What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures


In many studies that have investigated whether dogs’ capacities to understand human pointing gestures are aspects of evolutionary or developmental social competences, family-owned dogs have been compared to shelter dogs. However, for most of these studies, the origins of shelter dogs were unknown. Some shelter dogs may have lived with families before entering shelters, and from these past experiences, they may have learned to understand human gestures. Furthermore, there is substantial variation in the methodology and analytic approaches used in such studies (e.g. different pointing protocols, different treatment of trials with no-choice response and indoor vs. outdoor experimental arenas). Such differences in methodologies and analysis techniques used make it difficult to compare results obtained from different studies and may account for the divergent results obtained. We thus attempted to control for several parameters by carrying out a test on dynamic proximal and distal pointing. We studied eleven kennel dogs of known origin that were born and raised in a kennels with limited human interaction. This group was compared to a group of eleven dogs comparable in terms of breed, sex and age that had lived with human families since they were puppies. Our results demonstrate that pet dogs outperform kennel dogs in their comprehension of proximal and distal pointing, regardless of whether trials where no-choice was made were considered as errors or were excluded from statistical analysis, meaning that dogs living in kennels do not understand pointing gestures. Even if genetic effects of the domestication process on human–dog relationships cannot be considered as negligible, our data suggest that dogs need to learn human pointing gestures and thus underscore the importance of ontogenetic processes.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. Agnetta B, Hare B, Tomasello M (2000) Cues to food location that domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different ages do and do not use. Anim Cogn 3(2):107–112

  2. Butterworth G, Franco F, McKenzie B, Graupner L, Todd B (2002) Dynamic aspects of visual event perception and the production of pointing by human infants. Brit J Dev Psychol 20(1):1–24

  3. Carballo F, Freidin E, Casanave E, Bentosela M (2016) Following human pointing: Where do dogs (Canis familiaris) look at to find food? Behav Process 128:37–40

  4. Cunningham CL, Ramos MF (2014) Effect of training and familiarity on responsiveness to human cues in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Anim Cogn 17(3):805–814

  5. D’Aniello B, Scandurra A (2016) Ontogenetic effects on gazing behaviour: a case study of kennel dogs (Labrador Retrievers) in the impossible task paradigm. Anim Cogn 19(3):565–570

  6. D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P (2015) Gazing toward humans: a study on water rescue dogs using the impossible task paradigm. Behav Process 110:68–73

  7. Dorey NR, Udell MA, Wynne CD (2010) When do domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, start to understand human pointing? The role of ontogeny in the development of interspecies communication. Anim Behav 79(1):37–41

  8. Gácsi M, Gyoöri B, Virányi Z, Kubinyi E, Range F, Belényi B, Miklósi Á (2009) Explaining dog wolf differences in utilizing human pointing gestures: selection for synergistic shifts in the development of some social skills. PLoS ONE 4(8):e6584

  9. Hare B, Tomasello M (2005) Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci 9(9):439–444

  10. Hare B, Brown M, Williamson C, Tomasello M (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298(5598):1634–1636

  11. Hare B, Rosati A, Kaminski J, Bräuer J, Call J, Tomasello M (2010) The domestication hypothesis for dogs’ skills with human communication: a response to Udell et al. (2008) and Wynne et al. (2008). Anim Behav 79(2):e1–e6

  12. Hegedüs D, Bálint A, Miklósi Á, Pongrácz P (2013) Owners fail to influence the choices of dogs in a two-choice, visual pointing task. Behaviour 150:427–443

  13. Hennessy MB, Williams MT, Miller DD, Douglas CW, Voith VL (1998) Influence of male and female petters on plasma cortisol and behaviour: can human interaction reduce the stress of dogs in a public animal shelter? Appl Anim Behav Sci 61(1):63–77

  14. Kaminski J, Nitzschner M (2013) Do dogs get the point? A review of dog–human communication ability. Learn Motiv 44(4):294–302

  15. Lazarowski L, Dorman DC (2015) A comparison of pet and purpose-bred research dog (Canis familiaris) performance on human-guided object-choice tasks. Behav Process 110:60–67

  16. Miklósi Á, Topál J (2011) On the hunt for the gene of perspective taking: pitfalls in methodology. Learn Behav 39(4):310–313

