A recent study in Current Biology by Emily Bray, et. al., Early-emerging and highly heritable sensitivity to human communication in dogs, caught my eye recently, because it brings up a variety of interesting issues to those of us interested in human-dog communication. One of those is the issue of whether dogs inherently understand a pointing gesture made by a human. In my experience with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds (you get the idea) of puppies, they don’t. If you extend your arm and finger in a particular direction, puppies either ignore it or lick your hand if they are close enough. But they don’t look or move in the direction in which you are pointing. However, laboratory study after study has shown the opposite–that puppies and adult dogs, with no training, know where the food is hidden if a handler points in that direction. One perspective claims that “dogs inherently understand pointing gestures,” and the other says the opposite. Hmmmmm.
Eureka. I think I finally figured it out, thanks to an engaging talk with lead researcher Emily Bray on the study mentioned above. It’s not location, location, location, it’s context, context, context. Puppies and dogs who have been primed that there is a problem they want to solve (where is the food?), are particularly primed (like children, but not like many other mammals including chimps) to seek information from a person nearby. This is my best explanation for the discrepancy in results and experience. Understand that it’s not a fact, just a hypothesis that I think explains everything. Perhaps even why I like watching golf on TV but don’t like golf courses and can’t play it? Okay, maybe not that. But I find it exciting nonetheless.)
Let’s look at this in depth by circling back to the study itself. Here’s from the summary: “Comparative studies show that at 2.5 years old, children reason about the physical world similarly to other great apes, yet already possess cognitive skills for cooperative communication far exceeding those in our closest primate relatives. A growing body of research indicates that domestic dogs exhibit functional similarities to human children in their sensitivity to cooperative-communicative acts.”
First of all, what are these “cooperative-communicative” acts referred to in the study? The authors tested 375 retriever puppies (an average of 8.5 weeks of age) on a battery of tests. Note that these pups were all dogs raised through Canine Companions–a demographic that raises some questions I’ll talk about later in the post. In one study, after food was hidden under one of two containers, a handler got a pup’s attention by saying “puppy, look!,” made eye contact and then pointed toward the container with the food. You’d expect the pups to get it right 50% of the time if just by chance, indeed that’s exactly what happened when they set up the same experiment without a pointing gesture. All dogs tested in this and other studies, got it right about 48-49% of the time without a handler pointing toward the food. But if someone pointed toward the container with the food, the pup’s success rate was almost 70%. (The study controlled for odor cues, good for them, by attaching food also to the bottom of the container’s lid in both containers.)
Some of this might seem oh-so familiar, if you’ve followed the research on whether dogs can follow pointing gestures from humans without any learning involved. If you’re a long-time reader, you might remember a post I wrote on this in November, 2010, “Canine Cognition and Pointing Gestures.” The quick summary is that primatologist Brian Hare found that dogs, even young pups “without any learning” whatsoever, could follow pointing gestures while wolves and coyotes couldn’t. However, Monique Udell in another study found that dogs were no better than wolves, and what mattered was the testing environment and the developmental history of the animals. But other studies followed that found dogs super sensitive to a pointing gesture, without any evidence of learning. In other words, approximately 70% of puppies chose the correct cup from the get go (on the very first trial), and that same percentage also chose correctly on the 12th— and final – trial, and every trial in between.
I wondered, however, if the demographics of the puppies made a difference. They were all Canine Companions dogs, carefully bred to be the best possible candidates to pass the rigorous training and behavior required to be a safe assistance dogs. Ah, I initially thought, perhaps their genetics predispose them to being more sensitive to human gestures? It would make more sense after all. Clearly the reason that CC invests so much in its breeding program is that genetics affect the dog’s behavior. (The first CC puppy I met was so quiet I thought he was sick. Emily describes them as “marshmellow puppies.”) But no, tests showed the CC dogs and dogs from the general population score no differently.
Image courtesy of Dr. Emily Bray.
