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What’s the Point?

The person behind the point can also affect dog performance. Amy Cook, CDBC, CPDT-KA, conducted a study on the topic at the University of California, Berkeley; reporting in Animal Cognition, Cook noted that when owners and strangers were pitted against one another (in what I hope was described as a “point-off”), dogs tended to follow their owners, even when they received no reward (i.e., the point did not lead to the dog getting food). As Cook explains, “Dogs make decisions by attending preferentially to social signals from humans with whom they have become more familiar.” Many of us think it’s all about us, and our dogs might agree.

If dogs respond to the pointing gesture based on whose finger is doing the work, then again, it looks like life experiences could be controlling the switches. But not so fast: Cook suggests that this unique spin on the issue— dogs being more attentive to a familiar person—could have been shaped by evolutionary pressures to bond with a caretaker. Attachment relationships between dogs and their humans are well documented and, as Cook says, going with your person could be “a successful strategy in the long term.”

Isn’t it nice when everyone can be right? Dog responsiveness to our communicative gestures could be a product of their evolutionary history plus their ability to learn rapidly once in a human environment. In a 2009 article in Behavioural Processes, Pamela Reid, CAAB and vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, reflects on what’s behind canine responsiveness to our social cues: “Dogs are too skilled for it to be pure trial-and- error learning. Yet it is improbable that a versatile behavior like this would be largely innate.” She suggests that what we see in dogs is an adaptive specialization of learning. “In essence, they come with a built-in head start to learn the significance of people’s gestures, in much the same way that white-crowned sparrows acquire their species-typical song and ducklings imprint on their own kind.” This fits in well with what is understood of instinctual or innate behaviors. As Jack Hailman explained in his inf luential piece in Scientific American in 1969, “How an Instinct Is Learned,” species-specific behaviors require some amount of experience and development.

When Patricia McConnell, CAAB, mulled over the pointing research on her blog, “The Other End of the Leash,” she agreed that dogs could be “predisposed to learn to follow a pointing gesture.” McConnell also highlights something you might have seen yourself: present a very young puppy with an outstretched finger and that puppy is going to approach your fingertip, not follow it to a distant location. McConnell’s point is that point-following in puppies is not automatic, although they learn it very easily.

To this, Reid adds, “Just because a skill appears early in development does not preclude learning. It does, however, demand that puppies be highly attentive to the actions of humans, a tendency that has been confirmed in studies of dog-human attachment.”

What Do You Understand, Dog?

What do dogs think of all this? What does it mean to be a dog who “understands” our pointing gesture?

A 2013 article by Ádám Miklósi and József Topál of the Family Dog Project in Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes by highlighting that “dog social competence [appears] sometimes ‘infant-like’ or ‘human-like,’ but, importantly, the underlying mental mechanisms may turn out to be quite different.”

It’s hard enough for us to figure out if, for example, our boss is merely suggesting that we do something or telling us to do it. The same is true for dogs and the pointing gesture. Do dogs see pointing as an imperative—“You. Go there.”—or as simply providing information or a helpful suggestion—“I recommend that you go there.”—a subtle yet meaningful difference. A 2011 article published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Helene Pettersson and colleagues found that, like children, dogs are more likely to follow a point when it is accompanied by a cooperative tone of voice as opposed to a prohibitive tone. At the same time, dogs sometimes follow the point to an empty container, leading some to wonder whether, under certain circumstances, dogs might perceive the gesture as a command.

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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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