dog’s ability to respond to human communication, as there are many theories about the domestication of dogs, there must be a genetic basis.
It is important to understand that even a natural ability can be adaptive. Hence, it is not that dogs either have an innate ability or need to learn that ability. The idea that behavior is binary is extremely out of date. In fact, an influential 1967 study in my field of ethology had the brand name “Ontogenesis of an Instinct”. To understand why it was so dangerous, it is important to know that ontogeny means evolution.
The study looked at changes in a pattern of behavior that was believed to be instinctive: a gull chick pecks at one point on the beak of an adult gull to trigger feeding. Such species-specific behavior patterns were viewed as innate rather than learned. In a series of studies, Jack P. Hailman, PhD showed that learning occurred and that gull chicks improved their chopping accuracy with practice.
The idea that instinctive behavior can be improved and that learning occurs in relation to such behaviors was revolutionary and has changed the field significantly. But here, more than 50 years later, we are still debating whether behavior is instinctive or learned. It is more complex than that, and we have to accept that learning can play a role even in natural and species-prevalent behavior.
One possibility that must always be considered is that dogs have a tendency to learn the ability to follow human gestures. That is, it can be easy and natural for them to learn. In fact, it can be so simple and natural that it can be difficult to find dogs who have not yet learned how to do it. The current study provides evidence that even young puppies who have not had extensive experience with humans can perform this task and – equally interesting and important – that there is a genetic basis for this behavior. However, dogs have not been shown to have this ability in the absence of experience with humans.
The researchers say it fairly in their work: “Taken together, our results show that the social skills of dogs are very important in early development and that the variation in these traits is strongly influenced by genetic factors.”