Here’s the kicker (I think): The dogs in these lab studies were first taught, before any pointing occurred, that there would be some containers in the testing room that held food, but not others. You can call them “warm ups” or “pre-trials” or whatever you want, but they meant that the dogs learned that food was available, and that they didn’t know where it would be. Thus, the dogs were in a context in which they wanted something, and were amenable to getting information from a person to get it. The puppies I played/worked with however, were just hanging out, or sniffing the grass, walking with their person, exploring a new environment. They had not learned that there was food hidden somewhere, and that information a gesture from a human might help them figure it out. Whew, my quandry of “research doesn’t equal experience” just might be solved.
In no way does this make the results any less interesting and impressive. The fact that dogs seem to be highly sensitive to human gestures is no doubt part of the miracle of our relationship, and the more I learn about it the more impressive it gets. And, there’s more:
Another part of this study is of particular interest to dog lovers like us. The study also looked at the amount of time a puppy looked at the face of the handler while being talked to with “baby talk.” (The kind of high-pitched speaking that we know from other studies gets babies and puppies attention.) The experimenters scored the duration of how much time the puppies spent looking at the handler’s face, and then used the careful records of CC to see if there was a genetic basis for the behavior. Sure enough, looking to a human’s face and maintaining eye contact not only appears to be a heritable genetic trait, but also that it lasts over time. Subsequent studies a year later found that the dogs scored almost exactly the same as they did when young. In other words, if you want a dog who is especially attuned to you, you might be able to predict that by testing a litter in the same way at 7 weeks or so.
There was more to this study, which is a compilation of a remarkable many years-long effort by a lot of dedicated people. I haven’t even mentioned the section of the study that set up “unsolvable problems” (food in a container the dogs couldn’t open). Here’s a video summary of the tests, ending with a puppy whose reaction to the “unsolvable” problem will make your heart all gooey.
I could go on and on about this study (okay, I sort of already have), but the biggest take away is the high heritability of this sensitivity, a finding dependent on the CC’s participation in this study and their careful record keeping. I’ll leave the last comment to the authors of the paper:
” . . . Importantly, however, the significance of our findings is not tied to questions about mechanism. Rather, from a functional perspective, our study reveals that from early in development, individual dogs vary in their response to human communicative cues, and these differences are under strong genetic control. Regardless of the cognitive mechanisms involved, these heritable individual differences shape dogs’ responses to human communication and have potential to undergo selection.”
Don’t hesitate to read about the study yourself. Current Biology is doing a good job, in my opinion, of organization research results in an accessible way. Details about methods etc are all there, just after the basics of the study and the author’s discussion of the results. And, a new study was just published today (July 12th, 2021) by the same author on wolf pups. So much to look into!
Here’s the whole crew of researchers and assistants, by the way, Emily Bray, the lead author, is second from the left. Kudos to them for lots of hard work!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The flowers are bountiful on the farm in July. It’s a joy to have all those hours digging, watering and weeding pay off. (Not that it’s over . . . the weeds are winning this week.) Photographs never seem to illustrate how beautiful the flowers are in person, but here’s one section of the garden behind the house.
One of the lilies in that garden seems to be a favorite host of this critter (I showed the tail end of it last week). Someone commented that it absolutely had to be a grasshopper, but I thought not. Now, I’m not so sure–look at those legs! I can’t ID this creature so far on line, it’s definitely not in the “common grasshopper” category. Perhaps a juvenile version of a more common one? Any one know who this is?
One more flower photo for the week, a raft of two varieties of Bee Balm behind the house. I put them in the area I call the “wild west,” not even close to a cultivated garden, and they are spreading like crazy. That’s a wonderful thing, because the hummingbirds adore them and I adore hummingbirds. I got to watch a male do his U-shaped courtship dance over a different group of Bee Balms recently, and I felt like I’d been given a ticket to something magical.
Wonderful news on Maggie! She seems to be healing up well; I’m letting her run loose on walks with Skip now with no sign of regression or lameness. Here they are on the woods trail running back to me, on the other side of one of the bridges that Jim built. I keep close tabs on them in the woods because it’s not all fenced, and the neighbor’s woods run into a county highway. Coming back to me is just a game we play–they run ahead and sniff and explore, I call them back and give them a mix of praise, treats and a chuck under the chin, and then off they go again.
