Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dogs And 2-Year-Olds Share A Limited Ability To Understand Adult Pointing Gestures

Does your dog or your toddlers get the point?

When humans started to domesticate dogs, the animals became predisposed to read human behaviour and their diverse communication signals, including pointing, head turning and gazing.

Talking Dogs
Some would go as far as to say that they understand ever word they say but that's not the case. They are simply very good at reading the tone of your voice and your body language.

Furthermore, the dogs' home is often shared by babies, toddlers and small humans. So, the question is, are there similarities in the social stimulation and understanding of both young children and dogs.

Dogs and Toddlers
The researchers carried out two studies in which they compared the performance of adult dogs and 2- and 3-year-old toddlers, this is the period of human development during which children and dogs respond in similar ways.

They investigated whether dogs and toddlers are able to understand the difference between familiar pointing gestures and unfamiliar ones. Also, whether they understood that the unfamiliar pointing actions were actually directional signals.

Places everyone
A total of fifteen dogs, thirteen 2-year-olds and eleven 3-year-old children took part in the two studies.

First Study
In the first study, the researchers used a combination of finger and elbow pointing gestures to help dogs locate hidden food and children a favourite toy.

In Silhouette
They found that dogs focused on, and choose a direction for the reward, based on a protruding body part. The part selected by the dog was seen as protruding from the adult's silhouette, and the dogs did this even when the index finger was pointing in a different direction.

The Toddlers' Turn
Similar to the dogs, the 2-year-olds did not understand the significance of the pointing index finger, when it did not protrude from the adult's silhouette. In each of these cases, the elbow was protruded in the opposite direction.

In contrast, the 3-year-olds focussed on the adults' finger pointing and responded successfully to all gestures made by the adults.

The Second Study
In the second study, the researchers used unfamiliar pointing gestures with a combination of finger, leg and knee pointing. All children and the dogs understood the leg-pointing gestures but only 3-year-olds successfully responded to pointing with the knee.

The authors conclude that protruding body parts provide the main cue for deducing direction for 2-year-old children and dogs. Clearly, by the age of 3 the child is more developed, is not focusing on the adult's silhouette and responds more appropriately to the pointing gestures.

The similar performance of the dogs and 2 year-olds can be explained by near parallels in their evolutionary history and their introduction and socialisation into an adult human environment.

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