Border Collie

reported by Discovery News, study published in PLoS ONE

Dogs and a smaller number of domesticated cats can understand human pointing gestures, but not our closest living relatives—chimpanzees.  Even six-week old puppies, with no major training, exhibit understanding.

Juliane Kaminski, cognitive psychologist and co-author of the study at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and her colleagues compared how well chimpanzees and dogs understood human pointing.  Persons in the study pointed out visible objects beyond their reaches but within the reach of the animal subject.  If the animal retrieved the object, it was rewarded with a treat of juice or peanuts for chimps and dry food for dogs.

Though the chimps were motivated to get food rewards, they saw no connection between a human gesture and the reward they wanted to receive.  Essentially, they ignored the humans.  It’s likely they never evolved the tendency to pay attention to humans when trying to achieve their goals.

Dogs, however, aced the test.

“We think that we are looking at a special adaptation in dogs to be sensitive to human forms of communication,” Kaminski said.  “There is multiple evidence suggesting that selection pressures during domestication have changed dogs such that they are perfectly adapted to their new niche, the human environment.

“Wolves, even when raised in a human environment, are not as flexible with human communication as dogs,” Kaminski said.  “Dogs can read human gestures from very early ages on.”

Marta Gacsi, working with a team of researchers from Eotvos University, Hungry, found that different breeds of dogs have a better response to human pointing than other breeds.  Gun dogs and sheep dogs were better than hunting hounds, earth dogs, livestock guard dogs and sled dogs at responding to a human gesture.

To see a video of dogs mimicking human movement, go to




  1. If you will remember from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it was the dog Anubis who was always present at the Weighing of the Heart. The almost weightless feather ‘Maat’ was placed on the opposite scale balance of the human heart to signify the heart’s ‘ethereal’ quality. The dog, since time immemorial, has been the animal most responsive to human affection, as well as developing other motor responses to human gestures and vocal commands. It is for very good reason that the domesticated dog is
    called ‘man’s best friend.’ It is not surprising that dogs respond so
    attentively when they are treated with kindness and discipline. With respect to humans, they are the wonders of all the animal world, bar none.

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