PLoS ONE has published papers before on the evolution and significance of gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication in humans and in primates but an article published last week, Márta Gácsi and colleagues in Hungary and Austria studied the differences in gesture comprehension between pet dogs and socialised wolves and explain how their findings may further our understanding of how gestures evolved among humans.
In the study, the authors tested the ability of hand-raised dogs and hand-raised wolves at three different ages (eight-week-olds, four-month-olds and adults) to respond pointing gestures made by the human experimenter. Two bowls were placed on the floor and some food would be dropped into one of them while the animal was held on a leash. The experimenter would then point to the bowl with the food in it and the animal was released and was allowed to eat the food if it went to the right bowl. The researchers found that at younger ages, the dogs and the wolf puppies did not differ greatly in their ability to follow simply forms of human pointing. Later in development, dogs outperform wolves in following distal forms of pointing but the wolves then catch up with the dogs as adults, which the authors suggest is because they have acquired certain behavioural traits, such as the ability to attend to human eyes and the “willingness to cooperate.”
The full scientific article, Explaining Dog Wolf Differences in Utilizing Human Pointing Gestures: Selection for Synergistic Shifts in the Development of Some Social Skills, is freely available online.
Although there are no photographic images as part of the paper, there are two supporting information movies, which are definitely worth a thousand woofs, if not a thousand words…. You can watch Movie S1 here, which illustrates the behaviour variables (latency of eye-contact, struggling, biting) and the behaviour of 8-week-old wolves in the proximal pointing trials.
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