  17. Miklósi Á, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, Csányi V (2003) A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr Biol 13(9):763–766

  18. Okamoto-Barth S, Tomonaga M, Tanaka M, Matsuzawa T (2008) Development of using experimenter-given cues in infant chimpanzees: longitudinal changes in behavior and cognitive development. Dev Sci 11(1):98–108

  19. Pongrácz P, Gácsi M, Hegedüs D, Péter A, Miklósi Á (2013) Test sensitivity is important for detecting variability in pointing comprehension in canines. Anim Cogn 16:721–735

  20. Reid PJ (2009) Adapting to the human world: dogs’ responsiveness to our social cues. Behav Process 80(3):325–333

  21. Riedel J, Schumann K, Kaminski J, Call J, Tomasello M (2008) The early ontogeny of human–dog communication. Anim Behav 75(3):1003–1014

  22. Scandurra A, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P, Aria M, D’Aniello B (2015) Guide dogs as a model for investigating the effect of life experience and training on gazing behaviour. Anim Cogn 18(4):937–944

  23. Scheider L, Kaminski J, Call J, Tomasello M (2013) Do domestic dogs interpret pointing as a command? Anim Cogn 16(3):361–372

  24. Starling MJ, Branson N, Thomson PC, McGreevy PD (2013) Age, sex and reproductive status affect boldness in dogs. Vet J 197(3):868–872

  25. Svartberg K (2006) Breed-typical behaviour in dogs—historical remnants or recent constructs? Appl Anim Behav Sci 96(3):293–313

  26. Tauzin T, Csík A, Kis A, Topál J (2015) What or where? The meaning of referential human pointing for dogs (Canis familiaris). J Comp Psychol 129(4):334

  27. Udell MA, Wynne CD (2008) A review of domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) human-like behaviors: or why behavior analysts should stop worrying and love their dogs. J Exp Anal Behav 89(2):247–261

  28. Udell MA, Wynne CD (2010) Ontogeny and phylogeny: both are essential to human-sensitive behavior in the genus Canis. Anim Behav 79(2):e9–e14

  29. Udell MA, Dorey NR, Wynne CD (2008) Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues. Anim Behav 76(6):1767–1773

  30. Udell MA, Dorey NR, Wynne CD (2010a) What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions. Biol Rev 85(2):327–345

  31. Udell MA, Dorey NR, Wynne CD (2010b) The performance of stray dogs (Canis familiaris) living in a shelter on human-guided object-choice tasks. Anim Behav 79(3):717–725

  32. Udell MA, Dorey NR, Wynne CD (2011) Can your dog read your mind? Understanding the causes of canine perspective taking. Learn Behav 39(4):289–302

  33. Udell MA, Spencer JM, Dorey NR, Wynne CD (2012) Human-socialized wolves follow diverse human gestures… and they may not be alone. Int J Comp Psychol 25(2):97–117

  34. Virányi Z, Gácsi M, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Belényi B, Ujfalussy D, Miklósi Á (2008) Comprehension of human pointing gestures in young human-reared wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis familiaris). Anim Cogn 11(3):373–387

  35. Wynne CD, Udell MA, Lord KA (2008) Ontogeny’s impacts on human–dog communication. Anim Behav 76(4):e1–e4

  36. Zaine I, Domeniconi C, Wynne CD (2015) The ontogeny of human point following in dogs: When younger dogs outperform older. Behav Process 119:76–85

Download references


We thank the FOOF museum staff for their logistical support and hospitality. This research project was supported through ordinary funding from the University of Naples “Federico II.”

Author information

Correspondence to Biagio D’Aniello.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This study was approved by the Ethical Animal Care and Use Committee of the University of Naples “Federico II” (protocol number 2017/0025509). All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from the owners of all dogs included in the study.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (MP4 38841 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (MP4 25447 kb)

Supplementary material 1 (MP4 38841 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (MP4 25447 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

D’Aniello, B., Alterisio, A., Scandurra, A. et al. What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures. Anim Cogn 20, 777–787 (2017) doi:10.1007/s10071-017-1098-2

Download citation


  • Cue following
  • Pointing
  • Dog
  • Ontogeny
  • Domestication
  • Kennel dogs