Here’s Maggie farther up the trail, wondering why the hell I called her back yet again (I wanted a better photo.) I love her posture; it speaks volumes. (As in: Why did you call me back again? I’m confused.)
Here’s the top of the trail, leading into the high pasture at the top of the hill behind the house. Once the dogs get to the gate I never worry that they’ll stray, because THERE ARE SHEEP ON THE OTHER SIDE! Yeah, I think they would be yelling.
I felt a need for a little bit more color before I signed off, so went out to grab a shot of the geraniums. I love the purple flower color.
As is often the case, Nellie took the opportunity to beg for attention. I gave up on getting a really good photo and gave Nellie a good body rub. Who could resist that face?
What can’t you resist this week? And what do you think about what Emily Bray’s research says about our relationship with dogs? Another example of why/how our relationship with dogs is a miracle? Or . . . ? Don’t hesitate to chime in, we’re looking forward to it.
The pointing reminds me of behaviour I observed in Sophy the papillon, who was ahead of me on our riverside walk the other day and went to talk to a couple standing on the bank, looking across the river. Sophy glanced up at their faces up, and then turned to see what it was they were watching. Such a simple thing, but it got me wondering whether other species are as quick to follow our gaze, and whether it is the precursor of learning to follow a pointing finger.
We brought home our current dog when he was 3 years old. I don’t know his entire background, but he was a breeding dog…so I would imagine a lot of kennel and some home upbringing since he came to ours with no house training incidents.
Initially, when a food treat was dropped, he would look, and sniff, for it. If it was dropped and was not immediately found due to the treat bouncing “out of bounds”, we would point to it and there would be no response to the pointing. There was increased searching and sniffing as we pointed and chattered “it’s over there!”.
He eventually learned to follow the pointing gesture (we started by moving our finger directly to the treat). It could be that his attention was initially poor because he found himself in a new environment. But it seemed to me, that he had to learn the meaning of the pointing gesture as a tool to home in on the missing food treat (at least when that was an advantage over his nose and eyes).
My last dog followed the point easily – but we had him from a pup and pointing was a part of our “find” games.
Since environment and genetics go hand in hand, I really don’t know if my current dog lacked some of the environmental stimulus in general, or in his younger puppy years (referring to the pointing gesture)….or if that’s just the way he is and he prefers to act on his own to “hunt” down the treasure.
Oh, the puppy’s response to the unsolvable puzzle really was heart-melting. Thank you for the sweet start to my evening. And for sharing your beautiful gardens. Here in NH, I love to sit in our dining room and watch the hummingbirds flit from bee balm flower to bee balm flower. Glad to hear Maggie’s healing well.
I got a chuckle from the photo of the researchers w/their ‘subjects’ and experienced not a little envy. When I was a grad student in experimental (human) psychology, our subjects were usually undergraduate students and, oh, what a treat it would have been — and then we’d have to change the analysis to control for the endorphin pop and the subsequent experimenter bias? — to have been able to cuddle with adorable puppies as a function of our work. Thanks for this!!
Michelle Van Howe says
My husband and I listened to you on WPR for many years, then missed you and Larry when “Calling all Pets” wasn’t on any longer. I just finished your book, “The Education of Will”, and was profoundly moved by it. It was recommended by another dog-lover. I am glad you and Will were able to help each other move forward in life to conquer your fears and traumas. We currently have 3 Norwegian Elkhounds (we had 4, but unfortunately just lost our 7 yr old female a month ago to cancer). Now we have an 8 yr old male and his 4 yr old son and 3 yr old daughter that we show in conformation and they compete in agility trials. The son has started growling at his father and has attacked him on occasion. He seems fearful of his father. His father has been Mr. Mellow until recently and now growls back at him and will fight back if provoked. The son also has started growling at people and other dogs on walks. We have tried positive training and negative. Nothing seems to work. Any suggestions? Both are intact males (not neutered) and the female is not spayed.
Melanie Hawkes says
Yay for Maggie!
