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The effect of development and individual differences in pointing comprehension of dogs


In spite of the rather different procedures actually used in comparative studies to test the ability of different species to rely on the human pointing gesture, there is no debate on the high performance of dogs in such tasks. Very little is known, however, on the course through which they acquire this ability or the probable factors influencing the process. Important developmental questions have remained unsolved and also some methodological concerns should be addressed before we can convincingly argue for one interpretation or another. In this study we tested 180 dogs of different age (from 2 months to adults) to investigate their performance in the human distal momentary pointing gesture. The results, analyzed at both the group and the individual levels, showed no difference in the performance according to age, indicating that in dogs the comprehension of the human pointing may require only very limited and rapid early learning to fully develop. Interestingly, neither the keeping conditions nor the time spent in active interaction with the owner, and not even some special (agility) training for using human visual cues, had significant effect on the success and explained individual differences. The performance of the dogs was rather stable over time: during the 20 trials within a session and even when subsamples of different age were repeatedly tested. Considering that in spite of the general success at the group level, more than half of the dogs were not successful at the individual level, we revealed alternative “decision-making rules” other than following the pointing gesture of the experimenter.

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  1. Agility is a canine version of the horse show jumping competition, in which a dog and a human work together so that the dog successfully navigates a series of obstacles arranged in a random course. The goal is to complete the course with the least number of faults and at the fastest time. The handler’s job is to help the dog overcome all the obstacles in the sequence, prescribed by the judge. As the dog runs the course off-lead, the success of the team depends greatly on the ability of the dog to rely on the communicative signals of the handler.


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We are grateful to Katalin Farkas, Anita Kurys and Zsófia Virányi for acting as experimenters and helping in data processing. This study was funded by the OTKA (T049615), the EU: FP6 NEST (012878) and the Bolyai Foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The experiments comply with the current laws of Hungary.

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Correspondence to Márta Gácsi.

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Gácsi, M., Kara, E., Belényi, B. et al. The effect of development and individual differences in pointing comprehension of dogs. Anim Cogn 12, 471–479 (2009).

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  • Abstract
  • Interspecific communication
  • Dog
  • Human pointing
  • Two-way object choice test
  • Developmental effects
  • Individual differences