Ever feel like your dog is listening to you? Well, chances are that she is — and she understands what you’re saying in a way that her wild relatives don’t. Even chimpanzees aren’t as attentive to the sound of the human voice as dogs, say researchers in Germany.
We’re learning more and more about the human-dog connection this year, it would seem, and this study provides yet another piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the way we relate to our best friends, and how we selectively bred their ancestors for desirable traits.
First, the skinny: dogs are already outstanding cognitive performers when compared to wolves and chimps because they can follow a person’s pointing gesture or gaze to find a treat, which is something we animal-lovers already know, given the number of times we’ve interacted with dogs. Researchers decided to kick it up a notch to see if dogs could follow a voice cue alone, a behavior that hasn’t been observed in wolves and chimps.
A researcher stood behind a barrier, showed a subject a treat, and then hid it in one of two boxes while behind a screen. Next, the screen was removed, and the researcher enthusiastically said “Oh look, look there, this is great!” while hidden behind a barrier. The dogs responded, with socialized puppies performing especially well and adult dogs handling the task with aplomb also. Notably, even puppies who hadn’t been well-handled responded at a rate better than would have happened by chance, suggesting that dogs start responding to human voices before they’re even socialized and trained. This means that the response to human voices may be part of their genetic code, much in the way that babies respond to people’s voices and faces at a very young age. (Babies, like dogs, can follow vocal cues alone to find something of interest.)
While this finding might not sound like big news, or rocket science, to you, it’s actually pretty important, because it sheds light on the history of canine domestication. Dogs and people have been living together for a very long time — the dog may be among the first of domesticated animals — and we’ve had a long time to use selective breeding to bring out the traits we find desirable in dogs.
There are clear advantages to having a domesticated animal who can respond to voice cues alone, as seen every day in the interactions between people and their pets as well as people and their working animals. Sheep dogs, for example, herd using vocal cues, and pets are adept at seeking treats and following spoken commands that aren’t associated with a physical cue.
Studies like these show how humans have directly affected canine cognition and how canines have changed and adapted by living among us, turning the minds of ancient dogs into desirable working animals who would stay at our sides, and, apparently, understand what we were talking about.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tersigni.