Multifaceted social skills in dogs

A dog who is able to interpret pointing gestures given by a person may not be one who often seeks eye contact in other situations. This is the conclusion of a study by LiU researchers, who have examined dogs' communication skills.

dog performing problem-solving testWill the dog look to a person for help when it faces a difficult problem? Lise-Lotte Halldén (left) and the owner participate in the test. Photo credit: Lina Roth / LiU
It's well-known that dogs are skilled in getting their message across to humans. And the reverse is also true - dogs understand what we mean when we point. A dog facing a problem will often look to a person for help, while its ancestor, the wolf, does not. The ability of dogs to communicate with us is considered to be a consequence of domestication, the process in which people have influenced the development of dogs by breeding during the past several thousand years.

"We wanted to determine whether these two means of communication, response to pointing and seeking eye contact, have a common origin. Are they general behaviour in dog's social interactions with humans?" This is the question posed by Lina Roth, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and leader of the study recently published in the scientific journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.dog participating in pointing testWill the dog choose the bucket that the person points at? Photo credit: Lina Roth / LiU

The researchers subjected 32 privately owned German shepherd dogs and 121 Labradors to two tests. In the first, the dogs were given a problem to solve. Their behaviour was recorded on video, and was subsequently analysed in detail with respect to how the animal sought contact with its owner or the experimenter by gaze or physical approach. Immediately after this test, a pointing test was carried out with two buckets, one of which contained a treat. The experimenter made a clear gesture towards the bucket with the treat, and the dog was allowed to choose a bucket. The researchers recorded how many times out of 20 trials the dog chose the correct bucket. The results showed, surprisingly, that there is no correlation between the two behaviours, seeking help and taking help from people.

"The dogs who most often sought eye contact with people and asked for help with the problem were not necessarily the same as those who performed best in the pointing test. So it seems that these two methods of communication have been selected independently, and do not have the same genetic origin," says Lina Roth.

Differences between breeds

"It was also clear that the German shepherd dogs used more contact-seeking behaviour during the problem solving, and that they performed less well on the pointing test than the Labradors. The Labradors, in contrast, sought eye contact with both the experiment and the owner during the problem solving. Historically, both breeds are working dogs, so this cannot explain the difference in the results, even though the original work of the German shepherd dog was more independent than that of the Labrador," says Lina Roth.

Labrador breeding since the middle of the 20th century has distinguished between companion dogs and hunting dogs. Equal numbers of the two types took part in the study. The hunting dogs sought most contact with people.

The research group has previously examined differences in behaviour between the different types of Labrador. They used data from a behaviour test organised by the Swedish Working Dog Association (SBK) and were able to include just over 1,600 Labradors and 900 golden retrievers in the study. The researchers examined large-scale aspects of behaviour, such as curiosity and playfulness.Ann-Sofie Sundman and a dogAnn-Sofie Sundman, PhD student at Linköpings University Photo credit: Fotograf: Leona Örtenberg

"We saw many differences. Companion Labradors, for example, were more social towards strangers. By estimating heritability, we could see that a part of the variation resulted from differences in the genes," says Ann-Sofie Sundman, principal author of both articles.

The researchers believe that it is necessary to study more breeds of dog in order to find out more about the differences between them. They point out that results from just these two breeds must be interpreted with care. Previous studies have shown that Labradors are more social towards strangers, and it is possible that this has influenced the results of the pointing test. The researchers would also like to know whether the everyday life of a dog, such as training together with its owner, influences its ability to communicate with people in different ways. They are currently conducting a study that examines the lifestyle of the participating dogs.Lina Roth with her dog Trixie.Lina Roth with her dog Trixie. Photo credit: Henrik Hallberg

Lina Roth is impressed by the ability of the dog to adapt and the social skills it displays. She wants to use her research to understand how people have influenced the dog by selection during the domestication process.

"The social ability of dogs is extremely interesting, particularly now that our previous study has found regions of its genetic material that can be linked to social ability. Similar regions in human genes may, for example, be linked to autism. I'm still also surprised when I see how large the variation can be within a breed. Even if we say that a particular breed has certain characteristics, we must always remember that dogs within a breed differ. It's not the case that all German shepherd dogs behaved the same way in the tests, while all Labradors behaved in a different way."

The research has received financial support from the European Research Council, ERC.

The article: "Understanding of human referential gestures is not correlated to human-directed social behaviour in Labrador retrievers and German shepherd dogs", Ann-Sofie Sundman, Mia E. Persson, Anna Grozelier, Lise-Lotte Halldén, Per Jensen and Lina S.V. Roth, 2017, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, published online 21 December 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.017

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