Dogs are born with an innate ability to read human gestures that is not apparent in their closest relatives, wolves.
Even when wolf puppies are carefully raised by humans and hand-fed for weeks on end, researchers say the animals are fearful of strangers, make little eye contact, and do not respond to basic gestures.
In a series of hidden treat experiments, for example, none of the 26 wolves in the study were able to consistently understand what it meant when a human in the room pointed a finger or pointed out the location. of a treat with an object.
On the flip side, 17 of the 31 retriever puppies, which were raised with much less human contact, had a better idea of what the finger was trying to say. More than half of the group systematically walked towards the pointed bowl. Some even succeeded in the first round.
“Dogs are born with this innate ability to understand that we communicate with them and that we try to cooperate with them”, said Hannah Salomons, who studies cognition at Duke University.
Just last month, a similar study found that up to 40% of a puppy’s ability to communicate with us is genetic, not learned.
The new findings in wolves provide more evidence to suggest that human domestication of dogs sculpted their genes in a way that suits our goals.
It is believed that our domestication of dogs began at least 12,000 years ago, and during that time we have selected the traits seen in wild wolves that we find most beneficial. In short: we have sculpted our perfect companion in nature.
“This study really strengthens the evidence that the social genius of dogs is a product of domestication”, said evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare of Duke University.
This is not to say that some human communications cannot be learned. Dogs can become more adept at learning human gestures as they age, in the same way that Cubs can learn to trust humans over time.
Dogs are just much less afraid of our species from a young age.
“With the puppies we have worked with, if you get into their pen they come together and want to climb on top of you and lick your face, while most of the wolf puppies run around and hide.” said Solomon Islands.
In fact, in the study, which involved 37 wolves and 44 puppies in total, researchers found that puppies were five times more likely to approach a familiar guardian in a room and 30 times more likely to approach a stranger than cubs.
During the experiments, the dogs also looked at the humans in the room more often than the wolves, making eye contact when they couldn’t understand parts of the experiments.
The marked differences in behavior suggest a long history of evolutionary change. Over thousands of years, it seems, we have taken the shy wolf and turned him into a loving companion.
“Prior to this selection, any human-wolf interaction was limited by the wolves’ flight response,” the researchers explain. to propose.
“Once attraction replaced fear, inherited social skills were applied to humans in new ways and early in development.”
The study was published in Current biology.