Dogs’ Skills for Cooperating with Humans are Biologically Prepared, Study Says

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that dogs’ social skills emerge early in development and are under strong genetic control.

Genetic factors account for nearly half of variation in dog social skills. Image credit: Emily Bray / University of Arizona.

“There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways,” said Dr. Emily Bray, a postdoctoral researcher in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona and the Canine Companions for Independence.

To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, Dr. Bray and colleagues looked at how 375 eight-week-old service dogs performed on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication skills.

Because the researchers knew each puppy’s pedigree, they were also able to look at whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ abilities.

Genetics explained more than 40% of the variation in puppies’ abilities to follow human pointing gestures, as well as variation in how long they engaged in eye contact with humans during a task designed to measure their interest in people.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said Dr. Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona.

“We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

“In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves,” Dr. Bray said.

“Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help.”

“In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn’t really seem to be part of their repertoire yet.”

In many ways, that mirrors what scientists see in human children’s development.

“If you think about language learning, children can understand what we’re saying to them before they can physically produce the words,” Dr. Bray said.

“It’s potentially a similar story with puppies; they are understanding what is being socially conveyed to them, but the production of it on their end is probably going to take a little bit longer, developmentally.”

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Emily E. Bray et al. Early-emerging and highly heritable sensitivity to human communication in dogs. Current Biology, published online June 3, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.055

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