Dogs are the only animals (except other humans, of course) that readily follow a pointing finger to an object. This seems so simple, but it’s fairly mind-blowing! Our closest “cousins,” Chimpanzees (sharing over 98% of our DNA) don’t do it. Dolphins and Elephants, who show a lot of evidence that they are self-aware, don’t do it. Other DOMESTICATED animals like Cats and Horses don’t do it. What is most surprising of all is that WOLVES, so genetically close to our domestic dogs, don’t do it! But even homeless dogs-in-the-street can follow the human finger that points the way to a scrap of food.
There have been a number of scientific studies that have documented the domestic dog’s uniqueness in this area. Recently I saw a TV report on one study investigating the behavior gap between Canis Lupus and Canis Familiaris. The theory was that wolves behave differently from dogs because they are not brought up with humans from infancy and so are unfamiliar with our gestures, etc. So, this study raised a bunch of wolf cubs as if they were dogs so that they would have the same amount of exposure to people as the domestic dogs also used as subjects. Both dogs and wolves used in the study were all adult.
There were a number of tests and games played with all the subjects, but one was the “pointing test.” Two humans and a canine subject were placed in a small room with no windows or other distractions. One human handled the canine subject on a leash-and-collar, keeping it at one end of the room. At the other end, the second human, the Tester, had two identical plastic pails and a piece of meat.
The Tester rubbed the meat around the bottom of each pail, so BOTH would carry the food scent. That way the canine wouldn’t be able to make a choice using their extremely sensitive sense of smell. Then while the Handler covered the canine’s eyes, the Tester placed the piece of meat in one pail at random and placed both pails on the ground next to her, an arm’s length away. The canine’s eyes were uncovered and the Tester POINTED briefly at the pail with the meat in it. Then the canine was released to investigate the pails.
Almost invariably the dog went first to the pail the Tester had pointed out. Almost invariably the wolf chose the other pail. I believe that even after multiple repetitions of the same test with the same subject, the wolves were not any more likely to choose the pail the Tester pointed at than the one she did not. It wasn’t mentioned on the TV program, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the few dogs who at first didn’t follow the point, WERE more likely to follow it after repeated tests.
The study showed that not only will dogs follow our pointing fingers, but they watch us very carefully ALL THE TIME, and take cues from our body language. Dogs even MIMIC humans, learning to do tricks simply by imitating what we do. If the Tester leaned to one side, the dog-subject shifted its weight in that direction. The Tester was able to get the dog-subject to bark by barking at it, to raise a paw by waving a hand, etc.
I have no trouble believing that study. My GSD-mix, Kita, learned how to BOW on cue when I bowed to her! One of my client dogs learned how to “Gimme 10” when I held my hands (I almost said paws) facing out to him at chest height! The word cues meant nothing to them, so they must have been watching me carefully and tried their “best guess!” and approximated my posture. Like any training technique, I imagine the more a particular dog-subject is exposed to this method, the more readily they will be able to mimic!
I’ve seen other studies that show dogs watch us very carefully, indeed, and even pay attention to the direction we’re LOOKING, and IF we’re looking! A Tester sat in a chair with a piece of meat on the floor in front of her. As long as her eyes stayed open, the dog sitting opposite didn’t touch the meat. But mere SECONDS after she closed her eyes, the dog scarfed it up! In tests similar to the “point” test described above, a dog could follow the direction the Tester’s EYES looked to find the food. One cue I give to dogs when they are learning the DOWN cue is to stand very still and LOOK at the ground in front of them when they are trying to remember what that cue word means. In each instance the dog must be watching very closely to notice such a small thing as the movement of our eyes!
All these studies show that dogs are uniquely sensitive to what we DO and how we behave. Just today, Kita and I were walking in a snowy park. Two cross-country skiers approached us on the trail. Kita has never seen skiers before, and she is inclined to be nervous of new things! I consciously slowed my breathing, calmly told her to heel, moved to the side of the trail, and exchanged friendly greetings with the skiers. I did my best to show her by example that these new strangely-moving folks were not dangerous. It seemed to work. She stayed at my side, and didn’t bark.
There’s an old training maxim that what we feel travels right down the leash, however it doesn’t mean there’s some sort of psychic electricity sparking from us to them! Yes, how tightly we hold the leash makes a difference and tells our dogs much about our state of mind. Still, the saying is just a reminder that our dogs are ALWAYS watching us, looking for clues to and cues about how they should behave.