Every dog lover knows the telepathy between man and his best friend: that doggy sixth sense that has them loving on you when you’re sad and even seeming to anticipate your commands. But how did dogs get to be so excellent at communicating with people in the first place? On today’s show, we are talking about a new study that shows Puppies Are Born Ready to Communicate With People
If you are like me when you brought your new puppy home you were certain that he understood everything you said, right? Well, there is science to back that up.
Putting Puppies’ Communication Skills to the Test
A new study from the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona has answers. For the study, which was funded in part by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, researchers put 375 eight-week-old puppies through four tests, designed to establish whether even such tiny pups were receptive to human communication. Crucially, these dogs had never spent a significant amount of time with humans before: in training to be Canine Companions service dogs, they had spent their two months of life cuddled up with their mothers and fellow puppies.
The hypothesis was that if dogs this young and with this little exposure to humans were able to tune in to human communication, that communication must come hardwired, instead of being learned.
So, could they? In a word: yes.
First, researchers tasked the puppies with finding a treat hidden in a cup (having made sure both cups smelled of treats, so the pups couldn’t just follow their noses). They found that the dogs were able to follow both human pointing and humans placing a yellow block near the correct cup, finding the treat an average of 67 percent of the time for both tasks—significantly more than the 50 percent you’d expect by pure chance. Each dog completed each task 12 times, and the researchers found that they did not improve over the course of the trials, further confirming that this behavior is not learned but innate.
Next, researchers ran two tests to find out how likely puppies are to make eye contact with humans or gaze at their faces. Their first question: How likely are they to gaze at us when prompted? Researchers spoke to the pups in “dog-directed speech”—essentially baby voice—for 30 seconds, and found that the puppies made eye contact with them for six of those 30 seconds, suggesting that they really were interested in the researchers’ attempts to communicate with them. Earlier studies have shown that older dogs pay even more attention to the dog-directed speech, suggesting that while this interest is innate, it’s also something dogs learn to engage in more as they get older.
Finally, they tested how likely dogs are to engage humans of their own accord, through a test known somewhat dauntingly as the “unsolvable task.” The puppies were given a treat sealed in a transparent box and monitored as they tried to access it. Earlier tests have shown that while wolves do not look to humans for guidance in this situation, adult dogs do. These itty-bitty puppies were somewhere between those extremes: “They do make eye contact, but only for about a second, over the 30-second trial,” says Dr. Emily E. Bray, the study’s lead author. “So, the tendency you could say is there, it’s present, but it’s not very strong at all.” Bray compares this tendency to human children, who are receptive to adult guidance from a very young age but take longer to seek it out independently.
So: Were Dogs Bred to Converse With Humans?
It’s an age-old question: Just how did dogs get to be so well suited to human companionship and communication? While it’s long been reasonable to assume that earlier humans selected and bred dogs for their communicative abilities, this new research is a vital new piece in the puzzle.
Crucially, the researchers didn’t stop at studying the puppies’ average abilities—they also studied each puppy’s individual abilities, using the detailed genetic history available from Canine Companions. That leg of the study revealed that any given dog’s communication skills are up to 40 percent heritable from their parents and lineage—an extremely high rate for a heritable trait.
Given all this, it’s not so hard to see how dogs became man’s best friend. “I think it definitely suggests that their receptivity to our social signals is something that probably was selected for over the course of domestication,” Dr. Bray told us. “That it’s something that has evolved over time.”
Canine Super-Communicators: The Dogs of the Future?
It seems likely that our ancestors bred highly communicative dogs partly for work roles like hunting and herding, which rely on their being highly attuned to human commands and behavior.
Today, there’s less demand for hunting and herding dogs, but this research still has a highly valuable application. The puppies tested were bred by Canine Companions to be service dogs—and yet, as Dr. Bray told us, “Probably only 50 to 60 percent of them will be successful.” Since communicating with humans is at the core of service dogs’ work, being able to breed for communication skills could someday help Canine Companions and similar organizations to provide more highly communicative pups to people in need.
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There’s still more research to do: having discovered that this trait is heritable, Dr. Bray and her colleagues are now trying to establish exactly how it’s inherited. Which genes is it coded into? That information will give breeders of service dogs and companion pets alike a much greater ability to select highly communicative dogs for breeding.
Until then, there’s always the old-fashioned method, which so many generations of humans seem to have used before us: befriending and breeding those pups who seem to understand what we say, as if by magic.
We are going to take a short break here and when we come back we are going to let you guys in on 10 Important Things to Teach Your Puppy
The to-do list associated with getting a new puppy may seem overwhelming. To make it more manageable, I’ve compiled the most important training items to teach your new four-legged family member.
