Puppy love: Dogs are born to understand people. Here’s how culture and evolution worked together

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Credit: Happy Puppy
Credit: Happy Puppy

The fate of dog and man has been entwined for millennia (exactly how long is still a question, with estimates ranging from 14,000 to 40,000 years ago). Along the way, dogs have evolved in response to the partnership they’ve formed with us.

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[In a new study,] puppies were given established tests of human-dog communication, such as a task that had people point to where hidden food could be found (the test was designed to not allow dogs to simply sniff out the food), or another test that measured their willingness to hold eye contact with people.

The team found that even at 8 weeks and right from the very first trial, most puppies could understand that a person looking at them, saying “puppy look!”, and pointing meant something, and they managed to find the food. They also tended to reciprocate a person calling out to them in baby talk while staring into their eyes and held the person’s gaze. Overall, the team estimated that genetics could explain more than 40% of the variation in a dog’s capacity to follow the finger-pointing.

The findings… “are the first direct evidence that a large proportion of variation in dog social cognition is heritable, and thus has a strong genetic basis,” [researcher Emily] Bray said.

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