Dogs might have earned the nickname “man’s best friend” due to how good they are at socializing with people. These social skills could be present soon after birth in puppies rather than acquired, a new study by University of Arizona research suggests.
Published in the journal Current Biology, the study also discovered that genetics might help explain why some puppies perform better than others on social tasks like pointing gestures.
“There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies – sort of like humans – are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways,” said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Bray has spent the last decade conducting research with dogs in cooperation with California-based Canine Companions, a service dog organization serving customers with physical disabilities. She and her colleagues expect to better understand how dogs think and solve issues, which may have consequences for dogs which would make decent service animals.
To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, Bray and her collaborators looked at the way 375 of their company’s 8-week-old budding support dogs, which had little past one-on-one interaction with people, conducted on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication abilities.
Because the investigators understood each puppy’s pedigree – and therefore how related they were to one another – they’re able to look at whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ skills. Genetics clarified more than 40% of the variation in puppies’ skills to follow human pointing gestures, as well as variation in how long they engaged in eye contact with humans during a task made to measure their curiosity in people.
“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”
At the time of the study, the dogs were still living with their littermates and had not yet been sent to live with a volunteer puppy raiser. Consequently, their interactions with individuals were restricted, which makes it unlikely that the behaviors were learned, Bray said.
The researchers engaged that the dogs in four distinct tasks. In a single task, an experimenter hid a treat beneath among 2 overturned cups and pointed into it to determine whether the puppy could follow the gesture. To ensure that the pups were not just following their noses, a treat was taped to the interior of both cups. In another version of the task, puppies watched as the investigators put a yellow block next to the proper cup, rather than pointing, to signal where the puppy should look for the food.
The other two activities were created to detect puppies’ propensity to look at human faces. In one task, the investigators talked to the puppies in “dog-directed speech,” reciting a script at the kind of high-pitched voice people occasionally use when speaking to a baby. They then measured how long the puppy held a gaze with the individual. In the final task – a so-called “unsolvable task” – researchers sealed a deal within a closed container and presented it to the pup, then measured how often the puppy looked to the human for help opening the container.
While many of the puppies were responsive to peoples physical and verbal cues, very few looked to people for aid with the unsolvable task. That suggests that although dogs might be born knowing how to respond to human-initiated communication, the capacity to initiate communication on their own may come afterwards.
“In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves. Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help,” Bray said. “In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn’t really seem to be part of their repertoire yet.”
In many ways, that mirrors what we find in human children’s growth, Bray said.
“If you think about language learning, children can understand what we’re saying to them before they can physically produce the words,” she said. “It’s potentially a similar story with puppies; they are understanding what is being socially conveyed to them, but the production of it on their end is probably going to take a little bit longer, developmentally.”
MacLean stated the next step will be to determine if researchers can identify the specific genes which may contribute to puppies’ capability to communicate with humans.
“We’ve done some previous studies that show that dogs who tend to be successful as service dogs respond to people in different ways than dogs who aren’t successful,” MacLean said. “If you could identify a potential genetic basis for these traits, you might be able to predict, even before the puppy is born, if they are part of a litter that would be good service dog candidates, because they have the right genetic background. It’s a long way down the road, but there is potential to start applying this.”
Related Journal Article: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(21)00602-3