Puppies are born with genetic sensitivity to human communication, study finds

A trial with hundreds of young Labradors and Golden Retrievers found a tendency to seek out people’s faces and an ability to respond to facial expressions and gestures

Two-month-old Golden Retriever puppies.
Two-month-old Golden Retriever puppies.Nancy Lane (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

Dr. Emily E. Bray spends her days studying dog behavior at the University of Arizona’s Canine Cognition Center. Her most recent study, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, reveals that man’s best friend is born with the innate capacity to understand humans, rather than learning from their environment. “We found that these abilities are highly heritable,” said Bray.

Her findings provide evidence that a large percentage of the variation in dogs’ processing of social cues is genetic and not dependent on upbringing. The study analyzed the behavior of 375 Golden Retriever and Labrador puppies, the largest sample to date, and showed how most of the dogs found hidden food by following a human cue indicating its location. The pups also looked back at scientists’ faces when spoken to for more than six seconds. These two skills demonstrated for the first time that puppies have the genetic ability to understand and interact with humans through body language.

Bray recalls watching the Golden Retriever and Labrador puppies play-wrestling to see which one would be selected to participate in communication tests. “They seemed to really enjoy the experiments,” she explained. When the scientist and her team went to pick up a puppy and take it to the exercise room, they jostled with each other to be chosen. Once in the lab, the two-month-old dogs nibbled on the mats for the study, urinated in the middle of trials and got into all sorts of mischief, but “they were still adorable,” said Bray, whose research helps explain the close relationship between owners and their canine pets.

All of these findings suggest that dogs are biologically hardwired to communicate with us
Emily E. Bray, lead investigator

Julia Espinosa, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto and a specialist in dogs’ cognitive abilities, found Bray and team’s research “scientifically very solid.” Espinosa was surprised, however, by such a high level of responsiveness to human stimuli at such a young age. “This is really important evidence that dogs are sensitive to human social cues, even though they are in the very early stages of their physical and mental development,” she said.

Puppies respond to human eye contact from a very early age, and successfully process information provided by humans even before leaving the litter. Bray’s study shows that the dogs were not guided by smell to find food, nor were they learning quickly on the go, but were accurately following commands from the start. “This led us to conclude that they were starting the task with the communication skills needed to be successful,” she said.

According to Bray, these social skills have a strong genetic component. “Forty-three percent of the variation we see in gesture-following ability and gaze behavior is due to genetic factors,” she added. These percentages are similar to estimates of the heritability of intelligence in the human species. “All of these findings suggest that dogs are biologically hardwired to communicate with us,” she concluded.

Espinosa, who was not involved in the study, said it provided an “incredibly rich data set of genetic and behavioral information” that helps rethink many aspects of how dogs learn. However, the researcher cautioned that there are still many questions surrounding dogs’ cognitive abilities. Future studies might assess whether puppies need to maintain exposure to such gestures during their juvenile development in order not to lose these skills they were apparently born with. Her hypothesis is that, just like young children who stop being sensitive to vowel sounds in other languages at a certain point in time, dogs may stop being sensitive to human communicative cues if they do not live in close contact with people during key developmental stages.

Despite the strength of the study, Esponisa said the evidence does not show that dogs have developed skills to communicate with humans over time, but rather that they have a genetic component that predisposes them to socially relate to people. “I don’t think puppies have innate communication skills. For me, it’s important to differentiate between sensitivity to human signals and communication, which implies that the dog not only perceives the signals, but also produces them.”

Bray and Espinosa do agree that over the course of evolution, domestic dogs have acquired a biological readiness to recognize and respond to human signals from an early age, and that the special bond between them and humans is undeniable. This relationship involves attachment behavior and communication that is very similar to that of parents and their human children. But Espinosa believes the importance of external factors in enhancing or reducing these genetic abilities should not be understated. “I think it is necessary to remember that even heritable traits such as those investigated in Bray’s paper often depend on environmental factors to develop fully.”

For Bray, the skills that dogs possess from their genes and that they develop in their early years make them uniquely suited to interacting with humans. “Many of the tasks they perform for us now and in the past, such as herding, hunting, detecting threats, or acting as service or companion dogs, are facilitated by their ability to interpret our signals effectively,” she said.

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