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What’s the Point?
Studies on dogs following gestures.
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What's the Point? Julie Hecht

AT TWO WEDDINGS, darling ring bearers paraded down the aisle proudly holding the prized objects. They couldn’t have been more than six. When they suddenly stopped—as six-year-olds tend to do—to look at something on the ground, guests leaned into the aisle and pointed toward the beaming faces ahead. Smiles filled the crowd as they continued on their way.

At one wedding, the ring bearer was a little boy, and at the other, a dog.

If we’ve spent any time with companion dogs, we aren’t surprised when a dog stops to check out the ground. It also shouldn’t surprise us that a dog might go where we point. Pointing is about social communication, and it often feels like dogs are right there with us, sometimes even more than members of our own species.

In the last 20 years, dogs’ attention to our communicative gestures—particularly this thing we do with our arm and finger—has attracted enormous attention from researchers around the globe. In fact, the pointing gesture is so fundamental that seemingly no article on the canine mind is complete without a sentence such as “dogs read our gestures, like pointing, more flexibly than any other animal” (New York Times), or—more boldly in Time—“While chimps and even wolves lack an innate ability to understand what pointing means, dogs come by the knowledge naturally.”

These statements tend to produce any number of reactions in dog owners, from “Obviously,” sometimes accompanied with a side of, “Why do they bother to do this research anyway?” to the flip side: “My dog doesn’t do that … what are they talking about?” Or even the more nihilistic view: “Sure they do, but who cares?”

Here’s why we care: this one little gesture, in all its complexity, could be a core feature of the intimate bond we share with dogs.

Since the late 1990s, researchers have tried to uncover why and how dogs pick up on our cues. Initially, key questions focused on whether their ability to follow the pointing gesture arose from our long-standing co-evolutionary history or, alternatively, if they learned the behavior over the course of their individual lives.

Pointing Is About Us

Pointing is something we humans do as part of our social communication, and it is useful only because we all agree on how it should be interpreted. Imagine if your point were perceived as, “Hey! Check out my fingertip. No dirt under my nail. Wonderful, huh?” Not exactly useful for communication. Fortunately, we understand that pointing creates a shared experience beyond our fingertips; pointing draws someone’s attention past our outstretched index finger to something out there in the world.

This cooperative gesture serves us well. Yelling, “Look out!” is only somewhat informative, but yelling, “Look out!” and pointing can help a fellow human locate and respond to a Frisbee sailing in at head level or Godzilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue. Communication achieved.

Despite our mothers’ reminders that pointing is rude, it has a function: it reflects our ability to hold shared attention with others, which could also indicate that someone else is aware of the same thing that we are. Pretty meta. Joint attention can thus be associated with an ability to infer others’ mental states, which is considered an important social capability in humans.

At about six months, children start following the gaze and gestures of others. We start pointing around our first birthday and become increasingly point-savvy as we age. When toddlers see something of interest and point at it, they become excited when we also look. They will also point when seeking something or to provide information (I want that. You dropped something). Regardless of how it’s used or understood at any given age or moment, pointing intrinsically aids our communication with one another.

Do Dogs Get the Point?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the academic interest in the canine mind that blossomed in the late 1990s was actually largely about us, investigating to what extent dogs responded to our communicative gestures— notably, our pointing. In research labs around the world, it has been a pointing party ever since.

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Julie Hecht, MSc, is a PhD student in Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a science writer. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Facebook and Twitter @DogSpies.

Photo by Martti Salmela

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