Julie Hecht (keep up with her blogs in Scientific American) has a new article about dogs following pointing gestures in Bark Magazine that not only adds to our understanding of the evolution of the domestic dog, but also points out (sorry, but really, who could resist?) the importance of both ‘nature’ AND ‘nurture’ in communication between people and dogs.
You may recall an article I wrote in 2010 about this issue, (Do Dogs Inherently Understand Pointing Gestures?), questioning the statements of researchers Hare and Tomasello who argued that even young puppies inherently understand the meaning of a pointing gesture. My experience suggested the opposite: When I extended an arm and finger in one direction, young puppies would sniff my hand and lick my fingers. Not exactly what I was trying to communicate. However, the researchers found that while chimpanzees and wolves were unable to follow pointing gestures, even very young dogs could. Thus, they concluded that the ability to follow a pointing gesture must be genetically mediated, and have been selected for as part of the evolution of the domestic dog. In other words: Nature (genetics) prevails.
As is often the case in science, another researcher, Monique Udell, followed up on this issue and had different results than that of Hare and others. She found that wolves did relatively well, while shelter dogs performed poorly. At this point (ah, there’s that word again!), things felt a tad, uh, murky. The research appeared to be contradictory. Words were said about the validity of methodologies. But here’s the beauty of the scientific method, and of importance of combining anecdotes and good, solid science: Other researchers jumped in, and because of their efforts, the mystery is closer to being solved. Basically, everyone was right. (How often can you say that?) Studies by Miklósi and others show that domestic dogs have a predisposition to attend to human gestures. Márta Gácsi and colleagues found that dogs bred to work as a team with people did better on pointing tests than guarding breeds. Dogs attend more to the pointing gestures of familiar people than non-familiar, and the environment has a significant effect (home versus laboratory for example) on the results.. It even turns out that children do not “inherently follow a pointing gesture” (as assumed in some studies on canids); they don’t follow a point until about six months of age, and began to do it themselves when they are a year old. In other words, there are many factors that influence a dog’s ability to understand the meaning of an extended arm, and nature (genetics) AND nurture (learning) work together to create an individual who knows to follow your finger to find the treat you dropped on the floor.
Why care? Ms. Hecht stated it best: “Here’s why we care: this one little gesture, in all its complexity, could be a core feature of the intimate bond we share with dogs.” Issue such as these are helping us to understand what makes a dog a dog? I’ve called our relationship with dogs “nothing less than a biological miracle,” and argued for years that it deserved more attention from a variety of fields, including genetics, anthropology and psychology. Now it’s getting it’s getting the academic interest that it deserves, and it’s a wonderful thing. At the moment, it looks as though a dog’s predisposition to attend to us is genetically endowed, which creates an opportunity during development for the dog to learn all kinds of things that make them especially good at hanging out with us. Cool. Watch this space… more wonderful research no doubt yet to come.
But there’s another reason I’m writing today about this issue–it seems that many people haven’t quite gotten over the “nature versus nurture” arguments of decades ago, and are still resistant to accepting that most complex behaviors are the result of an integration of genetics and the environment. However, the times they are a’changing, especially given the knowledge about epigenetics that is turning our perspective upside down. One’s genetic code not only influences one’s development, but the same process works in reverse. Genes can be switched on or off by the environment–and relatively minor changes can have significant effects. Thus “identical twins,” with the exact same set of genes may look alike (or not), but often behave differently. No wonder people are often disappointed in efforts to clone their dogs and cats.
I thought about all this last night while I was snuggled against Willie, stroking my hand up and down the soft fur of his belly. What kind of interplay went on between his genes and his early development to make Willie Willie? He hummed a little in response, and tucked his head into the crook of my neck. I don’t think he cared much about the answer. Which begins another line of inquiry, about the mental lives of dogs compared to ours. Ah, so much to think about. Or not, which is one of the reasons we love our dogs so much–because they turn off our monkey minds and help us enjoy the moment. But while your mind is set onto “on,” do you point to communicate with your dog? The BC’s learn early on that pointing means “run up the hill,” or “race to the barn.” I haven’t used it as much with Tootsie, I think I’ll experiment tonight and see how she does. You and your dogs?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Hot. Humid. Not my favorite weather. But all the animals are healthy, the third round of flowers are starting to bloom, and Jim is building us a deck under a shady ash tree, so it’s all good.
Willie’s target training for teaching predator avoidance to cranes is going well. I choose a yellow ball as an object for him to target, because I can move it anywhere, and yellow is an easy color to dogs to see. I began by putting Willie on a down/stay, then placing the ball with several treats in front of it in the grass fifteen feet away. Willie learned instantly that “Yellow!” meant he was released to run to the ball. Gradually I moved the ball farther away, and out of Willie’s sight. This is a familiar game to him, so we’re progressing fast. The only challenge is that Willie would rather bite the ball than eat the treats beside it. Willie can’t do a lot of fetching so I have to be careful about playing ball with him outside0–that’s why I’ve added the treats. (But, yeah, the ball is a little flatter than before. I’m going to cover the balls with yellow duct tape. Yet another use for human kind’s most important invention.)
Maggie surprised me this morning when I asked her to move two lambs back into the barn. They were by themselves in the woods, bawling for their momma, and when I sent Maggie to round them up she pretended that they weren’t there. I wish I had a video of it, it was comical to watch Maggie do a short outrun, get right behind the lambs and then look around, left and right… No sheep here! I realized she’d never worked lambs without their mothers before. The lambs are about 2 months old, weigh about 45 pounds and are a far cry from a 120-150 pound ewe. I am sure she knew what I expected, but was nervous about dealing with such an unfamiliar situation. Lambs can actually be very hard to work, but I knew that these two would run right where I wanted them with the slightest encouragement. Sure enough, once Maggie accepted that yes, she really did need to work the lambs, she put her head down, walked forward a few steps and the lambs ran out of the woods into the barn. A good lesson for the Divine Miss M.
Tootsie thinks the Find It game is the best thing that ever happened to her. I switched to cooked chicken, because the smell is stronger than kibble, but she still can’t use her eyes to find it because it looks so much like gravel. Toots is learning that looking at me won’t get her any information, and is starting to use her nose more and more. Great fun for us both. Between playing with the dogs and watching the U.S. Open (yay Dustin!), I spent a lot of time in the garden.
Here are the first lilies in the garden; such a deep, rich orange. Love ’em.