Earlier this year, researchers found new support for this second idea when they measured the performance of the ability to follow pointing gestures in dog families. Puppies that were more closely related performed more similarly on the pointing test, suggesting that their stats could in part be explained by their genetics.
Dogs’ ability to perform this task could be a product of domestication. Humans, intentionally or unintentionally, might have made dogs become more effective communicators; Humans could have purposefully bred the friendliest dogs together, or alternatively, the friendliest individuals could have been most successful at coexisting with humans. Or the ability could be inherited from the common ancestor of dogs and modern wolves. In order to distinguish between these two possibilities and limit the influence of environmental factors, researchers tried to compare dog and wolf pups that were raised similarly. A 2008 study found that the dogs did better than the wolves at showing, but a paper published the following year failed to replicate that difference.
This new study has a much larger sample size and compares wolves with more human contact with dogs with fewer Contact, corroborates the conclusion that dogs are actually better at this task than wolves, says Juliane Bräuer, head of the DogStudies Lab at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man. “It was a pretty large sample size, especially for the wolves,”
; she says. “Finding testable wolves is always a challenge.”
So the dog’s ability to follow cues appears to be a product of domestication – there is an important genetic difference between dogs and wolves here. But where exactly does genetics come into play remains an open question. Hare believes the key element is an advanced reduction in the natural fear wolves have towards humans. (“Wolves are awesome,” says Callahan-Beckel.) As pack hunters, wolves must be able to coordinate with other conspecifics. Hare believes that during the domestication process, dogs have added humans to their potential coordination partners. “Dogs inherited the ability to understand others from wolves,” he says. “When fear was replaced by attraction, those skills were enhanced.”
But maybe dogs are just more inclined to learn from people, and incredibly quickly. In support of this second possibility, Wynne notes that the older dog pups in the study did better than the younger puppies on the pointing task, which suggests that something was learned.
In general, Wynne has a hard time believing that dogs have an ingrained ability to understand human gestures or human intentions. “It’s just absurdly unlikely that dogs would be born with the innate ability to follow human pointing gestures unless our own children are born with the ability to follow human pointing gestures,” he says.
However, both Hare and Wynne agree that there is one big, striking difference between dogs and wolves, regardless of how they’re raised: dogs are much, much more attracted to humans. The wolves that Callahan-Beckel and Callahan raise often have their stomachs rub their stomachs and scratch behind their ears as adults. Strange people, however, are a different story. In the study, puppies were 30 times more likely to touch strangers than wolf pups.
Some wolves will see Callahan-Beckel and Callahan as their lifelong mothers and will greet them the way a dog greets its owner coming home from work. But others reveal their genetic history when they ultimately view their rearing as a leader to be overthrown. This recently happened for Callahan-Beckel when Adam, a wolf she raised, became the leader of his pack – and then decided he was her boss too.
“I still love Adam. I still love him so much, ”says Callahan-Beckel. “And I’m going to the fence [saying]”Oh, Adam, this is my good boy,” and he hits the fence as hard as he can, yelling, tail held high and trying to kill me. And they are just like that. “