Puppy genes help them interact with humans

Dogs are well known for their ability to recognize subtle human signs, but scientists are trying to figure out if that gift is innate or acquired through observation and training. A new study published on Thursday, June 3, 2021 Current biology, reveals that genetics play a central role in skills “communication-cooperation” dogs, and that some begin their existence with an advantage over others in the field.

The key test is to measure how well animals understand gestures when a person points a finger in a direction or object, University of Arizona researcher Emily Bray and Arizona lead author told AFP. Past research has shown that dogs understand these gestures much better than chimpanzees, the animals closest to humans. But is it through domestication or because, as Emily Bray says, dogs are “the first witnesses of all our interactions”? To answer the question, his team tested the following hypothesis: if this trait is innate, it must be found in young puppies, little exposed to humans.

“Little dog, look”

Labrador puppy during the press conference of the American Kennel Club in New York on February 22, 2016 (AFP – Timothy A. CLARY)

An organization that specifically provided dogs for people with disabilities provided them with 375 Labradors and Golden Retrievers. “This way we knew their connections, which allowed us to examine the genetic part.”, explains the ethologist. For several years, the team conducted tests with eight-week-old puppies who are still living with colleagues. In one scenario, a puppy was placed in front of two overturned opaque cups, only one of which hid a food prize. The researcher started the test by telling her “Little dog, look” as you make eye contact with him, before pointing to the correct cup.

Animals made the right choice two out of three times (67%), more than 50% which would be due to luck. They fared even better (72%) when the experimenter placed a colored cube near the correct glass, instead of pointing a finger in its direction. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the animal managed to rely only on its sense of smell, finding that the puppy, when silent and calm, found the reward halfway – that is, by accident.

Like with a small child

A dateless photo provided by Canine Companions, showing a Labrador puppy walking towards a cup hiding a treat, as pointed out by the experimenter (AFP - -)

A dateless photo provided by Canine Companions, showing a Labrador puppy walking towards a cup hiding a treat, as pointed out by the experimenter (AFP – -)

The team also performed“human interest” during the first prolonged contact. The puppy became lively and approached the experimenter when she used a high-pitched voice, identical to that of parents with a young child, with words of encouragement like “Are you a good puppy? Of course!”. Statistical analysis then found that genetic factors make up 43% of the differences in puppies ’ability to pass the test. A figure comparable to that found in humans because of intelligence.

The study contributes to understanding the evolution of the domesticated animal tens of thousands of years ago, according to its author. But we still don’t know if our ancestors bred dogs because of their specific traits or if those animals naturally followed humans in their history, unlike wolves. Research will also need to explain what mechanisms act on dogs to explain how the animal appears. “understand” a gesture, a word, or even a look.

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