, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 721-735
Date: 08 Feb 2013

Test sensitivity is important for detecting variability in pointing comprehension in canines

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Abstract

Several articles have been recently published on dogs’ (Canis familiaris) performance in two-way object choice experiments in which subjects had to find hidden food by utilizing human pointing. The interpretation of results has led to a vivid theoretical debate about the cognitive background of human gestural signal understanding in dogs, despite the fact that many important details of the testing method have not yet been standardized. We report three experiments that aim to reveal how some procedural differences influence adult companion dogs’ performance in these tests. Utilizing a large sample in Experiment 1, we provide evidence that neither the keeping conditions (garden/house) nor the location of the testing (outdoor/indoor) affect a dogs’ performance. In Experiment 2, we compare dogs’ performance using three different types of pointing gestures. Dogs’ performance varied between momentary distal and momentary cross-pointing but “low” and “high” performer dogs chose uniformly better than chance level if they responded to sustained pointing gestures with reinforcement (food reward and a clicking sound; “clicker pointing”). In Experiment 3, we show that single features of the aforementioned “clicker pointing” method can slightly improve dogs’ success rate if they were added one by one to the momentary distal pointing method. These results provide evidence that although companion dogs show a robust performance at different testing locations regardless of their keeping conditions, the exact execution of the human gesture and additional reinforcement techniques have substantial effect on the outcomes. Consequently, researchers should standardize their methodology before engaging in debates on the comparative aspects of socio-cognitive skills because the procedures they utilize may differ in sensitivity for detecting differences.