Dogs can, monkeys and wolves can’t

by on September 10, 2007 at 6:46 pm in Science | Permalink

The researchers held two containers, one empty and the other
containing food, in front of chimpanzees and dogs. Then they pointed to
the correct container. The canines understood the gesture immediately,
while the apes, genetically much more closely related to humans, were
often perplexed by the pointing finger.

That’s not all. Many dogs were even capable of interpreting the
researcher’s gaze. When the scientists looked at a container, the dogs
would search inside for food, but when they looked in the direction of
the container but focused on a point above it on the wall, the dogs
were able to understand that this was not meant as a sign.

Puppies seem able to do this before they have been socialized with human beings.

Says one researcher: "The great advantage of dogs is that we can study them in their
natural habitat without any great effort," explains Adám Miklósi.

Here is the full story, hat tip to Mark Thoma.

1 Alex J. September 10, 2007 at 7:29 pm

Might be interesting to contrast wolves with dogs on this test.

2 zlguocius September 10, 2007 at 7:36 pm

Interesting. These dogs are obviously a lot more clever than mine, who, when I point, think I am drawing attention to my finger rather than to whatever is at the end of my finger’s trajectory.

But I wonder whether the experimenters were careful enough to blind themselves as to who is observing them. Did they, for example, have the observing animals stand behind one-way glass, so that the actors don’t know what species the current subject is?

3 Chewxy September 10, 2007 at 8:26 pm

Sounds like conditioning instead of natural smarts to me. Pavlov anyone?

4 Paul N September 10, 2007 at 9:42 pm

Um, I don’t get the experiment, maybe because I’m more like the ape than the dog.

5 Bernard Yomtov September 10, 2007 at 10:23 pm

How did the experimenters control for the dog’s sense of smell?

If the dogs were identifying the food by smell they would have gone to it before the gesture.

6 Ronald Brak September 10, 2007 at 11:03 pm

I think we need to run an experiment where we tell people that there is $20 in one of two containers and
that they can keep it if they pick the right one. Then the experimenter simply points to the container
with the money in it. It would be interesting to see how many people actually pick that one. My guess is
humans would do better on average than monkeys but worse than dogs and we would do worse because we expect
people to mislead us.

7 barjac September 11, 2007 at 12:45 am

Not to mention dogs are social animals unlike cats, so they “get” the idea there are other beings besides offspring to interact with on a long-term basis

8 rkillings September 11, 2007 at 3:36 am

The experiment is about animal behavior: what dogs, monkeys and wolves do and don’t do. Why do you cast it in terms of “can” and “can’t”?

9 Slocum September 11, 2007 at 7:08 am

Why do you cast it in terms of “can” and “can’t”?

Because the wolves and apes clearly wanted the food, so if they had understood the gesture, they certainly would have picked the correct container. But they didn’t.

10 Independent George September 11, 2007 at 8:25 am

I am confident that wolves which have interacted with humans would “get” the gesture.

Or, wolf eat puny human.

11 8 September 11, 2007 at 8:52 am

Did anyone catch this story on human skull evolution? The researches claim that a lot has changed in only 650 years. If dogs have really learned a lot, is the Planet of the Apes scenario plausible?

12 DM September 11, 2007 at 10:47 am

To triticale: Did you actually read the article? Wolves aren’t quite as good as dogs at understanding humans. They raised wolf pups for several months, treating them as dog puppies. They then conducted the container test. When the container with the food was closed, the wolf pups tried to force their way into the container. The dog puppies immediately gave up and stared at the humans.

13 Loki on the run September 11, 2007 at 1:20 pm

When I came home the other day I knew someone had been using my machine but the damn logs had been erased so I couldn’t see which sites had been accessed. I finally remembered to check my DNS lookup log. Rover’s not as smart as he thinks he is. Bad dog, you should not be accessing, or at least you need to know more about Linux and forensics.

14 Ryan Cousineau September 12, 2007 at 3:19 am

Rob: your example suggests to me that humans look like a lot bigger threat to wolves than they do to bears.

And maybe cougars,

15 Joe September 13, 2007 at 4:57 am

Had monkeys lived with us for millenia, we could probably use them to do our tax returns… provided that they wouldn’t make us do theirs.

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