Puppies may be born ready to communicate with people

4 Jun 2021

Image: © Oleg/Stock.adobe.com

A new study suggests dogs display ‘human-like social skills’ from a young age, based on their genetics.

A dog may be a human’s best friend, but new research suggests that some puppy pals are born with this ability to connect with us.

In a study published to Current Biology, researchers found that the capacity to interact with people can be present in dogs from a very young age, and that some puppies start off better at it than others based on their genetics.

“Puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans,” said Emily Bray of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who led the study.

Bray and her colleagues conducted their research with a US organisation training service dogs. They tested 375 eight-week-old puppies with a similar rearing history.

These puppies were tasked with finding a hidden piece of food by following a human who was pointing to an indicated location.

A puppy and a woman are sitting across from each other on the floor. There are two blue cups in front of the woman, and she is pointing to one of them.

Image: Emily Bray/Canine Companions

The findings showed that puppies are skilful early on when it comes to social communications that rely on gestures and eye contact. However, the communication only worked when a person also initiated the interaction by speaking to the puppies in a high-pitched voice.

The study also found that more than 40pc of the variation in a puppy’s ability to follow the human’s finger pointing was explained by the genes they’ve inherited. This also applied to the variation in gazing behaviour during a human-interest task.

“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.”

The next step in this research is to see if specific genes can be identified that contribute to these behaviours. Researchers also hope to explore how different aspects of a dog’s early environment might influence its cognitive and social ability.

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic