Dogs are capable of learning through simple conditioning and it’s easier to learn by watching humans.
Have you ever looked at your dog and wondered how it seems to understand you so well? Turns out, man’s best friend is born ready to communicate with him. A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, says that even eight-week-old puppies with little exposure to humans can understand social skills like pointing and show sophisticated levels of social cognition or interest in human faces in tests.
The study, which had a sample size of 375 puppies, carried out an analysis of potential learning effects. It says the puppies were highly skillful in using diverse human gestures, and there was no evidence that their performance required learning.
It has become a norm to train your dog regarding general cues, however, as the study shows, these intelligent beings come predisposed to understand human behaviour, be it pointing, the tone of your voice or even facial emotions and the way we feel.
Human cognition is believed to be unique, in part because of early-emerging social skills for cooperative communication. A comparative study shows that at 2.5 years old, children reason about the physical world similarly to other great apes, yet possess cognitive skills for cooperative communication far exceeding those in our closest primate relatives. Domestic dogs have functional similarities with human children. They are sensitive to perceived signals, marking gestures as communicative.
“Just as humans, dogs vary in intelligence and the ability to be trained, and possibly, the ability to understand pointing gestures would be linked to the same,” says Mumbai-based Anjali Kalachand, co-founder, A Petter Life, an e-commerce platform for pet products.
Dogs are capable of learning through simple conditioning and it’s easier to learn by watching humans. Dogs, in fact, are known to show human-like social cognition in many ways. They react, interpret and understand human body language, gesturing and pointing, and they also understand human voice commands. “Dogs use body language as a way to communicate, so our gestures are something they are naturally inclined to notice and respond to rather than ignore (as some dogs often do their owner’s voice!). Humans are a very sight-reliant species, so it’s surprising that we do so much talking with our dogs. Many people expect their dogs to listen to their words alone and never teach hand signals for basic behaviours such as ‘sit down’,” says canine behaviourist Pranita Balar.
Some rare dogs are born with superior intellect and are called ‘gifted word learners’, as per a study published in Scientific Reports last month. However, dogs are more likely to be in touch with what we are doing rather than what we are saying. For example, when you make the common hand signal to sit, you hold a treat to a dog’s nose, lifting it over the animal’s head to lure it to sit. If a dog goes deaf, in fact, one will still be able to communicate with it. “Since your dog has to be looking at you to get your cues, it may promote better focus/attention on you. Hand signals are easy to teach, particularly if you use lure-and-reward training,” says Mumbai-based Balar, who is the founder of BarkNBond, a firm that offers puppy consultation, obedience training and help in strengthening the bond between parent and pet, among other services.
Other research has shown that a dog’s ability to learn is influenced, not just by hand signals, but also by overall body language and the distance between trainer and dog. It seems the farther the trainer is from the dog, the less responsive the dog will be. Therefore, one must be aware of where and how one is standing when communicating with a dog.
When it comes to “greeting and meeting” another dog, there is a familiar pattern of circling and sniffing one another. At times, barking and howling are also ways of conversing with each other. The sense of smell, of course, is a special gift, which comes from the Jacobson’s or ‘Vomeronasal’ organ, a special ‘scent’ organ within a dog’s nasal cavity that helps detect odours, sniff chemicals, identify, and communicate further.