Dogs are talented observers of human body language. Dog folks attest to this via boatloads of anecdotal stories and home videos that we are happy to share (and over-share) with others. But more importantly for the purposes of The Science Dog, it is the results of an additional boatload of controlled research studies that support our belief that dogs are paying attention to us.
Getting the Point: Human pointing gestures have emerged as a research litmus test for measuring the dog’s ability to understand human communication signals. To date, there are more than 50 published papers that report about this talent in dogs. Researchers have compared pointing comprehension between dogs and socialized and unsocialized wolves, between dogs living as pets and those living in shelters, among puppies and dogs of different ages, using various types of pointing (hand, eyes, body position) and when the pointing person is either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. Though results vary and there are a number of nuanced points (literally) to be made, there is no longer any doubt.
Dogs are good at this pointing stuff. We point to something, they will look there.
Which of course, begs the question, how do dogs attain this very special talent in the first place? Are they born with it or is it primarily a learned phenomenon? Two general hypotheses have been put forward. The first emphasizes the importance of genetic preparedness and domestication while the second leans more heavily upon the influence of an individual dog’s life experiences:
- Domestication Hypothesis: This explanation focuses on the genetic basis of social cognition and posits that the processes of domestication plus natural and artificial selection have resulted in a species that is genetically predisposed to attend to and comprehend human behavior and communication cues. Studies showing that dogs out-performed socialized wolves in cue-following tasks and unsolvable problem paradigms provide support for this theory.
- Two-Stage Hypothesis: This hypothesis posits that a dog’s relationship with his or her human companions and opportunities to learn about human communication signals are essential for cue-following success. While followers of this theory agree that dogs have a genetic predisposition for bonding with humans, they maintain that the ability to understand and respond to our communication signals is gained primarily through living with and learning from human caretakers. Studies showing that some highly socialized wolves actually outperform some dogs in their ability to understand our signals support this view.
One of the biggest challenges in parsing the influences of domestication/selection and ontogeny/learning on the dog’s social cognition skills is finding truly representative samples (groups of dogs). For example, studies that have compared shelter dogs with dogs living in homes have been used to examine the influences of socialization and learning. The supposition is that shelter dogs are less socialized and have had few opportunities to learn from humans and so represent a group in which genetic influences would prevail. However, the background of shelter dogs is often unknown and a substantial number may have lived in homes and have had previous training. Similarly, a dog who lives in a home may receive widely varying degrees of human interaction and opportunities to learn social cues. These difficulties are probably responsible, at least in part, for the inconsistent results that studies comparing social cognition in shelter dogs and pet dogs have produced.
Representative samples: A newly published study by Biagio D’Aniello’s team at the University of Naples controlled for this particular problem by studying a group of dogs who were exclusively kennel-raised and who had experienced very limited opportunity to learn from human caretakers. (For more information about the importance of representative samples see “Your Face is Gonna Freeze Like That“).
The Study: Two groups of dogs were studied. The first included 11 Labrador and Golden Retrievers living at the FOOF kennel in Naples, Italy (kennel dogs). Although well cared for and socialized with other dogs, the dogs had very limited social interactions with people, no training and no daily opportunities to learn from humans. Each of these dogs was age-, sex- and breed-matched with a dog who had lived with a family in a home from puppyhood (pet dogs). During the pre-test period, all of the dogs learned to anticipate the presence of a food morsel in a small bowl. During the test phase, an experimenter pointed to one of two possible bowls while either kneeling close to the bowl (proximal test) or standing approximately 2 feet away from the bowls (distal test). The study used dynamic pointing, which means that the experimenter continued to hold the pointing gesture after the dog was released and allowed to make a choice of one of the two bowls. Trials were repeated 16 times with an additional 8 control trials. Dogs were scored as either correct (choosing the bowl that the experimenter was pointing to), incorrect (choosing the other bowl), or no-choice (not approaching either bowl).
