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Puppies can understand human signals from a young age

While dogs can eventually learn to listen to their owners, some puppies appear to be born with an innate ability to understand humans, suggests research published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

At just 8 weeks old, some of the puppies in the study showed a surprising willingness to fix their eyes on unfamiliar humans and take commands, such as directions given with a finger.

“From an early age, dogs demonstrate social skills similar to humans,” said lead author of the study, Emily Bray, postdoctoral researcher at the Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson and researcher at Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California. “Puppies, even before they have a lot of experience with people, can reciprocate [the] human gaze and can use information from humans in a social context, such as pointing as a clue to finding hidden food. “

To determine if the tendency to interact with humans was innate, Bray and his colleagues conducted several experiments with 375 8-week-old puppies who had little one-on-one experience with humans. The puppies were all Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or a mixture of the two breeds. All of the puppies in the study were bred to be service dogs.

The researchers placed a 4-by-6-foot mat on the floor. At one end of the rug, a master was seated holding a puppy. At the other end sat a researcher, with two cups upside down in front of her. One of the cups covered a treat.

An 8 week old yellow retriever puppy watches an experimenter point to a cup hiding food.Arizona Canine Cognition Center

In part of the experiment, the researcher shouted “puppy! In a shrill voice and pointed to the cup that covered the treat. Surprisingly, some of the puppies would walk straight up to this mug, knock it over and gobble up the treat.

The ability to follow directions without any training – something not all of the puppies in the study could do as well – suggested to researchers that these particular puppies had an innate ability to understand humans.

In another part of the experiment with the same setup, instead of pointing at the cup with the treat, the researcher would draw the puppy’s attention to a small yellow block and place it next to the cup with the hidden treat. Again some of the puppies would go straight to the correct cup, knock it over and grab the treat.

Noting that some of the puppies were not as good at understanding human communication, the researchers wondered if the variation in the puppies’ abilities could be explained by genetics.

In an analysis of the puppies ‘social skills, as well as their multigenerational pedigrees, the researchers found that genes could explain more than 40 percent of the variation in dogs’ abilities.

“We now know that the variation we see in these skills ‘from puppy to puppy’ is due to genetic factors,” Bray said.

An 8 week old black retriever puppy is participating in the pointing task.Canine companions for independence

The study could help resolve a dispute between dog researchers “over whether these abilities are innate or learned,” said Dr. Katherine Houpt, animal behaviorist and professor emeritus at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. “It certainly shows that dogs have innate abilities.”

It could be argued that the dog breeds used in the study were selected to be very human conscious, said Houpt, who was not involved in the new research. “Because they have shown that it is so hereditary, they might have gotten different results if they used different breeds. It would be interesting to look at dogs that are not bred to be dogs. assistance, such as burrows or basenjis. “

People who wish to have a puppy that will become a close companion may want to seek out social skills like those outlined in the study, Houpt said.

“Choosing a puppy that looks at you is a good criterion,” she said. “Also, the puppy that comes up to you when you crouch down and put your hands in front of you and follows you – but not biting your ankles.”

Research suggests that puppies with good social skills are likely to retain these skills into adulthood, said Zsófia Bognár, canine researcher and doctoral student in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.

Still, Bognár, who was also not involved in the new study, said genes aren’t everything.

Genetics don’t 100% determine a dog’s behavior, she said, adding that life experiences and living conditions can affect a dog’s ability to relate to humans.

Even though some of these skills are inherited, “dogs can improve their performance by interacting with humans and learning from humans,” Bognár said.

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