Domestic dogs are born to socialise with people because we bred them that way. Two-month-old puppies can already recognise when people are pointing at objects and will gaze at our faces when they’re spoken to – both signs that dogs have an innate capacity to interact with us through body language.
Although individual relationships with people might influence that behaviour, at least 40 per cent of this ability comes from genetics alone, says Emily Bray at the University of Arizona.
“Over the course of domestication, from wolf to dog, there’s been a clear selection for these social skills,” she says. “It’s something that’s ingrained in them and that emerges at a really young age even before they’ve had much experience with humans.”
Bray and her colleagues tested these types of skills in 375 8-week-old Golden retriever and Labrador puppies that were destined to become service dogs. It was the earliest age they could carry out such experiments because the puppies were only just old enough to be motivated by food rewards, Bray says.
The researchers found that pointing at food hidden under a cup helped the puppies to find it nearly 70 per cent of the time. The success rate was that high from the start, meaning they weren’t learning to follow pointing, but already knew to do so, Bray says. In a control test, the puppies couldn’t find food hidden under one of two cups at a rate better than random chance, indicating that they weren’t simply smelling it.
Much of the variation in different puppies’ ability to follow finger-pointing is explained by genetics, Bray says. Using statistical analyses based on the puppies’ parents and other relatives, the researchers found that genetic factors were responsible for 43 per cent of these variations.
The team also ran another experiment in which researchers spoke “baby talk” to the puppies and found that the dogs fixed their gaze on the person for more than 6 seconds on average – representing an understanding that they were communicating with them. Again, genetic factors accounted for about 40 per cent of the differences among puppies here as well, says Bray.
However, when the puppies couldn’t open a box filled with food in a third experiment, they only gazed at the researcher’s face for about a second, meaning they weren’t seeking human assistance. The results suggest that, like young children, most domestic puppies are naturally good at understanding and responding to people talking to them. But at 8 weeks old they haven’t yet developed the social skills necessary for asking people for help.
The findings also have important implications for breeders and buyers, adds Bray. People can choose to breed dogs with good social skills, knowing this is a heritable trait. And they can also select puppies that gaze at people’s faces when they talk to them as a start to a good interspecies bond. “If your dog is able to read your communication, that’s likely just going to be a more harmonious relationship,” she says.
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.055
More on these topics: