Puppies born ready to communicate with people

In a result that won’t come as a surprise to dog lovers, US researchers have found that puppies are born with an innate ability to interact with humans.

An 8-week-old yellow retriever puppy gazes up to a human when he is unable to retrieve the treats on his own. Credit: Canine Companions for Independence

The team studied eight-week-old puppies to see how they responded to human gestures without much (if any) training by giving 375 dogs the exact same tasks. They found that up to 40% of a puppy’s capacity to interact comes down to its genes.

“We show that puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans,” says Emily E. Bray, an animal behaviour researcher at the University of Arizona.

“For example, even before puppies have left their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer raisers, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the indicated location.”

But this communication only seemed to work when a human initiated it; otherwise, puppies didn’t naturally look to humans to indicate how to find the food.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, found that based on their genetics some puppies have a better innate ability than others to interact with humans, with 40% of the variation in following human gestures explained by inherited genes.

Credit: Canine Companions for Independence

“All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans,” Bray says.

Bray and team have been studying dog behaviour for a decade, in collaboration with a US service dog organisation called Canine Companions. All of the dogs in the study were budding service dogs with a similar rearing history and known pedigrees, allowing the researchers to build a statistical model that could assess genetic factors in comparison to environmental factors.

These findings not only add to our understanding of how dogs develop their abilities to think and problem solve, but also have implications for determining what makes a successful service dog.

An 8-week-old yellow retriever puppy looking on as the experimenter points to a cup with hidden food beneath. Credit: Arizona Canine Cognition Center

The next step is to identify specific genes contributing to the displayed behaviours – and to keep tabs on these puppies to see whether success on these early tests can predict their successful graduation into service dogs.

Bray says that their findings may also “point to an important piece of the domestication story, in that animals with a propensity for communication with our own species might have been selected for in the wolf populations that gave rise to dogs”.

An 8-week-old yellow retriever puppy participating in a trial of the pointing task. Credit: Arizona Canine Cognition Center

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