Dog Sense: Domestication gave canines innate insight into human gestures

Anybody who’s ever moved a muscle toward a leash will agree that dogs understand human body language. The animals’ capacity to do this, suggests new research, was evolutionarily engrained since they became people’s canine companion about 15,000 years ago.

Previous studies have shown that dogs can use human cues to find hidden food. For example, dogs that watch experimenters look or point at a sealed bowl enclosing a meal then choose correctly between that container and an empty one. “Conventional wisdom would say that [people] train dogs to do this,” explains Michael Tomasello, a comparative psychologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. But his team’s findings support another view.

Tomasello and his colleagues compared various animals taking the food-container challenge. Dogs were always better than human-reared wolves at finding the food. And they even outwitted chimpanzees. The research team was surprised to find that

9-to-26-week-old puppies, including some rarely exposed to people, could use the researchers’ cues to find food.

In the Nov. 22 Science, the researchers conclude that dogs don’t learn social and communication skills from people nor do they inherit them from wolves, their closest relatives. They acquired the skills as they evolved in domestication (see “Three Dog Eves,” in this week’s issue: Three Dog Eves: Canine diaspora from East Asia to Americas).

Mark Plonsky of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point disagrees. He suggests that all the dogs in the study could have learned the skills. Even the puppies were old enough to have learned them from their mothers and littermates, he says.

In contrast, Benjamin Hart of the University of California, Davis says that dogs might learn from experience but that “they’re also predisposed genetically” to understand people’s cues.

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