Stray dogs may have a natural ability to understand human gestures

'Free-roaming dogs are capable of following pointing cues to locate food rewards'

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Stray dogs have the natural ability to understand human gestures, and respond to some cues better than the others, according to a study which may help improve our relationship with the canines.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, said free-roaming dogs, which have never lived with human companions, are capable of following pointing cues to locate food rewards.

For the first time, researchers, including those from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, tested 160 adult stray dogs across several Indian cities to understand the ability of the canines to follow complex human pointing gestures. 

In the study, the scientists placed two covered bowls on the ground -- one containing chicken, and another with just the scent of the food. 

Then a second experimenter, who didn't know which bowl had food, pointed at one of the bowls, the study said.

"In the initial experiment we would bend down and take the pointing finger very close to the bowl so that a dog could understand that we're trying to point to that bowl. And there we had actually seen that only 50 per cent of the dogs could understand, perhaps because some of the dogs were apprehensive that the human is trying to attack them," study co-author Anindita Bhadra from IISER Kolkata told PTI.

She said the 50 per cent of dogs which approached the experimental set up comfortably were assessed further.

"In another case, while standing upright, I put my hand out, pointing at the bowl. This is distal pointing," Bhadra explained.

In distal pointing, she added, there are two kinds. 

"One is dynamic pointing, where I put my hand out with one finger pointing, and continued to hold it for a minute. And the other one is called momentary distal pointing, in which I point just for a couple of seconds, and then I stand straight and don't give the dog any cues," she explained.  

In both dynamic and momentary pointing, the study noted that about 80 per cent of the dogs, which could approach the experimental set up, were able to follow the cues and get the food reward.

Based on the experiment, Bhadra and her team, believe that stray dogs knew where to look when a person points to an object, suggesting that their ability to pick up cues from humans could be a natural trait.

The researchers speculate that stray dogs pick some gestures, and don't follow some, perhaps due to the typical way in which people in India provide food to free-roaming dogs.

"While this has not been extensively tested, it is likely that dogs are more accustomed to humans throwing a piece of food away from themselves as a response to begging, or to a human dropping food on the ground and moving away," the researchers wrote in the study.

"However, though the proximal pointing cue is considered to be a simpler cue to follow from a completely anthropomorphic perspective to an untrained dog, this might be a more difficult situation, with an unfamiliar human constantly pointing at the container, and thereby being in very close proximity to the food source," they noted.

In another finding, if a bowl pointed at was empty, the researchers said the adult dogs were less likely to follow the pointing cue again.

Based on these observations and earlier studies on canine behaviour, the researchers said, humans inadvertently play a role in shaping the personalities of stray dogs. 

Bhadra and her team suggest that the study may provide insights on how humans influence the behaviour of dogs on the streets, and help in better management of dog-human conflicts which commonly occur in India's urban areas.

The findings also solve important pieces of the puzzle of what made dogs special for human domestication thousands of years ago, the researchers said.