Results: The pet dog group greatly outperformed the kennel dog group in their ability to understand both types of pointing gesture:
- 10 of 11 (91 %) of the pet dogs performed at greater than chance levels (i.e. chose correctly more than chance would predict) when the experimenter was in either position (kneeling and close or standing and further away).
- In contrast, only 1 kennel dog (9 %) performed greater than chance when the experimenter was close to the bowls and none of the kennel dogs were successful when the pointer was standing further away.
- A relatively high number of “no-choice” responses were observed, with these occurring at a much higher rate in kennel dogs than in pet dogs. When a separate analysis was conducted that removed “no choice” responses from the data, the success differences between the two groups of dogs were maintained, although a smaller number of trials were analyzed.
- Comparisons between the two groups of dogs in overall success at understanding human pointing gestures showed that the pet dogs were significantly more successful at understanding both types of pointing (proximal and distal) than the kennel dogs.
Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that human socialization and learning are necessary for dogs to comprehend human pointing gestures. Very low degrees of human socialization, even in dogs who are well-cared for and socialized to other dogs, results in dogs who do not understand or respond to pointing gestures. The authors conclude that while the influence of domestication on the dog’s ability to understand our communication cues is not insignificant, socialization and having opportunities to learn from human caretakers is essential.
Take Away for Dog Folks
It is the dogs who missed the point that I want to talk about.
Here’s why: Consider how frequently during a given day that you communicate with your dog via gestures and pointing signals that are not formally trained cues. These body language cues function in daily life to provide your dog with information (“Look Ally, you missed that piece of muffin on the floor“), communicate direction (“Chippy, we are going to the car, not out to the pool”) or about current plans (“Com’on Vinny, time to cuddle on the couch”). These cues are informal and often times completely unconscious on our part, but our dogs pay attention to them, understand what they mean and respond appropriately. These are our dogs – the dogs who “get the point”. We all co-develop a common language with our dogs that is made up of pointing gestures, body cues, facial expressions and key phrases. Take a moment to think about these and identify a few that you know that you use often in your home and that your dog readily responds to. There are bunches.
Now, consider dogs living in shelters: Some shelter dogs will definitely “get the point” if they had prior opportunities to bond with people and learn about the significance of human body language. Others, however, may lack this background and will miss the point. I would venture that the previous group are going to fare better in adoptive homes than the latter group. A shelter dog who has learned that human communication signals are worth paying attention to is likely to be perceived positively by his or her new owner because the dog will be aware of the significance of human body language, gestures and non-verbal communication cues. Subsequently, the new owner is likely to perceive such behaviors as a dog who is being sensitive to the family dynamics, is bonding well, and is trainable. End result – a good match and dog stays in home.
Conversely, the shelter dog who has not had an opportunity to learn about human communication cues will be at real disadvantage when he enters his new home. He will be less likely to attend to his new human’s gestures and body language cues simply because he has never learned that such gestures are worth paying attention to. While the new dog owner may not think of this in terms of his dog “attending” to his body language or communication cues per se, he will most likely notice that his dog is not paying much attention to him or responding to him. Subsequently, the new owner may perceive this as his new dog being too independent, not loving enough, aloof, or even untrainable. End result – the dog may not stay long.
If the direction that these data are pointing is correct and dogs need opportunities to learn about human communication skills (i.e. they are not purely a by-product of domestication), then it is quite possible that the benefits of shelter socialization and training programs go well beyond producing better mannered dogs who sit or lie down on command (not that there is anything wrong with those things, of course). I would expect that these less tangible benefits of shelter training and socialization programs, specifically dogs learning the significance of paying attention to human communication cues, may be more important for dogs in the long run than the more obvious benefits of teaching dogs manners and responses to cues.
So, to those of you who are working with shelter dogs to improve their lives and their chances of adoption, Keep on Keepin’ on – Science is behind you.
Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Alterisio A, Scandurra A, Petremolo E, Iommelli MR, Aria M. What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures. Animal Cognition 2017; May 15. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1098-2.
Read more about dog cognition, behavior and training in Linda Case’s new book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” (2018)