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Do domestic dogs interpret pointing as a command?

Abstract

Domestic dogs comprehend human gestural communication flexibly, particularly the pointing gesture. Here, we examine whether dogs interpret pointing informatively, that is, as simply providing information, or rather as a command, for example, ordering them to move to a particular location. In the first study a human pointed toward an empty cup. In one manipulation, the dog either knew or did not know that the designated cup was empty (and that the other cup actually contained the food). In another manipulation, the human (as authority) either did or did not remain in the room after pointing. Dogs ignored the human’s gesture if they had better information, irrespective of the authority’s presence. In the second study, we varied the level of authority of the person pointing. Sometimes this person was an adult, and sometimes a young child. Dogs followed children’s pointing just as frequently as they followed adults’ pointing (and ignored the dishonest pointing of both), suggesting that the level of authority did not affect their behavior. Taken together these studies suggest that dogs do not see pointing as an imperative command ordering them to a particular location. It is still not totally clear, however, if they interpret it as informative or in some other way.

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Acknowledgments

We are especially grateful to the dog owners for their cooperation. We thank all students for their assistance during data collection and reliability coding, namely Susanne Mauritz, Katrin Schumann, Eileen Glabsch, Robina Thurmann, Marie Nitzschner, Lisa Heynig, Wiebke Bohnenberger, Juliane Pölchen, Peter Schuldt, Andrea Pitsch, Melanie Hartmann, Anne Hertel, Caroline Koegler, Kerstin Esau, and Bettina Müller. Juliane Kaminski was funded by a grant of the Volkswagenstiftung.

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Correspondence to Linda Scheider.

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Scheider, L., Kaminski, J., Call, J. et al. Do domestic dogs interpret pointing as a command?. Anim Cogn 16, 361–372 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0577-8

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Keywords

  • Communication
  • Domestic dog
  • Pointing
  • Comprehension
  • Imperative