1. To Know and Love His Name
What’s in a name? Well, nothing if your puppy doesn’t know it. Teach your puppy his name by saying it and immediately offering something fun and rewarding. Many times, puppies are used to hearing their name said in an angry tone, so they learn they better head for the hills when they hear it. Make sure to associate his name with positive experiences.
2. To Come
You can start preparing your puppy for this command even before you start training. Teach him that coming over to you means lots of fun, whether in the form of tug games, food rewards, meals, or belly rubs. You’ll be building a balance in the “come when called”relationship bank so that when the inevitable time comes when there is an emergency and you need your puppy to come to you, he will.
3. To Let You Grab His Collar
Many puppies have a “fight or flight” fear response when someone reaches for or grabs their collars. Your job is to create a puppy who has an expectation of an awesome reward when his collar is grabbed. Do this by practicing looping a finger through his collar and following it with a high-value treat or a game of tug.
4. To Like Life
Some puppies are easily scared or skeptical, especially during the fear period that usually occurs between 4 and 6 months of age. The best thing to do is to pair potentially scary experiences with something rewarding. But do this carefully. For instance, if my puppy were afraid of skateboards, I would not go into a skateboard park and offer treats there. He may become so stressed out that he won’t eat. Instead, I might drive to the same park but stay in the car with the window rolled down and feed high-value treats to desensitize him. At that distance, I know he’d be comfortable enough to take food from me. Over time (as in many sessions, not one long period), I’d gradually decrease the distance. Never force your puppy into a scary situation or punish him for anxiety.
5. That Nothing is Free
Teach your puppy that he can have his meals, treats, toys, and playtime by earning them through playing training games with you. It’ll move training forward and strengthen your relationship with your pup. Also, dogs are contra freeloaders, which means that they derive greater joy and value from working for things they love, rather than getting them for free. Tip: Ditch the food bowl and instead spend 10 to 15 minutes getting your puppy to work for his meal by practicing basic cues. As rewards, offer him kibble or spoonfuls of canned or homemade diets.
6. To Love the Crate
Your puppy will need to nap often. You can help him understand that his crate is the perfect resting spot and a fun place to hang out by reserving certain treats and toys for him to get only while in the crate. And instead of creating your puppy only when you go to bed or leave the house, put him in there for small amounts of time when you’re home, too.
7. To Trust People
Teach your puppy that good people bring good things. My student Elizabeth coined this phrase for something that I encourage all my students to do. Whenever she goes to the house of someone who has a dog, she brings the dog an extra special, high-value treat (cleared by the owner, of course). If the dog has training, she asks for a sit. If not, calm behavior earns the treat. It’s an effective way to create an optimistic dog who trusts strangers and knows to work for treats.
8. That You’re His Best Friend
My dogs love other dogs, but they love me more. That’s because I taught them to find me more rewarding than most anything else. Work on that skill while allowing your dog to socialize. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when he can come when called even if he’s in the middle of interacting with other dogs.
9. “Go to Place!”
Prevent jumping on guests and door dashing all with one command. Early on in training, I pair the sound of a doorbell to a reward for when my puppy runs to a mat. By teaching this, I acquire a strong “go to place” behavior, all cued up by the sound of the doorbell.
10. To Learn Self Control
Learning how to go from excited to calm on your command is an invaluable skill for a puppy. A great way to teach this is through playing tug. If you have not properly taken the time to teach this game, I would do it today. Like, now! You won’t regret it, and everything else you teach will become stronger and more functional because of this game. Also, you’ll never again have an issue asking your dog to sit when he’s excited because guests came to the house
It is now time for our calendar of events. For those that are listening locally on KVRF or our current and past clients stay tuned for important announcements, for our other listeners, stick around and you might learn something cool.
We just finished a very successful summer of group classes in the park. We had a great turnout every time. Next year we are adding classes in Anchorage on the Park Strip and even some specialized group classes too. Our dates are already on our Facebook page as events.
Did you know that every Wednesday and Sunday night we do a Facebook live at 7 pm? Be sure to check us out. If you miss the live broadcasts you can always tune in later too.
Also, stay tuned for info about the Mat-Su Outdoorsman Show next March, our Canine First Aid and K9 CPR class next summer, and much more. As always you can keep up to date by following us on our social channels, just search dog works radio and for more training tips and tricks and to learn how to schedule a free discovery call to talk with us about how to make your dog one of the best, visit Alaska dog works.com
One last thing did you know the single best thing you can do is tell your family and friends about our show. Why don’t you send them a link to this episode and they too will soon be a rabid listener?