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Tests show dogs are almost human

By Leigh Deighton, Elizabeth Colman
February 16, 2004

IF YOU think your dog can read your mind, you're right. Because pooches and people have kept company for hundreds of generations, Canis familiaris is hard-wired to pick up human social cues, a US anthropologist claims.

Researchers found dogs have evolved an unusual ability to read human gestures.

According to Brian Hare of Harvard University, the insight will help trace the evolution of dogs, and may help explain the origins of autism in people and point towards possible therapies.

"The first diagnostic test for autism is the inability to use social cues," he said. "Autists are very poor at reading things like eye-gaze or pointing, something called joint attention."

Not so your average mutt, he says. "It looks like dogs evolved an unusual ability to read human gestures and cues, and manipulate and predict human behaviour.

"They were selected to do that through domestication," Dr Hare told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, meeting in Seattle - and he has the evidence to prove it.

In the first two of four studies, Dr Hare and colleagues in Germany and Hungary found dogs are better at a test of their ability to interpret social cues than even our primate cousins the chimpanzees, and the dog's closest relation, the wolf.

In the test - based on one developed to identify autistic infants - food is hidden beneath one of two cups about a metre apart. The animal is then shown where the food is by the experimenter, who looks or gestures at the right location.

"The wolves and the chimps didn't use the cues in the task, but the dogs were awesome," Dr Hare said.

Clearly, wolves and chimpanzees are not stupid, and dogs did not inherit their skill from ancestral wolves. So Dr Hare next tested the possibility that dogs learn their ability through "tremendous exposure to humans".

He gave two groups of puppies nine to 20 weeks old the same test. One group was raised by a family, while the other was raised in a kennel with little human contact. The isolated puppies performed just as well as dogs raised in a family, scotching the exposure hypothesis.

Dr Hare says his latest research confirmed his belief that human contact during domestication created the selective pressure driving the evolution of this canine expertise.

The cup test was given to six New Guinea singing dogs, a species related to the dingo and isolated from humans. The six domestic dogs were near-perfect, but the singers failed. This suggests that without human evolutionary pressure, the singing dog lost its ability to read human minds.

The Australian

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