Animal Cognition

, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 1111–1119 | Cite as

Pointing following in dogs: are simple or complex cognitive mechanisms involved?

  • Angel M. Elgier
  • Adriana Jakovcevic
  • Alba E. Mustaca
  • Mariana BentoselaEmail author
Original Paper


Domestic dogs have proved to be extremely successful in finding hidden food following a series of human social cues such as pointing (an extended hand and index finger indicating the location of the reward), or body position, among many other variants. There is controversy about the mechanisms responsible for these communicative skills in dogs. On the one hand, a hypothesis states that dogs have complex cognitive processes such as a theory of mind, which allow them to attribute intent to the human pointing gesture. A second, more parsimonious, hypothesis proposes that these skills depend on associative learning processes. The purpose of this paper is to provide data that may shed some light on the discussion by looking into two learning processes by using an object choice task: the effect of interference between stimuli on the preference for human social cues and the effect of generalization of the response to novel human social stimuli. The first study revealed that previous training using a physical cue (container location) may hamper the learning of a novel human social cue (distal cross-pointing). The results of the second study indicated stimulus generalization. Dogs learnt a novel cue (distal cross-pointing) faster due to previous experience with a similar cue (proximal pointing), as compared to dogs confronted by a less similar cue (body position) or dogs with no previous experience. In sum, these findings support the hypothesis about the important role of associative learning in interspecific communication mechanisms of domestic dogs.


Interspecific communication Interference Generalization Learning Domestic dogs 



We would like to express our gratitude to Lic. Gustavo Bianco for his cooperation and to all the owners who kindly participated in these studies. Special thanks to Dr. Claudio Pereira who kindly collaborated with the figures design and to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments. Also we appreciate the collaboration of Rosa María Torlaschi for the manuscript translation. This work was supported under the Projects PICT 2005 N° 38020 and PICT 2010 N° 0350, National Agency of Science and Technology (ANPCyT).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Angel M. Elgier
    • 1
  • Adriana Jakovcevic
    • 1
  • Alba E. Mustaca
    • 1
  • Mariana Bentosela
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Grupo ICOC (Investigación del Comportamiento en Cánidos)Laboratorio de Psicología Experimental y Aplicada (PSEA), Instituto de Investigaciones Médicas (IDIM) CONICET-UBABuenos AiresArgentina

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