Campus & Community

Man’s smartest friend

2 min read

Domesticated dogs more adept at reading human signals than our close relative, the chimpanzee

Anthropologist Brian Hare’s research involved New Guinea singing dogs, a subspecies that shows strong indications of domestication at some time in the past but now exists as feral, reclusive individuals in the highlands of New Guinea. These dogs, related to dingoes, have gone without significant human contact for at least the past 6,000 years, and little is known about their behavior in the wild. When New Guinea singing dogs watched a human place food under one of two cups and then gesture toward the cup hiding the food, few approached the cup concealing the food more than half the time, as would be expected by chance. By comparison, among domesticated dogs with an unbroken history of human contact, Hare found that all were able to interpret the same human gestures to locate the food. “Domesticated dogs are strikingly similar to young children in their ability to perceive and interpret human gestures, and they show this propensity from a few weeks of age,” Hare says. “Given our results with the New Guinea singing dogs, it now appears that ongoing human contact during dog domestication caused the unusual ability for reading human communicative signals to evolve in modern dog breeds.” Hare’s research is supported by the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society.