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Dogs Excel at Following Pointing Gestures

An interesting study comparing the differences between a dog and a chimpanzee's ability to understand human gestures and infer information and direction from them.


Researchers working with chimpanzees have found that, while they will follow where a human's gaze is focused, they do not appear to understand pointing gestures when it involves something that may be hidden or obscured from view. For example, a set of treats behind some opaque barriers or under cups. Dogs however, appear to be very skilled at understanding human gestures, including pointing, and using this information to make decisions. This skill has been demonstrated by dogs in experiments at their first trial of a task, which indicates that the dogs already know this skill and are not learning it during the experiment.

Scientists working on canine cognition studies speculate that this ability by dogs developed through domestication from their wild ancestors. Dogs that displayed more ability to understand and follow human gestures would have been more likely to be bred by humans because of their value in assisting with hunting and other tasks. Similar studies on wolves have found that they do not appear to understand pointing gestures naturally (although they can be taught it).

In a study by Katharina Kirchhofer, Felizitas Zimmermann, Juliane Kaminski and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the researchers compared chimpanzees to dogs to look at their ability to understand human pointing gestures and use this information to perform tasks successfully. The researchers tested 23 chimpanzees and 32 dogs. The dogs were all owned dogs and were screened for their ability to fetch an object on command, and were composed of various breeds, ages and genders.

The chimpanzees were given a series of pairs of objects that would be commonly found in human "everyday use." They had to manipulate the objects through through a plexiglass screen where the experimenter was seated. The chimpanzees had to pick out the object that was pointed to by the experimenter and fetch it in exchange for a food reward. The experimenters specifically did not gaze at the objects. The dogs were studied in the same set up.

The researchers found that the dogs, compared to the chimpanzees, were much more adept at choosing the right object. This would indicate that chimpanzees can not only follow pointing gestures, but did not seem able to "infer" from the experimenter what the goal of the task would be. Or, they may possibly understand it, but simply don't think the behavior is worth it in terms of achieving the food reward.

On the other hand, dogs clearly have formed an ability to understand human physical communication. They hypothesize that dogs comprehend human gestures and cues as "directions" for what they need to do and where they need to go. Which is what makes dogs such perfect companions for people!

As a trainer, this study holds special import as those of us who have lived with and trained dogs are well aware that our body language communicates volumes to our dogs. When working through a challenge with a dog, whether in the agility ring, other dog sports, or on simple manners, focusing on where our hands and our gaze are can help us to not only see where we might be causing the dog some confusion, but also help the dog to better comprehend what it is we want them to do.

If you'd like to read more about the study, you can access the full article for free at the PLoS One web site.

Source: Kirchhofer KC, Zimmermann F, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2012) Dogs (Canis familiaris), but Not Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Understand Imperative Pointing. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30913. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030913.

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