Do Dogs Inherently Understand Pointing Gestures?
I’m working on my Intro for APDT’s symposium on Canine Cognition, and one of the hot topics right now is why dogs seem to be better able to interpret a pointing gesture than are wolves or chimps. Various research projects (see below) have shown that dogs go directly toward food hidden under one of two objects (both scented with food) if a person points toward it, while wolves and chimps do not. Some have speculated that at least 10,000 years of co-evolution (probably more) have resulted in a genetically-mediated ability of dogs to inherently understand human communicative gestures.
I’ve always wondered about the results of these studies, because in my experience, you have to teach dogs to look in the direction you are pointing. When they are young, it seems to me that they pay no attention to the direction you are indicating, and simply go to your hand and sniff it. Granted, it is pretty easy to teach them to follow a point, but you DO have to teach them to do it. That’s not the conclusion of some of the researchers, and the results of these studies have been cited a gazillion times as evidence that our relationship with dogs has created a natural selection process that has made dogs able to communicate with humans more effectively than other species.
In addition, researchers (Brian Hare, Michael Tomasello and others) have compared the responses of adult dogs and “puppies” with that of chimpanzees and wolves. The conclusions have been that even young puppies are able to follow the direction of a pointing arm, while chimps or wolves of any age are not (thus, there must be a genetic component to the behavior).
I’ve seen some of the videos of the research, and I have to tell you I think the issue is a bit more complicated. First off, the young wolves, even though they have been reared by humans, appeared to be squiggly and fidgety and not able to focus on anything. Just trying to hold them in position seemed to be almost impossible. I’ve worked with a few high percentage wolf-dogs, and I can tell you that the young ones are like ADHD dogs and can barely stay still for a second. The ones in the video I watched looked frightened and completely unable to focus. A good friend and colleague tells me that adult wolves appear to be much more focused on humans and their gestures than the young ones, so perhaps there is a developmental component to the behavior.
Secondly, you’ll see that the video below shows chimpanzees, adult dogs and “puppies” being tested.The research does seem clear that as smart as they are, chimps really don’t ‘get’ what a pointed arm and finger mean. But you’ll note in the video below that the adult dogs did very well, while the comment about the pups is “Even six-month old puppies catch on pretty quickly…”. That suggests to me that there was learning involved, and that the behavior is not 100% innate, which fits with my experience with dogs. I’ll look up the actual data on “puppies” (shouldn’t it be ‘juveniles?’) before I leave for Atlanta. Brian Hare will be there too, and I very much look forward to meeting and talking with him.
Perhaps a good explanation at this point on the issue is that there appears to be an innate tendency in dogs to be predisposed to learn to follow a pointing gesture. This is basically a nature AND nurture argument: that dogs are indeed different than other species because of their co-evolution with us, but that the issue is more complex than a simple innate ability to understand what a point means. Their responsiveness might also relate to an ability to view to humans as cooperative beings who are ‘on their side’ . . . Note that chimps tend to be extremely competitive over food, and perhaps that might be a factor in their inability to understand that a person is trying to tell them where the food is. Brian Hare is speaking Friday about differences in emotional reactivity in different species, sounds fascinating. He’s one of the few researchers who has been doing work on domestic dogs for years, and it’s great that he’ll be at the conference.
I could go on, but I’ll just raise this issue now, and take it back up after hearing the talks of Clive Wynne and Monique Udell, both of whom have been doing their own research on this topic of pointing gestures and how they are interpreted. If I understand it correctly, they too have been somewhat skeptical of some of the conclusions drawn by other researchers.
Here’s a video from YouTube of some of the work . . .[Note that the researcher in this clip is actually presenting 3 signals (at least): Head Turn, Eye Gaze and Arm/Finger point. That is by design; the research worked on sorting out dog's responses to all 3, and found that dogs will target the container with food even if the experimenter keeps her head still and just moves her eyes toward it. Added 10/13]