Dogs and toddlers – similarities in cooperative communication

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A new study by the University of Arizona has further highlighted the similarities in cooperative communication skills between dogs and toddlers.

The researchers studied 552 dogs including; pet, assistance and bomb-detection dogs of varying breeds.  Firstly, the team assessed the dogs’ social cognition through a number of game-related tests, hiding treats and toys, then communicated the hiding place through visual cues including pointing and gazing in the direction of the hidden object.

These results were then compared against data from 105 two-year-old children who had previously completed a similar cognitive test and 106 chimpanzees from wildlife sanctuaries in Africa.  The analysis indicated that dogs and toddlers outperformed chimpanzees demonstrating the ability to follow a pointing finger or human gaze, supporting previous studies by Soproni et al. (2002) and Bräuer et al. (2006).

Chimpanzees may be our closest living relatives, but domestic dogs are highly skilled at reading human social and communicative behaviour (Hare and Tomasello, 2005).  Scientists suggest this is may be a result of evolutionary pressures, where group living meant those that were more cooperative had a greater chance of survival and reproduction.  Dr. Evan MacLean, co-author of this study, states “Some things that happened in human evolution were [probably] very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication…by studying dogs and domestication we can learn something about human evolution.”

Although there is no universally accepted test to measure dogs’ intelligence, several IQ tests have been developed over the years ranking for obedience and working intelligence.  MacLean says of this latest study that “The kind of intelligence we think is important to humans is social in nature and that’s the kind of intelligence that dogs have to an incredible extent.” 

The findings from this latest study may help scientists understand how humans have evolved socially, and use the dog as a model for the human mind to provide insight into conditions such as autism, which can impact social skills.

Click here to read the study by MacLean et al. (2017) published in the April 2017 issue of Animal Behaviour.

Photo credit: Evan MacLean

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