One thing I wish I could do is point. My disability means I can’t. Upton has learnt to follow my verbal cues, and I also position my wheelchair to guide him. His nose is terrible at finding things on the floor. Hard to believe he’s a Labrador cross. I wish service dog organisations wouldn’t use pointing gestures to train their puppies as no good for people like me. But eye contact is very welcome. Not so much for people who need guide dogs though…
BARB STANEK says
Totally agree with you about the “pointing being a learned behavior” and golf! Also agree with an interest in the heritibility of attention to people. Facinating. Good for us!
Agree about the beauty of a garden not transferring to a picture! I have a prairie and my photos are sadly lacking in the grandure of the landscape!
Great post! Thanks!
BARB STANEK says
Oh, and that picture of Nellie IS a really good picture! One of the best of her!
Your insect looks like a katydid of some type. The juveniles can look quite different from the adults. Try having a listen out in the garden in the evenings. There are song guides available online.
Marcia Schlehr says
I wonder if the researchers have ever watched a retriever field tria, where on a “blind” retrieve dogs follow whistle and arm signals to go to find an object (bird) they have not seen. Sometimes at significant distances, and with remarkable accuracy.. If the dogs did not have the inborn ability in the first place, how likely they could be so easily trained to follow the signals?
Jodi Grzeczka says
Wow, Patricia! Another awesome post! Since I started following you by books, and many of your lectures, I am thoroughly envious that I didn’t follow the educational path you did. I was denied going to college, and I really didn’t know where to turn otherwise. I got caught up in marriage and child-rearing, and only the last 20 years or so have gotten back on track with my education. I have a very intuitive 12+ year old Yellow Lab that I have worked with on communication. He has proven to be quite stubborn, and I have learned different ways over the years to work with him. He’s been amazing, even though he’s proven to be “one of those wild and crazy Labs”! Last year, a female Corgi puppy joined our pack and she has been a delight in so many ways! For one thing, the pointing with the Lab has usually been to move him to turn around, or move out of the way, or “we’re going this way”, and he took to it naturally and seamlessly. So much of our communication was wordless. Even a raised eyebrow from me seemed to be picked up by Thunder. Working/playing with Paisley has been somewhat different, and I chalked it up to her being a different kind of dog. At first the hand gestures meant nothing, but it seems that repetition over the past year has been the key. Other things with her, it seems, I talk to her about them, forming “pictures” in my mind, she gets them the first time around. This little dog is always watching me, and I joke that I have to make sure and put all my sewing tools away, or she’ll make a quilt while I’m away from the house! She does watch me the way a herding dog will, and yet, her eyes say so much more. I have taught her to leave the bees alone, and warn her to be gentle with the cat (she can tussle with the 90 pound Lab without reserve!) I am going to be paying much more attention to the non-verbal ques we work with, that seem to be so natural to all 3 of us now! Thank you for this one!
I wonder if your mysterious creature is a cricket of some kind (long antennae), and if it is perhaps drawn not to the lily but to aphids on the lily?
As to pointing, I’m with you. I have rarely lived with a young puppy. My many dogs have nearly all been older than six months when I adopted them. Every one of them had to be taught that pointing means something. And the two Dalmatians never, ever got it. They were permanently bemused by my exaggerated arm gestures and happy talking, and interpreted that behavior on my part to an invitation to play. But then, my spotted boys interpreted nearly anything as an invitation to play. Play, run, or sleep were their three settings.
Re the bug- my new phew has known from age two that he was going to be an entomologist (he even requested the rainforest for his senior trip) and is now working towards that goal at 22. This is what he said about the bug:
“It looks to me like an immature katydid (tettigoniidae is the scientific family). There are a couple other families it could be in but it’s definitely immature which makes it hard to be sure.”
rita penner says
We always adopt older dogs and some of them, you just don’t seem to be able to teach about pointing. My current dog came with a love of playing fetch. Him, I can point by making it look a bit like a throw, and off he goes to look.
Oh wonderful Judy! I’m thrilled for an expert ID! I’ll check it out.
