Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Domestic dogs: Born human whisperers

Vignieri does a summary of recent work by  Bray et al. and Salomans et al. in Current Biology

The closest relative to dogs, “man’s best friend,” is the wolf, a wily predator that generally avoids human interaction. For decades, researchers and dog owners have wondered how the leap to domestication occurred. The main hypothesis invoked very early selection for wolves that “liked”—or least tolerated—humans, and the connection strengthened from there. However, there is still some debate about whether the degree to which dogs interact and communicate with humans is a learned trait. Two recent studies appear to close the book on this learning hypothesis. Bray et al. looked at about 400 puppies and found that at this young age and without much human interaction, they were adept at following human gestures and positively responded to high-pitched “puppy talk.” Further, there was variation in these responses with an association between relatedness and social communication skills, which supports a genetic driver. Salomons et al. compared dog and wolf puppies and found no difference in general cognitive responses, but much greater responsiveness to human gestures and eye contact, in dog puppies. Importantly, this happened even though the dog pups had received less actual human interaction than did the wolf pups. These studies confirm that dogs’ interest in communication with humans is an evolved trait unique to their lineage.

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