Dogs first surprised cognition researchers when scientists showed that the animals readily follow a human’s pointing finger or gaze to find food. Both wolves, dogs’ closest relative, and chimpanzees, our near-cousin, have trouble doing this. Now, scientists have raised the dogs-only bar: The canines can also use the sound of a human voice alone to find that tasty treat. Researchers carried out the auditory test on adult dogs and 8- to 14-week-old puppies as their owners watched. One of the scientists stood behind a barrier and showed a pet dog or puppy a delicious tidbit and two identical boxes placed on the floor. She then closed a curtain and hid the food in one of the boxes, which were designed so that the dogs could not smell the treat. After reopening the curtain, so that the boxes were again visible to the animal, she crouched behind the barrier to hide, as in the video above. While looking in the direction of the correct box, she called excitedly, “Oh look, look there, this is great!” Almost all the dogs and puppies used the scientist’s voice cue to get the treat. Socialized puppies—those that had spent time with people—were even better than adult dogs at this task. But puppies that had had little contact with humans succeeded only at the chance level. Previously, the researchers had shown that children will use a person’s voice to find a toy or treat, but chimpanzees don’t. That dogs also have this ability adds to previous assertions that we have selected our canine pals to pay special attention to us. Indeed, the scientists say in their study, out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, that these human-attentive social skills may even be part of dogs’ genetic makeup.
(Video credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig)