Genetics Intelligent Design

Researchers: Genes help dogs understand pointing

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Recent research on nearly 400 Labrador puppies reveals a genetic basis for a tendency to look to humans for guidance:

The researchers put the puppies through three tests. First, they performed a classic pointing experiment, placing the young dogs between two overturned cups—one containing a treat—and pointing to the one with the treat. The animals understood the gesture more than two-thirds of the time, approaching the performance of adult dogs. But they didn’t get any better over a dozen rounds, suggesting they were not learning the behavior, MacLean says.


The second test measured eye contact with a friendly human speaking directly to the puppy. The puppies averaged six seconds. That is rare among wolves, we are told, and among mammals generally. In many species, eye contact is a form of aggression, not of communication in general. But the puppies treated it as friendly communication.

Denyse O’Leary, “Researchers: Dogs are hardwired to understand us” at Mind Matters News

Of course, the evidence that the behavior might originate in genes does not necessarily mean that it is found in the puppies’ wild ancestors. The genetic component, based on pedigree research in replation to performance in the study, was 43%.

But now, here’s a puzzle: Chimpanzees don’t easily understand the pointing gesture even though they have fingers. Puppies don’t have fingers but can easily learn to understand the pointing gesture.

You may also enjoy: In what ways are dogs intelligent? There is no human counterpart to some types of dog intelligence.

One Reply to “Researchers: Genes help dogs understand pointing

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    I suspect the key isn’t pointing, it’s empathy. Dogs are intensely social and service-oriented. They understand helping and being helped, among their own species as well as between dogs and humans. Blind dogs have guide dogs. Humans have a limited amount of empathy, and chimps have none.

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