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The effects of distance on pointing comprehension in shelter dogs


The Object Choice Task is a methodology that has been increasingly popular for several decades and many strong claims have been made regarding the differential results between species. However, many studies use differing methodologies and individuals with systematically different backgrounds, which makes any comparisons suspect. One of the methodological differences that has been shown to result in differing responses is distance, both between the objects, and between the object and the gesture. Here, we systematically test these differences with a sample of shelter dogs and note the potential mechanisms underlying the results. Dogs were more successful if the objects were further apart (Distal Object) or the point was very close to the object (Proximal Cue). Success in both of these conditions can be most parsimoniously explained by mechanistic strategies, i.e. strategies that do not rely on mental representation or communicative mechanisms. We also note the results of some pilot data suggesting a non-communicative mechanism (body alignment through touch) by which shelter dogs and other animals may successfully respond when the objects and gestures are distant. We argue that the only point type that likely relies on communicative mechanisms is when the objects are close together, but the point is distant the condition in which dogs are least successful. Future research should take into consideration that individual dogs may use different strategies, or may switch between strategies, and note that all point-following is not necessarily indicative of communicative comprehension.

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Correspondence to Heidi Lyn.

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All animals research was conducted in compliance with welfare and ethical standards. We’d like to thank the Humane Society of South Mississippi for allowing us to gather data. We’d also like to thank all the student researchers who assisted in the data collection. We have no known conflicts of interest to disclose. Data is available upon request.

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Correspondence regarding this manuscript should be sent to: Heidi Lyn, Joan M. Sinnott Chair of Psychology.

Appendix for supplementary information: dog information

Appendix for supplementary information: dog information

Name Breed Age (years) Weight (lbs) Sex Spayed/ neutered?
Bo Fox terrier/Miniature pincher 1.5 14 M N
Breezy Labrador retriever/Pit Bull terrier 3.67 45 F Y
Buster Labrador retriever mix 1.5 80 M Y
Chevy Hound Mix 3 64 M Y
Coco Labrador retriever 1 77 M N
Cocoa Pit Bull terrier 1.67 47 F Y
Daisy Dachshund/cattle dog 9.5 38 F Y
Debo Terrier mix 1 36 M N
Eddie Miniature pincher/Jack Russell terrier 2 17 M N
Fester Pug/chihuahua mix 5 18 M Y
Gizmo Yorkshire terrier 4 3 M N
Grady Blood hound mix 5 38 M Y
Hog Pit Bull terrier mix 10.75 64 M Y
Holly Retriever/Pit Bull terrier mix 3.33 42 F Y
Hunter Pit Bull terrier mix 1 35 M N
Jasmine Rat terrier mix 7 35 F Y
Jilly Shin tzu mix 5 13 F N
Koda Pit Bull terrier 6.25 77 M Y
Lacy Beagle mix 1 44 F Y
Lil moma Shih tzu mix 5.1 15 F Y
Lou Lou Terrier mix 1.5 30 F Y
Marley Beagle/Bassett hound 4 24 M N
Minnows Pit Bull terrier mix 1 50 M Y
Mitzi American Eskimo 5 16 F Y
Nelson Retriever 1.5 74 M Y
Poley Terrier/mix 4 42 F Y
Princess Labrador/ Golden retriever mix 2 80 F N
Radar Hound/pointer 1 22 M N
Roxie Doberman pinscher mix 4.8 75 F N
Roxy Pit Bull terrier mix 5.58 50 F Y
Sargent Pit Bull terrier 1 60 M Y
Shane Shepherd mix 1 45 M  
Shimmy Chihuahua 2.5 7 F N
Tiny miniature Daschund 5.58 4 F Y
Tiny German Shepard Mix 1.5 49 M Y
Venus Terrier/ mix 2 64 F Y
Vixen Retriever lab mix 5 49 F N
Winston Daschund 1 26 M Y

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Lyn, H., Broadway, M., Jett, S.E. et al. The effects of distance on pointing comprehension in shelter dogs. Anim Cogn 24, 855–865 (2021).

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  • Dogs
  • Canine
  • Object choice task
  • Pointing
  • Communication
  • Methodology