By Dr. Becker
This will come as no surprise to many of you, but according to new research,1 even very young dogs tune in to subtle and indirect cues in human voices. For example, puppies are able to follow the direction of a human’s voice to find food.
Earlier studies have shown that dogs have the ability to follow a person’s pointed finger or gaze to locate treats. Researchers have also discovered that dogs pick up on human emotions. In fact, while it might seem our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, is the animal most likely to understand human gestures, dogs are actually more adept at it.
According to lead study author Federico Rossano of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology:
"The message of this study is not that chimps are stupid and dogs are smart. What it tells us is that dogs pay special attention to communicative signals from humans. …That's a sign of how connected we are."
There are two schools of thought on why dogs seem to understand us so well. Some scientists believe domesticated dogs living in companionship with humans have passed down genes that encourage the human-canine bond in successive generations. Others suspect dogs develop and hone their people skills over the course of their lives.
Study Dogs Successfully Used Auditory Cues to Find Treats
For the study, researchers used the direction of their voices, rather than gazes or hand signals, to indicate the presence of food.
In the first experiment involving 24 adult dogs of various breeds, a researcher stood behind a solid wooden barrier and secretly placed treats in one of two containers sitting in front of the barrier. Next, the researcher knelt behind the barrier so the dog, standing with his handler, couldn’t see her. She then turned her face toward the container holding the treats, and said, “Oh, look, look there, this is great!”
The handler released the dog, and the researchers observed which container he headed for.
In an average of 7.6 out of 12 tries, the dogs went directly to the container holding the treats, even though they could not smell the food, nor were they swayed by random noises the researcher made behind the barrier. When the researcher faced the back wall instead of the container with the treats and spoke to the dogs, they could not guess the location of the food.
According to the study’s authors, the dogs’ results were as good or better than the results seen with human infants in previous experiments.
Puppies Scored Even Higher Than Adult Dogs in Finding Treats
Next, the researchers wanted to find out if the dogs’ ability to follow the direction of a person’s voice was learned, or instinctive. They set up a second experiment involving 16 puppies from 8 to 14 weeks of age, and gave them the same test. The puppies, due to their age, were not as well-trained as the adult dogs or as experienced with human interactions.
Surprisingly, the puppies found the food an average of 8.1 out of every 12 tries. But whereas the adult dogs did just as well on their first attempt as their last, most of the puppies took a few tries to catch on. The pups with the most experience around humans did better than those who were not yet well-socialized.
Dogs Learn Quickly and Without Much Prompting to Respond to Our Voices
The researchers concluded the ability of dogs to follow the direction of human voices is learned rather than innate, but it is learned very quickly, and with a minimal amount of exposure to humans.
According to the researchers, their study is the first to investigate the ability of dogs to use only auditory communication from humans to locate hidden food. The results suggest that dogs are able to use multiple senses to comprehend human communication.
"The take-home message (is) there's a lot of information dogs can pick up when they're in the presence of humans," Rossano says. "We should care for them and be attentive and also be amazed by how special they are in picking up all these signals and how much they care about us."