The Power of the Puppy

64_brussels_griffon_64This week, some dear friends of mine have entrusted their dog to my care, as they frolick at various county fairs in Iowa. I love dogs, but my career keeps me too busy to have one of my own. And although we share our little plot of land with a cantankerous old cat, my husband and I both yearn for our own furry BFF. So we jumped at the chance to foster Paprika* while our friends savor fried butter and play cornhole. *To protect the privacy of our canine and its owners, names have been changed.

During the course of the week, I’ve watched Paprika carefully to ensure that she’s happy and comfortable, and have devoured a healthy portion of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of information about puppy training and care both on the
internet and from the local SCPA (I take my fostering responsibilities seriously). But Paprika remains a mystery. I understand that she learns by association, that she’s mainly motivated by food, that she will be destructive only if she’s bored or anxious, and that she likes to know where her pack is even if we’re not paying attention to her. But, when she stares at me as though she can see the very depths of my naked soul and read my innermost thoughts, I am unnerved.

Dog-lovers that we are, my husband and I watched a fascinating
documentary on Nova about how humans have bred dogs to pick up on our social signals. Scientist that I am, I looked up the studies that were referenced in Dogs Decoded and learned that whereas non-human primates and domesticated dogs are very good at following a person’s gaze to get information about where a desirable object such as a treat might be, only dogs seem to recognize certain social signals such as pointing to, or tapping on a container on the first try. Non-human primates will get the point eventually, but it often takes them many trials. Domesticated dogs, the authors argue, have been specially-selected to read human social cues, and these skills are in their genes. Even young puppies, who had experienced little human interaction, outperformed their closest ancestors, a pack of wolves who had been reared by humans.

Not only do dogs outperform wolves and great apes, who are much more closely related to us genetically,. but they make the
same mistakes that human infants do; mistakes that more rational wolves easily avoid, a group of scientists in Germany have found. As most parents have discovered, infants up to ten-months old will look for a hidden object in its original hiding place even after they have seen it being moved to a new location. Psychologists call this behavior the perseverative search error and believe that the children are following the cues of the person hiding the object, rather than tracking the information that would lead to the correct answer. Dogs make the same mistake when the person who is doing the hiding visibly communicates with the dog. When the communicator stands passively next to the dog, and the dog sees the object moved from the first location to the second via invisible string, the dog accurately searches for the object in the new location. Wolves don’t care what you do: they will look for the object where it actually is. Dogs believe that pleasing their humans will lead to more rewards in the long run: wolves have much less faith in the good nature of our species.

Questioning just how ingrained these social skills are in dogs, a group of scientists in Florida published
evidence that under the right rearing conditions, wolves can outperform dogs who had limited human contact or were found in animal shelters on tests of picking up on human social cues. Just like humans, nature and nurture interact, ultimately, in the development of complex behavior. Yet another reason why training puppies properly early in life is so critical.

Once trained, do dogs simply follow pointing and commands without regard to the context? Paprika seems to have a mind of her own: all the gesturing in the world won’t get her off the wingback chair I just had re-upholstered unless there’s an awfully good chance that she will be compensated with the duck fat treats. Supporting this observation, the German group just published another
paper this July in which they demonstrate that dogs will only respond to pointing and other cues if they have experienced those gestures in the context of food. If pointing did not lead to food the last time they followed the gesture, they won’t bother the next time. The human’s tone of voice, which accompanies the pointing, matters too.

Admittedly, I feel like a fool when I address Paprika in my high-pitched
Motherese, particularly when I’m rewarding her for pooping promptly and precisely in front of an audience of rough-looking bikers who play trivia at our neighborhood pub. But, as she licks duck fat from my fingers, and looks up at me with those wise old brown eyes, I can see that she understands what I’m trying to say and I feel a little less alone in this vast universe.