Puppies ‘have unique genetically-bred ability to understand humans from 8 weeks’

Puppies as young as eight weeks old have the ability to understand human communication – whether we’re speaking to them in a baby voice, or pointing at objects.

‘Pawtential’ owners could use this information to choose their puppy based on whether they’re likely to have a strong bond as a result of the pooch reading their communication.

Emily Bray, from the University of Arizona conducted research and experiments which found that at least 40% of a puppy’s ability to interact through body language is innate, and the rest is influenced by individual relationships.

She told New Scientist: “Over the course of domestication, from wolf to dog, there’s been a clear selection for these social skills."

“It’s something that’s ingrained in them," she added, "and that emerges at a really young age even before they’ve had much experience with humans.

“If your dog is able to read your communication, that’s likely just going to be a more harmonious relationship.”

Bray and her colleagues found that puppies from two months old could already recognise when people are pointing at objects and will gaze at our faces when they’re spoken to, after conducting an experiment with 375 eight-week-old Golden Retriever and Labrador puppies.

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They tested the to-be service dogs by pointing at food hidden under a cup, which helped the puppies find it nearly 70% of the time. Because the success rate was high from the get go, it showed that the puppies already knew how to follow the pointing, rather than learning on the job.

In a control test, the puppies couldn’t find food hidden under one of two cups at a rate better than random chance, indicating that they weren’t simply smelling it.

The researchers concluded that genetic factors were responsible for 43 per cent of the variation in different puppies’ ability to follow finger-pointing.

The second part of the experiment saw researchers speak to the puppies in a baby voice, and found that they would fix their gaze on the person for more than six seconds on average, showing that the dogs knew the human was communicating with them. Genetic factors accounted for about 40 per cent of the differences among puppies here as well, says Bray.

However, when the puppies couldn’t open a box filled with food in a third experiment, they only gazed at the researcher’s face for about a second, meaning they weren’t seeking human assistance.

The results suggest that, like young children, most domestic puppies are naturally good at understanding and responding to people talking to them. But at eight weeks old they haven’t yet developed the social skills necessary for asking people for help.

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