Is canine responsiveness to people innate?


Wolf pups and stray dogs pick up human cues with no training. 


A wolf puppy named Flea, who comes from a non-fetching litter born in 2015.

Christina Hansen Wheat

By Natalie Parletta

Two studies have independently found that wolf pups and stray dogs can correctly interpret human cues and respond to them without prior training.

The responses were different – the former a spontaneous behaviour and the latter adaptive behaviour in response to a reward – but the underlying suggestion is that both are innate or intrinsic.

In the first study, published in the journal iScience, three eight-week old wolf puppies (Canis lupus) spontaneously responded to human cues by retrieving a ball for an unfamiliar person.

The random finding was unexpected, says Christina Hansen Wheat from Stockholm University, Sweden, given that dogs’ ability to interpret human cues is thought to be a novel trait that emerged after domestication.

The researchers ran a battery of tests with 13 untrained puppies from three litters as part of research exploring how domestication affects behaviour.

During the tests, a person unfamiliar to the pups threw a tennis ball across the room and encouraged them to retrieve it – not expecting them to catch on.

Puppies from the first two litters showed little interest, but three from the third litter not only went for the ball but responded to the person’s cues to bring it back.

Hansen Wheat thinks these traits could have had a selective advantage during early stages of domesticating dogs – those wolves with a genetic predisposition to respond to human cues, among other desirable traits, were likely to have been bred for pets.

Although people often ask how dog and wolf behaviour differs, she thinks the parallels are far more interesting as they can shed light on how dog behaviours evolved.

“Importantly, similarities can tell us something about which traits our forefathers likely selected upon to create the dog at least 15,000 years ago,” she says. “Here we show that such a trait could have been human-directed play behaviour, which will likely surprise dog owners as much as it surprised me.”

The second study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, looked at whether untrained dogs (Canis familiaris) roaming free around India responded to human signals.

These researchers found that most dogs tested could follow human pointing gestures to choose which of two covered bowls contained food.

“This study is a piece in the jigsaw of the big picture of the early adaptation of dogs during the process of domestication that we are trying to unravel,” says Anindita Bhadra, from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata.

In a similar, earlier experiment, her team found that pups followed pointing gestures, but juveniles and adults didn’t.

The new study, with 160 stray dogs, had a higher success rate despite the gestures being more complex. Bhadra attributes this to the positioning of the experimenter.

In the earlier study, the person bent down and the pointing finger was close to the bowl, which could have made the dogs wary.

In the present study, the dogs had to watch the experimenter and understand their distal pointing at the bowl – either momentarily or repeatedly – to follow the gesture.

Around half the dogs didn’t approach either bowl, but these showed scared or wary responses. Of those that did, 80% succeeded in choosing the correct bowl – even with momentary pointing – and were rewarded with food.

“Since the dogs tested are not pre-trained to follow human pointing, the study reveals the intrinsic responses and abilities of the free-ranging dogs,” the authors write.

“This would be really adaptive in the environment that they live in,” Bhadra notes, “as they encounter humans regularly, and while they receive food and petting from some, they often receive threats and beatings from others.

“Hence the ability to understand the body language and intentions of humans is an important survival trait for the dogs. This also reveals what dogs are capable of learning on their own, without being trained.”

A wolf pup named Sting fully retrieving the ball.
CREDIT: Christina Hansen Wheat

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2019.100811
  2. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02818/full
  3. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180643
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