Charlotte Kasner says
Monique Udell was also part of the team that published work on hyper-sociability in dogs and wolves which found that a deletion on chromosome 6 which causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, a developmental disorder that makes affected people trusting and friendly, is also found in dogs and the authors think that selecting for it was fundamental to domestication. [vonHoldt BM et al (2017) Structural variants in genes associated with human Williams-Beuren syndrome underlie stereotypical hypersociability in domestic dogs, Science Advances, V3(7), e1700398, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700398]
Later research suggested that cis-regulatory mechanisms (rather than epigenetics) also play a rôle in the expression of the genes effecting hyper-social behaviour. [vonHoldt BM et al (2018) Activity of Genes with Functions in Human Williams–Beuren Syndrome Is Impacted by Mobile Element Insertions in the Grey Wolf Genome, Genome Biology and Evolution, V10(6), pp 1546–1553, https://doi.org/10.1093/gbe/evy112%5D
Presumably all of these elements affect the likelihood of response to pointing gestures which may result in a tendency for breed-specific responses as well as individual and contextual effects?
Your posts never fail to brighten up my day and this was another great one. Brody, who I adopted when he was nine weeks, always watches me and has always understood and responded to pointing. My two ‘foster failures’ however, don’t quite get it. In my experience, it seems to be a learned behavior. Dusty (adopted when she was six years old) is making an effort to figure out what I mean when I point at some thing or direction, and is making progress. Jax (adopted at 3 months but born feral) truly doesn’t care what that gesture means. Your photos are great and a big hooray for Maggie’s progress!
Suzanne Clothier says
Because of my work with guide & service dog organizations, I’ve been able to observe differences between pure genetics at work and the influence of early development practices (in my case, my Enriched Puppy Protocol – EPP). What has been fascinating is that in multiple situations, a repeat breeding litter raised with EPP was so different in their behavior from the same breeding six months prior that the organization staff assumed that new bloodlines had been acquired. A common comment from staff and volunteers and puppy raisers focused on how “connected” the puppies were. There are of course always differences in individuals, but the oh-so-necessary “serve & return” interactions that develop relationships bring out the best in the genetics. What has been gratifying has been that the end user of guide dogs raised with EPP notice the difference! It was reported to me that strong bonds with a new guide were formed in just a few months, contrasted with 1-2 years for that user’s previous guides. Mind you, that’s the same basic genetic pool but with an enriched upbringing prior to 8 weeks. The differences are so notable that organizations using EPP have invested big bucks in creating facilities that provide what’s needed. I do think that the significant influence that early development has on genetics is poorly understood to date. Even foxes and wolves raised with EPP show differences (Wolf Park, Battleground IN). Thanks for sharing this!
Thanks so much Suzanne for joining the conversation. I agree completely that early development has a huge effect on a dog’s behavior. I look forward to learning more about EPP, certainly I’ve been a fan of other programs promoting development. Fascinating too about the wolves at Wolf Park. Tell us more! Data to share?
Charlotte, such an interesting question. The study’s result, that found the same response of the general pet dog population compared to CC dogs suggests that it might be species wide. Since dogs seem to vary sooo sooo much in their sociability (ie, Golden versus Chow), it would be fascination to learn more about the variabilty of the genetics of hyper-social behavior. More research, more research!
Defintely a kathydid juvenile Judy, thank your newphew for me!
My pleasure Jodi (and hey, I went back to school as a freshman at 39!)
Marcia, great question. The dogs are trained, elaborately!
Lorraine, you nailed it!
Ah, Melanie, so sorry you can’t point! So glad that there are similar results of the effect of eye gaze direction. Great point about the service dog training, hope someone will make a note.
Rebecca M Rice says
Just a general comment about the bug picture: there is an app called iNaturalist that will take an image and try and compare it to similar creatures/flora in the area. From their website: Every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed. We share your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe.
So, if you want to be a citizen scientist, then you just take pictures, upload them, and tag their location. What I like is that it will suggest what the item in the picture is, based on what’s nearby, etc. And it says that the insect is most likely a Katydid, but can’t pin it down to a specific type. Hope this helps anyone who has ever wondered “what is that?” when out and about.
Two of my dogs came to me not recognizing pointing as a gesture with relevant information. Finna was actually wary of moving hands doing anything she didn’t recognize. D’Artagnan recognized pointing as meaning get out of my way in that direction nothing else. With both of them I saw the aha moment when they realized that I have a lot of relevant information and will share it with them. Your realization about context fits well with my observation of my two that once they discovered it was relevant information they began to attend to the gesture. It’s been especially interesting working with D’Artagnan. As a Pyr he’s very independent minded. People are nice but not really relevant to what he does. But to be an effective Therapy Dog he needs to be my partner which requires paying attention to me. He’s come a long long way since those first days when we could go for a three mile walk and he wouldn’t check in with me even once. Now that we’re back to doing Therapy Dog visits he’s discovering that I have even more relevant information and we’re learning to work together as partners. although we’ve still got quite a ways to go.
Michelle, absolutely get a good, progressive trainer in to evaluate the situation. Definitely need someone there to get a clear picture of what’s going on. All paws crossed. (I would talk to the trainer and your vet about neutering also… as the son gets older and the father ages, and there’s an intact female around–you get the idea).
Love this Frances! Eye gaze direction has also been studied and it does indeed work in the lab too. Not sure if it is related to pointing, except, of course, attention to a person.
I am completely novice but am realizing after reading this how much I point with my dogs. My shepherd mix seems to understand when I point to the back door that I am going to let her out. But many times I might be saying something at the same time so not sure if it is the pointing or the words or my body language. I’ll have to experiment with it.
My lab mix sometimes gets it when I point to where I dropped a treat on the ground but again I’m not being scientific about it.
Also am thinking about sending my resume for any job where I can work with puppies.
Annie B says
Your flowers are gorgeous!
Marj K says
We have a choice of trails from the front gate, Cash watches for me to point to the direction we are going to take that day. And when he misplaces his ball he will respond to the direction I point to find it. We haven’t formally trained this, but he (Australian Cattle Dog) has always responded to gestures as cues.
Jann Becker says
That’s such a classic “But, Mo-omm!” look! And “Why do you need to point that box at me again, we did that already!”
We just got a new puppy (yay!) and picked one that seemed very interested in watching faces (though the whole litter was very people-oriented, hard to choose between them).
At 11 weeks old, only in our house a few days, he chased a toy under a cabinet. He spent a few seconds barking at it and pawing, then immediately picked his head up, looked around, and came to get me to tell me his toy was stuck.
We’ve had two Corgis before, one immediately turned to people for help if he had an unsolvable problem, one never did. I can definitely believe this type of communication—understanding that people want to share information and help—is a trait they are born with.
This is a fascinating discussion, and I do have a few stories related to pointing and seeking assistance/guidance from both ends of the leash. And why wouldn’t someone we live with so intimately seek our help or turn to us for clues? But really, all I wish I could do is smell those puppies and cuddle with them all!
Anecdotal only, but I once trained a German Shorthair to look back at me when I gave one blast on the whistle. (Three blasts were the cue to recall.) Once she looked back, I could then point in the field direction I wanted her to flush birds. It seemed to move her most quickly in the right direction when she could see the sweep of my arm rather than a stationary pointing gesture.
Love when you share, and help us understand, research like this!
I’m not surprised dogs react to pointing. If hand gestures work to silence, wait etc…but it’s always interesting to see how amazing dogdom really is! Why not just stop talking to them and use body language :))
My retired racing greyhounds have no idea what pointing is about. They lead a very dog-centric life on the farm and track which gives them really great dog communication skills (often to the point of very little tolerance for dogs who don’t speak dog due to growing up in a human centric world) but they have to learn how to pay attention to human communication, with varying degrees of success.
Running agility I point with my shoulders, with my feet, with my arms and hand and with my eyes. There is definitely a learnt element involved, I think-and an agility course is one helluva ‘problem to be solved’, and of course, some breeds are more receptive to the visual cues than others. So all three possible explanations in one context!