There’s a reason puppers are humans’ best friends. According to a Very Important Study, they are born ready to understand us, capable of communicating and interacting with humans at a very young age with no formal training required.
Both individuals’ behavior and social situations will influence that behavior, but the researchers found that at just eight weeks old, puppies look at human faces when talked to and can recognize when people are pointing at objects – signs they can interact with us through body language – and that genetics plays a large role in this, likely due to thousands of years of domesticating dogs to be our best pals.
The study, published in Current Biology, found that more than 40 percent of the variation shown in the puppies’ ability to follow someone’s finger and gaze at them when interacting with a human came down to genetics alone.
"These are quite high numbers, much the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species," lead author Emily E. Bray from the University of Arizona said. "All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans."
Bray and colleagues have been working with Canine Companions, the largest United States service dog organization for people with physical disabilities, for over a decade, conducting research on how dogs think and solve problems. The human-dog relationship goes back millennia – it's thought domestication happened sometime between 14,000–30,000 years ago – and dogs have evolved alongside us in response to this relationship.
In more recent times, humans have actively selected for and bred dog breeds for certain traits, though often to the dogs' detriment and human whim.
However, it's clear that dogs have the ability to communicate with humans, through understanding and responding to body language and, to a lesser extent, spoken words, better than any other species, including our closest primate relatives. How this ability develops is still a mystery, though.
To find out, Bray and colleagues studied 375 golden retriever and labrador trainee service pups (some people have all the luck). At eight weeks old they are just old enough to be motivated by food rewards (treats are key in dog research, they have been smart in this negotiation).
These pups are put through extensive training to become service animals, but at eight weeks, have usually only interacted with their litter mates and perhaps some brief one-on-one time with a human. Bray and colleagues carried out established tests for human-dog communication, including having someone point to where a hidden treat can be found and testing their willingness to hold eye contact.
Their findings showed that the puppies were skillful right off the bat at social communications, responding to eye contact and gestures like pointing. However, this only worked when the human initiated the interaction by speaking to the puppy in what was essentially high-pitched baby talk. Without the baby talk, the puppies didn't look to the person for guidance in the task, proving that you should start all conversations with your fur babies by telling them that they are good boys and girls if you want them to respond.
To understand whether the pups' early ability could be explained by their biology, all of them were of known heritage with a similar rearing history and pedigree, which helped build a statistical model assessing genetic versus environmental factors.
"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," Bray said. "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."