If it seems like your dog knows exactly what you're saying, that's because dogs are born ready to communicate with people, according to a new study.
The research, published this week in the journal Current Biology, suggests that even puppies have a capacity to interact with people without any prior experience or training.
However, some are better at communication than others based on their genetics.
"We show that 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 study author Emily Bray, of the University of Arizona.
"For example, even before puppies have left their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer raisers, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the indicated location," Bray said
More than 40% of the variation in a puppy's ability to follow a human's finger pointing or gazing behavior during a human-interest task is explained by the genes they've inherited, researchers found.
"These are quite high numbers, much the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species," Bray said in a journal news release. "All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans."
Bray and her colleagues have been conducting research with dogs in collaboration with Canine Companions, a U.S. service dog organization serving clients with physical disabilities, for the past 10 years.
Their goal is to better understand how dogs think and solve problems, as well as how these abilities develop and change over time.
Their research also works to understand how dogs' individual experiences and genes contribute to these skills. This can have real-world implications for service dogs.
For the study, researchers worked with 375 eight-week old budding service dogs who had similar rearing history and a known pedigree going back multiple generations, testing them on specific tasks.
The research team knew how related all the puppies were to each other, so they could then use this information to build a statistical model assessing genetic versus environmental factors.
The findings showed that puppies were skillful in social communications relying on gestures and eye contact. This communication only worked when people also initiated the interaction by speaking to the puppies in a high-pitched voice.
Without a person initiating the communication, the puppies mostly didn't look to people for answers in a task in which food was locked in a plastic container, for example.
"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," Bray said
Researchers now plan to identify the genes that contribute to the puppies' behaviors. They're currently collecting cognitive data and blood samples from adult dogs and plan to conduct a genome-wide association study.
They will also be following up on the tested dogs' outcomes in the service dog program to see if performance on any of the tested social tasks at eight weeks predicts successful graduation as a service dog.
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