Puppies Are Born Able to Communicate With People

A lot of it depends on heredity.

Little girl and puppies
Even young puppies can communicate with humans. aldomurillo / Getty Images

Your dog definitely communicates with you. They let you know when they want to go out, if a delivery driver is in the neighborhood, and if you are even a few minutes late for dinner. 

But it doesn’t take long for canines to “talk” to their humans. A new study finds that the ability to communicate is present in very young puppies and needs very little (if any) experience or training to nurture.

Researchers who worked with service dogs in training found that puppies will look back at people, reciprocating social gaze, and will find hidden food by following a pointing gesture, even before they’re old enough to leave their littermates.

“With this study, we were trying to answer questions about the developmental and genetic bases of the remarkable communicative skills that we see in adult dogs. Do we see the same skills in young puppies, and are they heritable? The answer to these questions can help differentiate between alternate explanations behind dogs’ amazing social skills when it comes to interacting with our species,” study author Emily E. Bray of the University of Arizona, Tucson, tells Treehugger.

“For example, over the course of domestication, have these sorts of skills been selected for and therefore emerge shortly after birth? Or is the acquisition of these skills dependent on learning and the experiences that dogs accrue over their lives, given that they grow up in such close proximity to us humans?”

For the past decade, Bray and her team worked in collaboration with the service dog organization Canine Companions to observe puppies in training.

For their research, it was important to test a large number of puppies that were about the same age before they were placed in a home and started forming a bond with the person who would be raising them.

“It was actually ideal that the testing took place pre-training, as we were interested in measuring their spontaneous, early ability for these sorts of skills,” Bray says.

It was also key to know how all the dogs were related in order to determine the heritability of the traits they were measuring. Canine Companions has a breeding program in one place so they know the pedigrees (relatedness) of the tested puppies and could work with them around the same age.

“An added bonus of testing future service dog puppies has to do with one of the long-term, applied goals of our research: to help determine what cognitive and temperament traits lead to a successful working dog,” Bray says. “We can therefore follow all of these dogs through completion of the program to see if performance on any of our social tasks predicts graduation as a service dog.”

Putting Puppies Through Their Paces

puppy in finger-pointing task
Puppy responds to a finger-pointing task. Emily Bray

For the research, puppies took part in four different tasks: two measured their ability to follow a communication cue, and two measured their natural tendency to make eye contact with a person.

In a pointing task, there were two cups and food was hidden under one of them. The experimenter called the puppy’s name and made eye contact before pointing to and looking at the cup where the food was hidden. In another task, rather than pointing, the experimenter showed the puppy a neutral item such as a small wooden block and then placed it near the correct location.

“We found puppies were able to use these social cues effectively, choosing the correct location on about 70% of trials, which is significantly above what you would expect by mere chance,” Bray says. “Importantly, we know that the puppies weren’t just using their noses to smell out the correct location because a) we had taped an inaccessible treat inside each cup to make them both smell like food and b) when given the same exact task (i.e. food hidden in one of two locations) but no social cues, puppy performance fell to chance levels – in other words, they only got it right about half of the time.”

To observe the puppy’s tendency to make eye contact, the experimenter looked at the puppy and talked to them in a high-pitched voice that is often how people talk to babies. They measured how long the puppies maintained eye contact, which was about 1/5 of the overall trial duration.

In another task called “the unsolvable task,” they locked food in a Tupperware container for 30 seconds that noted the different strategies the puppies used to get the food, including interacting with the container and making eye contact with the experimenter. Puppies only spent about 1 second looking at the person for help.

“So group-wide, most dogs possessed these social skills as puppies. However, there was individual variation—while many puppies breezed through, others just could not figure it out,” Bray says. 

Genes Matter

Interestingly, heredity played a part.

“What’s really fascinating is that we found a lot of this variation can be explained by the genetics of the dogs. Specifically, 43% of the variation that we see in point-following ability is due to genetic factors, and this same proportion of variation in gazing behavior during a human-interest task is explained by genetic factors as well,” she says.

“These are quite high numbers, much the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species. All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans.”

There were some surprising findings when comparing the results for social gaze. 

“We found that looking to the human during our task where the experimenter spoke to the puppy in a high-pitched voice was highly heritable. However, in our ‘unsolvable task,’ where food was locked in a Tupperware for 30 seconds and the experimenter kneeled nearby, we found that tendency to initiate gaze was not heritable at all,” Bray says.

“We think this seemingly contradictory result might be explained by subtle differences in the task contexts. In the first task, the human is initiating the social contact and puppies simply need to engage; whereas in the second task, the puppy needs to be the initiator," says Bray. "As it turned out, in contrast to the first task, puppies hardly spent any time at all gazing to humans in the unsolvable task. Thus, it makes sense that heritability was so low as there was hardly any variation to explain.”

This pattern seems similar to what happens with human babies, she points out. Infants are receptive to social communication, like following a pointed finger or understanding language, earlier than they can generate it, like pointing or speaking.

The results were published in the journal Current Biology.

Other than just being fascinating for dog lovers, the findings can help fill in some of the background in dog domestication.

“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. 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 says.

“Additionally, previous work from our group suggests that a propensity to make greater amounts of eye contact is linked to being successful as a service dog. We also know that even with just your run-of-the-mill companion dog, these social abilities help foster attachment (there is evidence showing that mutual eye gaze increases oxytocin levels in both species) and strengthen our human-animal bond. Importantly, because we have now found these types of skills to be highly heritable, it could have significant implications for breeding decisions.”

View Article Sources
  1. Bray, Emily E., et al. "Early-Emerging and Highly Heritable Sensitivity to Human Communication in Dogs." Current Biology, 2021, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.055