Puppies are born with ‘human-like’ social skills, wired to communicate with people

TUCSON, Ariz. — In news that’s sure to start plenty of new conversations between people and “man’s best friend,” a new study finds puppies are born with “human-like” social skills. Simply put, scientists say these adorable canines are able to communicate with people from birth.

Generally, dogs need little-to-no training in order to follow directions thanks to their innate genes which have been developing for centuries. In fact, researchers at the University of Arizona say more than 40 percent of the variation in a puppy’s ability to follow a human’s finger-pointing is due to their inherited genes.

“We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go,” says study co-author Evan MacLean in a university release.

Puppy study
Dr. Emily Bray, of the University of Arizona with puppies for study. (Credit: University of Arizona)

Dogs love when humans lead the way

Study authors tested 375 eight-week-old puppies training to become service dogs in the future. The group consisted of 98 Labrador retrievers, 23 golden retrievers, and 254 Labrador golden crosses from 117 different litters. They all had an extremely similar rearing history and a pedigree going back multiple generations.

These intelligent pups could find and bring back an object like a cup pointed to by a human. They could even accomplish this when researchers masked the odor of certain objects.

Results show every dog was successful in at least one task, showing they are skillful from the start when it comes to social communications relying on gestures and eye contact. However, the communication only worked when people initiated the interaction by speaking to the puppies in a high-pitched voice.

“We show that puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans,” says lead author Dr. Emily Bray in a media release.

“For example, even before puppies have left their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer raisers, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the indicated location. All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans.”

Puppy behavior reveals a dog’s long ‘domestication story’

In control tests, when the pups did not receive any direction, the dogs did not look to people for answers when finding their food was locked in a Tupperware container. Previous studies have discovered a dog’s brain processes language in a similar way to humans, with the right side dealing with emotion and the left processing meaning. Those reports find it’s only when both sides of the brain agree they’re hearing praise that the dog is truly happy.

Puppy study
Dogs need little to no training to be able to follow directions thanks to their innate genes developed and reared over centuries. (Credit: University of Arizona)

“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,” Bray continues.

“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.”

The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.