Puppies have the capacity to interact with people at a very young age without any prior experience or training. In a new study published by Cell Press, experts report that some puppies communicate better with people from the start based on their genetics.
“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,” said Emily E. Bray of 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.”
The researchers also found that more than 40 percent of the variation in a puppy’s ability to follow a human’s finger pointing is explained by the genes they have inherited. Genetics were also tied to variation in gazing behavior during a human-interest task.
“These are quite high numbers, much the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species,” said Bray. “All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans.”
Over the last decade, Bray and her colleagues have been conducting research with dogs in collaboration with Canine Companions, the largest service dog organization in the United States.
The goal of the research is to gain a better understanding of how dogs think and solve problems. The experts also want to learn how a dog’s abilities develop and change over time, as well as how genetics and individual experiences contribute.
To investigate whether a dog’s capacity for communication can be explained by biology, the researchers took advantage of their access to hundreds of budding service dogs at the same early age. All of the dogs had an extremely similar rearing history and a known pedigree going back multiple generations.
The team tested 375 eight-week-old puppies on the exact same tasks. The results showed that social communication through gestures and eye contact came naturally to puppies from the start.
However, social communication cues only worked when a person initiated the interaction by speaking to the puppy in a high-pitched voice. Otherwise, the puppies did not usually look to people for answers in a task which involved food locked in a container.
“From a young age, dogs display human-like social skills, which have a strong genetic component, meaning these abilities have strong potential to undergo selection,” said Bray.
“Our findings might therefore 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.”
According to Bray, the next step in the research is to explore whether puppies can identify some of the specific genes that contribute to social behaviors. The team is currently collecting cognitive data and blood samples from adult dogs for a genome-wide association study, which will aim to identify genetic markers associated with social behaviors.
The researchers will also follow up to see if performance on any of the social tasks at eight weeks predicts successful graduation as a service dog.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.