For those who think that our canine friends are simply drooly, unintelligent creatures that only know how to fetch tennis balls and bark, think again. Researchers are showing that dogs can understand human gestures and behavior, have learning strategies, and can even interpret a pointing finger.
Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the eastern German city of Leipzig and her research team are setting out to prove that dogs are intelligent and know a lot more than beef jerky and squeaky toys.
Her team is showing that dogs may even be more clever than monkeys.
Two containers, one empty and one containing food, were both put in front of chimpanzees and dogs. The scientists pointed to the container with food inside. The dogs understood the pointing gesture quickly and went over to inspect the container, while the chimpanzees were mostly confused by the pointing finger.
Also when the scientists looked at a specific container, the dogs would search inside for food. But when the scientists looked in the direction of the container but actually were focused on a point above it on the wall, the dogs understood that this gesture was not meant as a sign to look inside the container. The research team concluded that dogs were able to interpret their gaze.
The research team repeated the pointing experiment with six-week-old puppies. The scientists said even the puppies were able to interpret what the pointing finger meant and went over to investigate the area where the finger was pointing to.
Kaminski concluded that animals must already have the innate ability to interpret human gestures.
Adam Miklosi, a biologist in Budapest and a renown modern dog researcher, showed that wolves lack these abilities to interpret and are also unable to learn them. 13 of his students raised a wolf puppy and fed the wolves, taught them to walk on a leash and respond to basic commands.
The researchers had a group of puppies learn the same things. Both groups of wolves and dogs were taught to remove a piece of meat from a container. Then the researchers closed the containers. The wolves continued to try and get the food, while the dogs stopped and sat down in front of their handlers and stared at them.
“The wolves were only interested in the meat,” MiklÃ³si said, “and, of course, so were the dogs, but apparently they knew that they would reach their goal more quickly by communicating with the people.”
Kaminski said “that dogs can show us how simple mechanisms can enable highly complex understanding.”
Three years ago, Kaminski’s team published a report on Rico, a border collie who was able to distinguish between 200 different toys. He also learned new concepts using the same procedure of how young children learn the meaning of new words. A number of dogs with similar abilities to Rico’s have been reported to the research team.
Friederike Range, a biologist at the University of Vienna, is showing that dogs use selective imitation as a learning strategy. Before this concept was believed to be only used by one-year-old children. Range was able to teach her dog how to push a handle to open a food dispenser by using her paw and not her nose.
Range said that dog education is changing and more and more owners want to test their dogs for intelligence. She said she gets two to three dog owners a week wanting to check how intelligent their dog is. Kaminski said her research team has about 1,000 potential test dogs in their database.
Now we just have to worry about our dogs outsmarting us.