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Dogs are genetically wired to communicate with us

UArizona: Even untrained pups understand us
Posted at 7:25 PM, Jun 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 15:53:12-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Dogs really do seem to know what we’re thinking but did they learn that or did it come naturally? University of Arizona researchers say their work makes them believe there’s a built in genetic element that helps even very young puppies understand us soon after birth.

Some people say no one understands them like their dog. University of Arizona researchers say their research shows that may be born into your canine friend.

Researchers tested puppies too young to have already learned how to take instructions from people. They found the pups had a natural ability to understand cues like pointing to a cup with a treat underneath. Researchers actually put treats in both cups so the puppy could not just follow its nose to the right one.

Researcher Emily Bray says some tests involved no food at all.

“There was a task that we called the human interest task and we basically just spoke to the puppies in baby talk like ‘Are you a good puppy?’. This went on for 30 seconds and we measured how much eye contact they were willing to make with us, and look back at us, and so there was no food involved, it was just us talking to them.”

The serious goal behind this is to identify which dogs would make good service dogs. The experiments mostly tested retriever and retriever mixes often used as service dogs but researchers found most dogs seem to be born ready to communicate with people.

Bray says, “We also tested a population of pet dogs of all different breeds. And basically we find that there's no difference in their abilities in these sorts of tests to follow the pointing cues.”

University of Arizona Canine Cognition Center Director Evan MacLean says young, untrained puppies understand human gestures like pointing better than other animals we usually think are much smarter.

“If you do a test like that with a chimpanzee who's very closely related to humans from an evolutionary perspective, they don't know what to make of that gesture and they don't understand it at all.”

MacLean says wolves don’t know what pointing means either but it may be thousands of years ago, as some wolves befriended humans, the wolves that evolved into dogs were the ones that understood how to communicate with us.

The University of Arizona’s Canine Cognition Center is researching another way dogs fit into our lives. The Center is recruiting volunteers for a study of how dogs interact with children.