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What’s the Point?

Watch any program covering research into the canine mind and you’re bound to hear mention of studies involving a dog, two cups and a pointing human. The experiment, commonly referred to as the object-choice task, follows some variation of this procedure: a dog first learns he can get a treat for approaching either of two identical cups. He then watches as a person points to one of the cups. Will the dog follow the point to the cup?

Human children are quite good at this task, and numerous studies confirm that dogs are, too. From an early age, dogs are highly responsive to this gesture. Dogs do well when a person points with a foot, or bows or nods. They’ll also respond to what’s commonly referred to as a “momentary” point, in which the person points and then lowers his or her arm before the dog makes a choice. They will follow the point even when a person stands by one cup and points at the other. Although we all know smell is a major player in the canine world, it doesn’t appear to factor greatly into dog performance; when food is hidden under one cup and nobody points, they don’t do so well. Some researchers describe their performance as “remarkable” and “outstandingly flexible.”

Not all species catch our communicative drift. A bee that flies into your car will never be aided by your outstretched arm pointing toward the open window. Given dogs’ long history with us, researchers wondered whether canine sensitivity arose through the domestication process—in which case, wolves, their closest relative, might be less adept in this task—or, on the other hand, whether it’s a product of learning and dogs’ individual life experiences. Or maybe the reality is not so black-and- white. What underlies their highly flexible ability?

Wolves do not follow our gestures as flexibly as dogs. Nor do chimpanzees, our closest relatives. This isn’t to say that wolves (or chimpanzees) can’t or don’t do it. Extensively socialized wolves and enculturated chimps—those highly familiarized with human behavior— can follow our points, but dogs generally respond more readily and easily, and wolves need more exposure to perform similarly. In 2002, Brian Hare of the Duke Canine Cognition Center pulled together then-current research on dogs, wolves and chimpanzees and, in an article in Science, concluded, “Dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.”

Both Nature & Nurture Point to Success

More immediate genetic influences, like artificial selection, could also influence dogs’ skills. Márta Gácsi and colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest found that while all dogs tested followed the point better than chance would predict, dogs bred for cooperative work (like gun dogs) performed better than those bred for independent work (like guard dogs). All the dogs in the study were living as pets and none had received special training, implying that genetics plays a role at some level in enhancing dogs’ ability to follow our gestures.

At the same time, individual life experiences could also contribute to a dog’s responsiveness. For example, the reactions of shelter dogs to our pointing gestures vary widely, and a small group of intensively socialized lab-raised dogs did not fare well in the task.

Lucia Lazarowski of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Auburn University, one of the investigators in the lab-raised dog study, saw their challenges first-hand. But when she later adopted Captain, a study participant, and informally examined his responsiveness to pointing, she found he performed much better in her home: “He actually looked in the direction I pointed and sniffed in the area I was pointing to. During the test, however, he was one of the more non-responsive dogs. Now, we like to play a game where I toss small treats around the room for him to hunt, and if he can’t find them, sometimes I’ll point to them, so he probably has picked it up from that.” Captain’s transition to canine pointfollower highlights that learning and life experiences can factor into the skill.

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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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