Puppies are born with “human-like” social skills that allow them to communicate with people, a new study reveals.
Dogs have a “strong genetic component” to understand and follow directions from humans with little to no training.
The study took 375 eight-week-old puppies from 117 litters who were to become service dogs – 98 Labrador retrievers, 23 golden retrievers and 254 Labrador-golden crosses.
All the puppies had little previous one-on-one interaction with humans and a known pedigree, so researchers could examine whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ abilities.
And all the puppies were successful in at least one of four tasks where they were asked to retrieve an object pointed to by a human, even when the odour was masked.
By doing so, the dogs showed they are able to understand social communications which rely on human gestures and eye contact.
Lead study author Dr Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, said the study’s findings showed dogs are “biologically prepared” for communication with people.
She has spent the last decade carrying out research with dogs in collaboration with a US-based service dog organisation serving clients with physical disabilities.
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, said genetics explained more than 40 per cent of the variation in the puppies’ abilities to follow human pointing gestures.
But the test only worked when people initiated the interaction by speaking in a high-pitched voice.
In control tests where there was no direction, the dogs did not look to people for answers when food was locked in a Tupperware container.
“We show that puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use the information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans, said Dr Bray.
“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.
She added: “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.
“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.”
Study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Centre at the University of Arizona, said: “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.
“We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”