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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.”

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Correspondence to Biagio D’Aniello.

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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.

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

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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

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Keywords

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