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Development of point following behaviors in shelter dogs


Pet dogs are known to be responsive to human pointing gestures, but shelter dogs have repeatedly demonstrated poor abilities to follow human pointing, although they can be explicitly trained quickly. This study evaluated the time course in which shelter dogs learn to follow points without explicit training, when given typical interactions with humans. In a longitudinal evaluation, the development of point following was tracked in seven shelter dogs in a training program (enriched human exposure), seven dogs in a traditional shelter (control population), and evaluated once in pet dogs. Twice a week for 6 weeks, shelter dogs’ point-following performance was evaluated in 10 probe trials in which an experimenter pointed to one of two containers equidistant from the dog. To avoid direct training, dogs were given a treat for approaching and touching either container; although correct responses were recorded for touching the pointed-towards container within 30 s. Pet dogs were tested in only one session. All shelter dogs initially showed the expected poor performance. However, enriched shelter dogs receiving enriched human exposure showed significant improvements reaching an identical performance to pet dogs within 7 weeks. In comparison, shelter dogs under standard conditions showed an initial improvement, but performance reached asymptote close to chance levels and lower than that of enriched dogs or pet dogs. Together, these results suggest that enriched experiences with humans, typical of pet dogs, is sufficient for dogs to learn to follow points without explicit training.

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We would like to thank Annie Steffy and Cristina Lawniczak for their work on this project. We also would like to thank the members of the Texas Tech University Canine Olfaction Lab for their help with the dogs used in this study as well as the Texas Tech University Undergraduate Research Scholars Program supported by the CH and Helen Jones Foundations. Lastly, we would like to thank our shelter partners for their support and assistance.

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Study data and R code for analysis is available as a supplementary material. This study was not preregistered.

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Correspondence to Nathanial J. Hall.

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All procedures with animals were approved by the Texas Tech University Animal Care and Use Committee (Protocol # 16111-12).

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Jarvis, T., Hall, N.J. Development of point following behaviors in shelter dogs. Learn Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-020-00415-8

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  • Associative learning
  • Comparative cognition
  • Discrimination
  • Generalization
  • Operant conditioning