Willingness to interact with people is something puppies are born with, new research shows: Up to 40 percent of a young dog’s ability to communicate with us is genetic, even before training or bonding has occurred.
In other words, the kindness young puppies are known for is partly innate – although some get off to better than others because of their genes. The team behind the results says their discovery could help improve training for service dogs in the future.
375 puppies with an average age of 8.5 weeks took part in the study. The dogs were asked to perform a variety of standardized tasks to measure their responsiveness to human interactions and their willingness to collaborate.
“These are pretty high numbers, similar to estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species,” says animal psychologist Emily Bray of the University of Arizona at Tucson. “All of these results suggest that dogs are biologically prepared to communicate with humans.”
Bray and her colleagues have been working with dogs for the service dog organization Canine Companions in the US for a decade, which gives them access to many puppies with their breed history and pedigree.
Using data from observations collected between 2017 and mid-2020, the team created a statistical model that compares genetic and environmental factors in the dogs tested, while also controlling breed, sex, age and location.
The young pups reacted most quickly when a handler looked at or pointed to a container of food – although the dogs only obeyed orders if the look or gesture was preceded by a social sign (the handler spoke to the dog).
Another test showed that the pups were keen to look at a handler while the person was talking and come forward to get a pet. However, in an experiment using a sealed container of food, the dogs looked less at their human companions, suggesting that while they responded well to our cues, their in-kind communication skills come later in their development.
“We show that puppies reciprocate the social gaze of humans and use the information given by humans successfully in a social context at a very young age and before extensive experience with humans,” says Bray.
“For example, even before pups leave their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer breeders, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the specified location.”
In fact, there is growing evidence that very young dogs have the same willingness to cooperate and communicate as human babies, although scientists have yet to figure out the genetic influences that may be behind this behavior.
Next, the researchers plan to look for specific genes that affect sociability in puppies, which requires a genome-wide association study, the involvement of multiple species of dogs, and tracking these canines over time rather than just analyzing their behavior at a single point in their development .
In addition to helping with dog training, future discoveries could be illuminating in tracking the evolution and domestication of dogs – right around the time they began to exhibit these behaviors, when they became man’s best friend.
“Dogs show human-like social skills at a young age that have a strong genetic component, which means that those skills have strong potential for selection,” says Bray.
“Our results could therefore point to an important part of the history of domestication, as animals with a propensity to communicate with our own species were selected in the wolf populations from which dogs emerged.”
The research was published in Current Biology.