How much do dogs, even young puppies, learn from watching us? (All photos are from Emily Bray and Canine Companions. Thanks bunches!)

A recent study in Current Biology by Emily Bray, et. al., Early-emerging and highly heritable sensitivity to human communication in dogs, caught my eye recently, because it brings up a variety of interesting issues to those of us interested in human-dog communication. One of those is the issue of whether dogs inherently understand a pointing gesture made by a human. In my experience with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds (you get the idea) of puppies, they don’t. If you extend your arm and finger in a particular direction, puppies either ignore it or lick your hand if they are close enough. But they don’t look or move in the direction in which you are pointing. However, laboratory study after study has shown the opposite–that puppies and adult dogs, with no training, know where the food is hidden if a handler points in that direction. One perspective claims that “dogs inherently understand pointing gestures,” and the other says the opposite. Hmmmmm.

Eureka. I think I finally figured it out, thanks to an engaging talk with lead researcher Emily Bray on the study mentioned above. It’s not location, location, location, it’s context, context, context. Puppies and dogs who have been primed that there is a problem they want to solve (where is the food?), are particularly primed (like children, but not like many other mammals including chimps) to seek information from a person nearby. This is my best explanation for the discrepancy in results and experience. Understand that it’s not a fact, just a hypothesis that I think explains everything. Perhaps even why I like watching golf on TV but don’t like golf courses and can’t play it? Okay, maybe not that. But I find it exciting nonetheless.)

Let’s look at this in depth by circling back to the study itself. Here’s from the summary: “Comparative studies show that at 2.5 years old, children reason about the physical world similarly to other great apes, yet already possess cognitive skills for cooperative communication far exceeding those in our closest primate relatives. A growing body of research indicates that domestic dogs exhibit functional similarities to human children in their sensitivity to cooperative-communicative acts.”

First of all, what are these “cooperative-communicative” acts referred to in the study? The authors tested 375 retriever puppies (an average of 8.5 weeks of age) on a battery of tests. Note that these pups were all dogs raised through Canine Companions–a demographic that raises some questions I’ll talk about later in the post. In one study, after food was hidden under one of two containers, a handler got a pup’s attention by saying “puppy, look!,” made eye contact and then pointed toward the container with the food.  You’d expect the pups to get it right 50% of the time if just by chance, indeed that’s exactly what happened when they set up the same experiment without a pointing gesture. All dogs tested in this and other studies, got it right about 48-49% of the time without a handler pointing toward the food. But if someone pointed toward the container with the food, the pup’s success rate was almost 70%. (The study controlled for odor cues, good for them, by attaching food also to the bottom of the container’s lid in both containers.)


          An illustration of the pointing test. Which container has the food?

Some of this might seem oh-so familiar, if you’ve followed the research on whether dogs can follow pointing gestures from humans without any learning involved. If you’re a long-time reader,  you might remember a post I wrote on this in November, 2010, “Canine Cognition and Pointing Gestures.” The quick summary is that primatologist Brian Hare found that dogs, even young pups “without any learning” whatsoever, could follow pointing gestures while wolves and coyotes couldn’t. However, Monique Udell in another study found that dogs were no better than wolves, and what mattered was the testing environment and the developmental history of the animals. But other studies followed that found dogs super sensitive to a pointing gesture, without any evidence of learning. In other words, approximately 70% of puppies chose the correct cup from the get go (on the very first trial), and that same percentage also chose correctly on the 12th— and final – trial, and every trial in between.

I wondered, however, if the demographics of the puppies made a difference. They were all Canine Companions dogs, carefully bred to be the best possible candidates to pass the rigorous training and behavior required to be a safe assistance dogs. Ah, I initially thought, perhaps their genetics predispose them to being more sensitive to human gestures? It would make more sense after all. Clearly the reason that CC invests so much in its breeding program is that genetics affect the dog’s behavior. (The first CC puppy I met was so quiet I thought he was sick. Emily describes them as “marshmellow puppies.”) But no, tests showed the CC dogs and dogs from the general population score no differently.

                           Image courtesy of Dr. Emily Bray.

Here’s the kicker (I think): The dogs in these lab studies were first taught, before any pointing occurred, that there would be some containers in the testing room that held food, but not others. You can call them “warm ups” or “pre-trials” or whatever you want, but they meant that the dogs learned that food was available, and that they didn’t know where it would be. Thus, the dogs were in a context in which they wanted something, and were amenable to getting information from a person to get it. The puppies I played/worked with however, were just hanging out, or sniffing the grass, walking with their person, exploring a new environment. They had not learned that there was food hidden somewhere, and that information a gesture from a human might help them figure it out. Whew, my quandry of “research doesn’t equal experience” just might be solved.

