Born social: Puppies’ genes guide them in human interactions

WASHINGTON, USA – Dogs are known for their excellent ability to respond to subtle human signals, such as following hand signals or instantly recognizing when someone is talking to them.

But whether they are born with these talents or learn through trial and error over time is an unclear area among scientists.

A new study published Thursday in Current Biology found that genetics play an oversized role in how dogs interact with humans, and some start their lives at a more advanced stage than others.

Emily Bray, a researcher at the University of Arizona and lead author of the paper, told AFP that an important test scientists use is to see how well animals understand human pointing gestures.

Previous studies have shown that dogs understand this much better than chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

Some argued that these traits were domesticated, while others believed that since dogs live in close contact with humans, “somehow they have a front row seat for all of our interactions,” Bray said.

To clarify this question, Bray and his colleagues realized that they needed to look at puppies that were much less exposed to humans than adult dogs.

They teamed up with Canine Companions, a service dog organization that provided them with 375 Goldadors, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers.

“We knew how they were related so we could look at this genetic piece,” said Bray.

Over the course of a few years, the team ran a series of standardized tests on the puppies when they were just eight weeks old and were still living with their littermates rather than humans.

In one case, a puppy entered an experimental area where a treat was available under an upturned cup but not under another.

Bray initiated the test by saying, “Puppy, look!” Make eye contact and point to the cup with the treat.

The pups chose the right mug 67% of the time, well over 50%, which would be expected if they didn’t understand.

Another test consisted of Bray placing a small box next to the container of the treat, and the pups understood the hint 72% of the time.

The puppies’ performance did not increase significantly with repeated experiments, confirming that the skills are innate rather than learned.

To rule out the possibility of the pups relying on their sense of smell, the team conducted an experiment in which Bray remained motionless and the pups were left to fend for themselves.

In this test, they were only successful half the time, which is just by chance.

The team also performed so-called “human interest” tests on the pups to see how they would engage in their first extended contact with a person.

The pups got excited and approached Bray as she, in a high-pitched voice, mimicked the tone a parent takes on with a young child, reading aloud from a standard script that began, “Hello pup! Are you a good pup? Yes, that are you.”

Genome analysis expected

Not all puppies were as skilled as the others, and statistical analysis showed that genetic factors were responsible for 43% of the variation in abilities between puppies – comparable to the genetic basis for intelligence in humans.

Bray said the results helped shed light on the dogs’ past, as they were domesticated by wolves about tens of thousands of years ago.

But whether our ancestors bred dogs for their specific abilities or whether they simply bred friendly dogs and these individuals were more inclined to follow our example is still not clear.

Future research to determine which genetic markers correspond to higher social skills could have practical applications as well, she added.

“These dogs grow up and have jobs that they may or may not be successful in so we can start asking questions about what makes a successful service dog or a successful working dog,” she added.

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