Quirks and Quarks

New study shows puppies are born able to understand and communicate with humans

Dogs can follow cues and communicate more effectively with humans than most other animals, including our own closest relatives, the primates. A new study involving hundreds of 8-week old puppies suggests that dogs are born with this ability to communicate with us.

Researchers played games with 375 puppies — for science

An 8-week-old yellow retriever puppy observes a human pointing to find hidden food. (Canine Companions for Independence)

Dogs are born ready to communicate with humans, according to a new study involving hundreds of 8-week old puppies.

The relationship between dogs and humans goes back at least 15,000 years, and is fairly unique in the animal kingdom.

"Adult dogs are really wonderful at reading our cues, and they also like to make eye contact with us," researcher Emily Bray told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

"If we do these same sorts of tasks with chimpanzees, for example, who are much more closely related to us phylogenetically, they don't understand what we're trying to to show them."

Many of the studies looking at the relationship between dogs and humans are done using adult dogs, but Bray wanted to use puppies to see just how instinctive that interspecies connection is. Her team found that even with no training and little exposure to people, the puppies were easily able to follow human cues, suggesting they were born with the trait. 

Fun games for dogs, serious research for humans

Bray, a post-doctoral research associate at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, works with Canine Companions, a service dog training program based in California.

The team worked with a total of 375 puppies at eight weeks of age, and ran them through a series of tasks.

"We basically just had a series of, to them, fun games that we that we played. And to us, we were hoping it was going to give us a window into their social cognition," said Bray.

Despite no previous training or exposure to humans, the puppies were easily able to follow the researcher's cues to find the treat. (Canine Companions for Independence/University of Arizona)

First, the team tested to see if a puppy could follow when the researcher pointed toward a treat hidden under a plastic cup. To make sure the puppies weren't using their sense of smell to find the treat, the researchers taped kibble to the underside of both cups.

Bray also tested to see whether the puppies knew to look at a human's face for help solving a task, and whether they returned a human's gaze when the researchers directed speech at them. 

Sure enough, the puppies were able to easily follow the human's cues 70 per cent of the time. 

Researcher Emily Bray with her test subjects. (Canine Companions for Independence)

"They did get it right away, which we feel like points to the fact that this is really something that is biologically prepared in them," said Bray. "And furthermore, if you looked at their performance across all the trials, it stayed the same. So there was no difference between the 12th trial as compared to the first trial." 

Puppy love is in their genes

Because these dogs were specifically bred to be guide dogs, Bray was able to look for genetic connections between the dogs that did particularly well.

"We actually found that about 43 per cent of the variation that we saw in this ability could be explained by their genetics," said Bray, adding that is a similar ratio to the inheritability of intelligence in humans. "So basically everything else that is contributing to it can be attributed to the environment, whether that is from their interactions with their mothers, to nutrition." 

These 8-week old golden retrievers knew to follow a human's gaze and cues with no training. (Canine Companions for Independence/University of Arizona)

Currently, only 50 to 60 per cent of dogs bred to be service dogs are actually successful in that role. Bray hopes that these genetic links can be used to improve their success rates.

"One of the things that we've been really interested in looking at is, what are the characteristics of these dogs that eventually go on to succeed? Can we predict that from an early age?" said Bray.

"I think in this particular study, the fact that we find these social communicative skills are so heritable is great, because it means that there is a potential to select for them even more strongly."

The study was published in the journal Cell.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz