While dogs can eventually learn to listen to their owners, some pups seem to be born with an innate ability to understand humans, research published Thursday in the journal Current Biology suggests.
At just 8 weeks old, some of the puppies in the study showed a startling willingness to lock eyes with humans they didn't know and to take command cues, such as directions pointed out with a finger.
"From a young age dogs are displaying humanlike social skills," said the lead study author, Emily Bray, a postdoctoral researcher the Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a researcher at Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California. "Puppies, even before they have a lot of experience with people, can reciprocate [the] human gaze and can use information from humans in a social context, like pointing as a cue to find hidden food."
To determine whether the tendency to interact with humans was innate, Bray and her colleagues ran several experiments with 375 8-week-old puppies who had little previous one-on-one experience with humans. The puppies were all Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or a mix of the two breeds. All of the puppies in the study were bred to be service dogs.
The researchers placed a 4-foot-by-6-foot mat on the floor. At one end of the mat, a handler sat holding a puppy. At the other end sat a researcher, with two upside-down cups in front of her. One of the cups covered a treat.
In one part of the experiment, the researcher called out "puppy!" in a high-pitched voice and pointed to the cup covering the treat. Amazingly, some of the puppies would march right over to that cup, knock it over and gobble down the treat.
The ability to take directions without any training — something not all the puppies in the study could do equally well — suggested to the researchers that these particular puppies had an innate ability to understand humans.
In another part of the experiment with the same setup, instead of pointing to the cup with the treat, the researcher would call the puppy's attention to a small yellow block and place it next to the cup with the hidden treat. Again, some of the puppies would go right to the correct cup, tip it over and grab the treat.
Noting that some of the puppies weren't as good at understanding human communication, the researchers wondered whether the variation in the pups' abilities could be explained by genetics.
In an analysis of the puppies' social skills, along with their multigenerational pedigrees, the researchers found that genes could explain more than 40 percent of the variation in the dogs' abilities.
"We know now that the variation we see in these skills" from puppy to puppy "is due to genetic factors," Bray said.
The study may help resolve a dispute among dog researchers "over whether these abilities are innate or learned," said Dr. Katherine Houpt, an animal behaviorist and a professor emeritus at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. "This certainly shows dogs have innate abilities."
It might be argued that the breeds of dogs used in the study have been selectively bred to be very aware of humans, said Houpt, who wasn't involved with the new research. "Because they've shown it's so inheritable, they might have gotten different results if they used different breeds. It would be interesting to look at dogs that aren't bred to be service dogs, such as terriers or basenjis."
People who want to get a puppy that will grow up to be a close companion may want to look for social skills like the ones described in the study, Houpt said.
"Picking a puppy that looks at you is a good criterion," she said. "Also, the puppy that approaches you when you squat down and put your hands down in front of you and who follows you — but without biting at your ankles."
There has been research suggesting that puppies with good social skills are likely to keep those skills as adults, said Zsófia Bognár, a dog researcher and doctoral student in the department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.
Still, Bognár, who also wasn't involved with the new study, said genes aren't everything.
Genetics don't determine 100 percent of a dog's behavior, she said, adding that life experiences and living conditions may affect an individual dog's ability to relate to humans.
Even if some part of those skills are inherited, "dogs can improve their performance through interacting with and learning from humans," Bognár said.