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Tests show dogs are almost
By Leigh Deighton, Elizabeth
February 16, 2004
IF YOU think your dog can read
your mind, you're right. Because pooches and people have kept
company for hundreds of generations, Canis familiaris is hard-wired
to pick up human social cues, a US anthropologist
Researchers found dogs have evolved an unusual
ability to read human gestures.
According to Brian Hare of
Harvard University, the insight will help trace the evolution of dogs,
and may help explain the origins of autism in people and
point towards possible therapies.
"The first diagnostic test
for autism is the inability to use social cues," he said. "Autists are
very poor at reading things like eye-gaze or pointing,
something called joint attention."
Not so your average mutt, he
says. "It looks like dogs evolved an unusual ability to read human
gestures and cues, and manipulate and predict human behaviour.
"They were selected to do that through domestication," Dr Hare
told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, meeting
in Seattle - and he has the evidence to prove it.
In the first
two of four studies, Dr Hare and colleagues in Germany and Hungary
found dogs are better at a test of their ability to interpret
social cues than even our primate cousins the chimpanzees, and the
dog's closest relation, the wolf.
In the test - based on one
developed to identify autistic infants - food is hidden beneath one of
two cups about a metre apart. The animal is then shown where the
food is by the experimenter, who looks or gestures at the right
"The wolves and the chimps didn't use the cues in
the task, but the dogs were awesome," Dr Hare said.
wolves and chimpanzees are not stupid, and dogs did not inherit their
skill from ancestral wolves. So Dr Hare next tested the possibility
that dogs learn their ability through "tremendous exposure to
He gave two groups of puppies nine to 20 weeks old
the same test. One group was raised by a family, while the other was
raised in a kennel with little human contact. The isolated puppies
performed just as well as dogs raised in a family, scotching the
Dr Hare says his latest research confirmed
his belief that human contact during domestication created
the selective pressure driving the evolution of this canine
The cup test was given to six New Guinea singing
dogs, a species related to the dingo and isolated from humans. The
six domestic dogs were near-perfect, but the singers failed. This
suggests that without human evolutionary pressure, the singing dog lost
its ability to read human minds.