While dogs can eventually learn to listen to their owners, some puppies appear to be born with an innate ability to understand people, suggests research published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
At just 8 weeks old, some of the pups in the study showed an amazing willingness to look at people they didn’t know and to take command cues, such as finger directions.
“Dogs exhibit human-like social skills at a young age,” said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona’s Canine Cognition Center at Tucson and a researcher with Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California. “Puppies, even before they have much experience with people, can return the favor [the] human gaze and can use information from people in a social context, such as pointing as a clue to find hidden food. “
To determine if the propensity to interact with people is innate, Bray and her colleagues performed several experiments on 375 8-week-old puppies who had previously had little personal experience with people. The pups were all Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or a mix of both breeds. All of the puppies in the study were bred to be service dogs.
The researchers placed a 1.20 by 6 meter mat on the floor. At one end of the mat, a handler was sitting with a puppy. At the other end, a researcher sat in front of her with two upturned cups. One of the cups covered a treat.
In one part of the experiment, the researcher shouted, “Puppy!” in a high voice and pointed to the cup that covered the treat. Amazingly, some of the pups walked straight to this mug, knocked it over, and devoured the treat.
The ability to give directions without training – something not all pups in the study could do equally well – suggested to the researchers that these particular pups had an innate ability to understand people.
In another part of the experiment with the same setup, instead of pointing at the cup with the treat, the researcher would draw the pup’s attention to a small yellow block and place it next to the cup with the hidden treat. Again, some of the pups went straight to the correct cup, tipped it over, and grabbed the treat.
The researchers found that some of the pups weren’t that good at understanding human communication, and wondered if genetics could explain the differences in the pups’ abilities.
In an analysis of the puppies ‘social skills and their cross-generational pedigree, the researchers found that genes could explain more than 40 percent of the differences in the dogs’ abilities.
“We now know that the differences we see in these abilities from puppy to puppy are due to genetic factors,” said Bray.
The study could help resolve a dispute among canine researchers “whether these skills are innate or learned,” said Dr. Katherine Houpt, animal behaviorist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. “This certainly shows that dogs have innate abilities.”
One could argue that the dog breeds used in the study were selectively bred to be very conscious of humans, said Houpt, who was not involved in the new research. “Because they have shown that it is so inheritable, they might have gotten different results if they had used different breeds. It would be interesting to look at dogs that were not bred to be service dogs, like terriers or basenjis. “
People looking to have a puppy who will grow up to be a close companion may want to seek out social skills like those described in the study, Houpt said.
“Choosing a puppy to look at you is a good criterion,” she said. “Also the puppy that approaches you when you crouch down and put your hands in front of you and that follows you – but without biting your ankles.”
There is research to suggest that puppies with good social skills are likely to retain these skills as adults, said Zsófia Bognár, canine researcher and PhD student at the Institute of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.
Still, Bognár, who was also not involved in the new study, said that genes are not everything.
Genetics doesn’t determine 100 percent of a dog’s behavior, she said, adding that life experiences and living conditions can affect an individual dog’s ability to relate to people.
Although some of these skills are inherited, “dogs can improve their performance by interacting with and learning from people,” said Bognár.
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