TUSCON, Ariz. — A dog’s ability to understand people may be present shortly after birth rather than learned, according to a new study by University of Arizona researchers that was published in the journal Current Biology on Thursday.
The study also found that genetics may help explain why some dogs perform better than others regarding social tasks, like following pointing gestures.
The study found that more than 40% of the variation in dogs’ point-following abilities and attention to human faces was attributed to genetic factors.
“Our results suggest that these social skills in dogs emerge early in development and are under strong genetic control,” researchers wrote in the study.
Lead study author Emily Bray told the university that evidence shows puppies are biologically prepared to interact in social ways, kind of like humans.
The researchers tested 375 8-week-old service dog puppies on several social-cognitive measures. They learned that the pups were highly skilled at observing diverse human gestures and found no evidence that their performance required learning.
"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," study co-author Evan MacLean told the university. "We found that there's definitely a strong genetic component, and they're definitely doing it from the get-go."
MacLean said the next step will be to see if researchers can identify the specific genes that may contribute to dogs' capacity to communicate with humans.
"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."