Eight week old puppies can already answer human glances or follow the direction of an outstretched finger. So it’s really the nature of the beast.
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that they often have an amazing ability to communicate with us. Sometimes a dog knows what you mean with just one look. And if you point to the right, for example, it will quickly understand that there is something to be gained in that direction. Researchers decided to take a closer look at these special communication skills in dogs in a new study. Because how is it possible that four-legged friends understand their owners so well?
Dogs vs. the rest
Dogs differ from other pets in several ways. For example, dogs are very sensitive to spoken language. A cat, on the other hand, prefers to draw his own plan. And no matter how many times you tell a hamster to sit down, chances are he doesn’t care. A dog is different in that regard. Not only does he understand what you’re saying, he often understands human signals as well. “The communication skills of dogs allow them to fill an important niche in people’s lives,” study researcher Emily Bray said in an interview with Scientias.nl. “Many of the tasks they perform for us—think herding, hunting, tracking, or service dogs—are facilitated by their ability to understand our signals. In addition, these skills also promote bonding between you and your companion dog and strengthen the bond between humans and animals. For example, mutual glances are known to increase levels of the hugging hormone oxytocin in both species.”
Scientists have been trying to understand for some time how dogs have such good communication skills. In addition, they try to find out how these skills developed over time and how the individual experiences and genes of dogs contribute to them. In the new study, scientists decided to study whether this excellent communication ability could be explained by their biology. The researchers collected 375 eight-week-old puppies and tested them on the exact same tasks in a standardized manner. Because the team knew how closely related the puppies were, they were able to use this information to build a statistical model weighing genetic and environmental factors.
What the puppies got to do? “We gave them different tasks,” Bray says when asked. “One of them was a pointing task. The researcher called out the puppy’s name, made eye contact, then pointed from two cups to the one with a treat underneath.” The researchers made sure that the dogs couldn’t use their noses to find this treat. It means that they were dependent on their communication skills. “We found that the puppies understood the social cue,” Bray continues. “They managed to find the right cup more often than you would expect by mere chance.” When the puppies were given the exact same task but without the outstretched finger, the chances of finding the treat were much smaller. “Now they were only right half the time,” said Bray.
Watch how a puppy chooses the right cup in this video.
In another experiment, the researchers made eye contact with the puppies and tracked how long the puppies returned the gaze. “This showed that this was successful for 1/5 of the total probation period.”
The findings show that just eight-week-old puppies are already proficient in social communication based on gestures and eye contact. So it means that dogs have communication skills from a very young age, without any experience or training. “We show that puppies can respond to human social gazes and successfully use information provided by humans in a social context,” concludes Bray. “And that from a very young age, prior to extensive experiences with people.”
This means that dogs are actually biologically programmed to communicate with us. “From a young age, dogs exhibit human social skills,” Bray concludes. “The study provides additional evidence that there is a biological basis for the close bond between humans and dogs. Behaviors such as eye contact and the ability to understand socially conveyed information are at the heart of that bond. Our findings tell us that these skills develop in very young dogs, allowing them to get along well with people almost immediately.”
The researchers also discovered that some dogs are slightly more socially skilled than their peers. And that can be explained by their genetics. So, to what extent a puppy can communicate with us also depends on the genes it has inherited. “In particular, 43 percent of the variation we see in the ability to track, say, an outstretched finger, is due to genetic factors,” Bray says. “These are high percentages, about the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species.”
The researchers are continuing their study. Because there is still a lot to learn about the social skills of dogs. “Now that we know that there is a strong heritable component to these social communication skills, the next step is to see if we can identify some of these specific genes that contribute to this behavior,” Bray said. “We are currently collecting cognitive data and blood samples from adult dogs and plan to conduct a genome-wide study. The goal is to find genetic markers related to social behavior.” In addition to understanding genetics, they also hope to study how different aspects of a dog’s early environment can affect cognitive and social skills. And in this way we get to know our four-legged friends a little better.