KOLKATA, India — It usually doesn’t take long for a dog taken in by a family or individual to form a connection with his or her new caretakers. While some dogs certainly take longer than others, most begin to pick up on gestures, cues, and commands from their owners relatively quickly. It’s generally assumed that these obedient traits must first be instilled in the dog through training, at least to some degree, but a new study conducted in India finds that even stray dogs understand and respond to human gestures. These findings suggest that dogs are born with an innate connection to humans that goes beyond stringent puppy training programs or learned commands.
Overall, 80% of studied strayed dogs followed gestures pointing them to a certain location, despite never receiving any formal training. According to the research team, these results make it clear that dogs are capable of understanding complex human gestures and movements simply through observation. They believe their work may help reduce human-stray dog attack incidents.
Canines were domesticated by humans about 10,000-15,000 years ago, making them, in all likelihood, the oldest domesticated animals on Earth. It’s no coincidence that dogs are so attuned to human gestures and commands; pups with the most desirable and useful traits have been bred together for thousands of years.
Still, it’s never been entirely clear if a modern dog is capable of understanding a human without any prior training. For example, if a dog who has never been trained by a human meets a person for the first time ever, will the canine immediately understand that individual’s gestures or motions? This was the question that researchers set out to answer.
To that end, stray city dogs were chosen for the research because, while they may interact with humans occasionally, they are for the most part still very much “wild” and untrained.
So, Dr. Anindita Bhadra and a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, India, set out to study stray dogs in a variety of Indian cities. They approached solitary stray dogs and placed two covered bowls nearby. Then, a researcher would point, either just once or repeatedly, to one of the bowls. Researchers recorded if the stray dogs approached the bowl that was being pointed at, and also made a note of each dog’s emotional reaction to the situation.
Of all the dogs that were approached for the experiment, about half opted not to approach either bowl. However, these dogs were especially anxious and the study’s authors theorize that these canines likely had prior negative experiences with humans. Stray dogs who approached any one of the two bowls were much friendlier and more relaxed. Of that group, roughly 80% approached the bowl being gestured towards, either repeatedly or just once, by the researcher.
“We thought it was quite amazing that the dogs could follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing,” Bhadra explains in a media release. “This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision. This shows their intelligence and adaptability.”
These results indicate that dogs are naturally more perceptive than many assume. However, further research is needed in order to understand if the dogs that decided not to approach either bowl really didn’t understand the cues, or just didn’t want to due to past experiences, anxiety, or shyness.
“We need to understand that dogs are intelligent animals that can co-exist with us,” Bhadra cncludes. “They are quite capable of understanding our body language and we need to give them their space. A little empathy and respect for another species can reduce a lot of conflict.”
The study is published in Frontiers in Psychology.