It seems that dogs are naturally wired to communicate with people, suggests a new study reported in Current Biology. The study authors found that even shortly after birth, puppies can interact with people. The work also indicated that genetic factors may explain why some dogs are better at social tasks than others.
"There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies - sort of like humans - are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways," said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Bray works with a service dog organization during her research, and she and colleagues are interested in learning more about cognition and problem-solving in dogs. They may eventually develop tests that help identify dogs that could be great service animals.
In this study, the researchers were able to analyze the social skill tests of 375 potential service dogs that were tested at eight weeks of age. A genetic analysis showed that 40 percent of the variation in skill level for two tasks was due to genetics. One test measured how well the puppies could follow a pointing gesture while another tested their interest in people by timing the length of eye contact. The puppies in this assessment still lived with their littermates as well, and weren't living with a volunteer that would raise them, so the puppies hadn't really had a chance to learn these skills yet.
"People have been interested in dogs' abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there's always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans," said study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. "We found that there's definitely a strong genetic component, and they're definitely doing it from the get-go."
Another test may have shown that although puppies are primed to pay attention to people, they may learn to initiate communication with humans later in life. In this test, puppies were presented with an unsolvable task - a treat was locked away in a closed container. Very few of the puppies looked to humans when they could not open the container.
"In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves. Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help," Bray explained. "In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn't really seem to be part of their repertoire yet."
This mirrors processes in human children's development in many ways, Bray added.
In future research, the researchers want to identify which dog genes might be involved in these social tasks.
"We've done some previous studies that show that dogs who tend to be successful as service dogs respond to people in different ways than dogs who aren't successful," MacLean said. "If you could identify a potential genetic basis for these traits, you might be able to predict, even before the puppy is born, if they are part of a litter that would be good service dog candidates, because they have the right genetic background. It's a long way down the road, but there is potential to start applying this."