In no way does this make the results any less interesting and impressive. The fact that dogs seem to be highly sensitive to human gestures is no doubt part of the miracle of our relationship, and the more I learn about it the more impressive it gets. And, there’s more:

Another part of this study is of particular interest to dog lovers like us. The study also looked at the amount of time a puppy looked at the face of the handler while being talked to with “baby talk.” (The kind of high-pitched speaking that we know from other studies gets babies and puppies attention.) The experimenters scored the duration of how much time the puppies spent looking at the handler’s face, and then used the careful records of CC to see if there was a genetic basis for the behavior. Sure enough, looking to a human’s face and maintaining eye contact not only appears to be a heritable genetic trait, but also that it lasts over time. Subsequent studies a year later found that the dogs scored almost exactly the same as they did when young. In other words, if you want a dog who is especially attuned to you, you might be able to predict that by testing a litter in the same way at 7 weeks or so.

         This test scores the times and duration that a puppy looks to the handler when faced with an unsolvable task.

There was more to this study, which is a compilation of a remarkable many years-long effort by a lot of dedicated people. I haven’t even mentioned the section of the study that set up “unsolvable problems” (food in a container the dogs couldn’t open). Here’s a video summary of the tests, ending with a puppy whose reaction to the “unsolvable” problem will make your heart all gooey.

Puppies playing games for science

I could go on and on about this study (okay, I sort of already have), but the biggest take away is the high heritability of this sensitivity, a finding dependent on the CC’s participation in this study and their careful record keeping.  I’ll leave the last comment to the authors of the paper:

” . . . Importantly, however, the significance of our findings is not tied to questions about mechanism. Rather, from a functional perspective, our study reveals that from early in development, individual dogs vary in their response to human communicative cues, and these differences are under strong genetic control. Regardless of the cognitive mechanisms involved, these heritable individual differences shape dogs’ responses to human communication and have potential to undergo selection.”

Don’t hesitate to read about the study yourself. Current Biology is doing a good job, in my opinion, of organization research results in an accessible way. Details about methods etc are all there, just after the basics of the study and the author’s discussion of the results.  And, a new study was just published today (July 12th, 2021) by the same author on wolf pups. So much to look into!

Here’s the whole crew of researchers and assistants, by the way, Emily Bray, the lead author, is second from the left. Kudos to them for lots of hard work!


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The flowers are bountiful on the farm in July. It’s a joy to have all those hours digging, watering and weeding pay off. (Not that it’s over . . . the weeds are winning this week.) Photographs never seem to illustrate how beautiful the flowers are in person, but here’s one section of the garden behind the house.

One of the lilies in that garden seems to be a favorite host of this critter (I showed the tail end of it last week). Someone commented that it absolutely had to be a grasshopper, but I thought not. Now, I’m not so sure–look at those legs! I can’t ID this creature so far on line, it’s definitely not in the “common grasshopper” category.  Perhaps a juvenile version of a more common one? Any one know who this is?

One more flower photo for the week, a raft of two varieties of Bee Balm behind the house. I put them in the area I call the “wild west,” not even close to a cultivated garden, and they are spreading like crazy. That’s a wonderful thing, because the hummingbirds adore them and I adore hummingbirds. I got to watch a male do his U-shaped courtship dance over a different group of Bee Balms recently, and I felt like I’d been given a ticket to something magical.

Wonderful news on Maggie! She seems to be healing up well; I’m letting her run loose on walks with Skip now with no sign of regression or lameness. Here they are on the woods trail running back to me, on the other side of one of the bridges that Jim built. I keep close tabs on them in the woods because it’s not all fenced, and the neighbor’s woods run into a county highway. Coming back to me is just a game we play–they run ahead and sniff and explore, I call them back and give them a mix of praise, treats and a chuck under the chin, and then off they go again.

Here’s Maggie farther up the trail, wondering why the hell I called her back yet again (I wanted a better photo.) I love her posture; it speaks volumes. (As in: Why did you call me back again? I’m confused.)

Here’s the top of the trail, leading into the high pasture at the top of the hill behind the house. Once the dogs get to the gate I never worry that they’ll stray, because THERE ARE SHEEP ON THE OTHER SIDE! Yeah, I think they would be yelling.

I felt a need for a little bit more color before I signed off, so went out to grab a shot of the geraniums. I love the purple flower color.

As is often the case, Nellie took the opportunity to beg for attention. I gave up on getting a really good photo and gave Nellie a good body rub. Who could resist that face?

What can’t you resist this week? And what do you think about what Emily Bray’s research says about our relationship with dogs? Another example of why/how our relationship with dogs is a miracle? Or . . . ? Don’t hesitate to chime in, we’re looking forward to it.




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