Dingoes May Get The Point

December 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm 5 comments

But they don’t see what you mean…

In September of this year Animal Cognition published a study on how the dingo’s ability to understand human gestural cues compares to the skills of domestic dogs and wolves. A poster summarizing the study is available at this link.

In a nutshell, Smith and Litchfield state that others have demonstrated that domestic dogs are very good at correctly interpreting a wide range of human gestural cues.  Dogs are far better at these kinds of tasks than apes or wild wolves.  Human-raised wolves perform better than wild wolves, but not nearly as well as dogs.

This led many to wonder if dogs acquired their unique ability to understand humans during the process of domestication.

Dingoes evolved from village dogs, but they’ve lived as a separate, free-ranging species for 3500–5000 years.  Smith and Litchfield believed that the dingo’s unique evolutionary heritage could make them an interesting subject to assess the potential effect of domestication on human-canine communication.  So they tested seven tame, captive dingoes to see how their performance on a series of nine object choice exercises would compare to that of dogs, wild wolves and human-raised wolves.

Generally speaking, the dingoes did better than wolves, but not as well as dogs.  The gaze cue tests provided some of the most interesting results, dogs consistently excel at interpreting human gaze cues.  Dingoes apparently don’t.  

I didn’t have access to the full text of the study, but I think it would be interesting to see how the tabulated results compared to similar work that’s been done with apes; and with domestic versus wild wolves.

Smith and Litchfield’s work appears to support the idea that domestic dogs acquired their unique ability to understand human gestural cues during the process of domestication.  The fact that gaze is the first area where these skills appear to have deteriorated may reflect that this was a skill that developed later — or it may just be that since wild dingoes generally avoid close contact with humans, they no longer needed these skills so they were no longer selected for in the dingo gene pool.  Maintaining the ability to interpret hand, arm and body gestures (which, unlike gaze cues, are visible at a distance) may still provide advantages to dingoes in avoiding danger from humans and to scavenge food from them.

Zip, who is not a dingo, meets and follows my gaze

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. H. Houlahan  |  December 14, 2009 at 7:35 am

    She is a dingo, and she ate my baby!

    I think claims about the natural history of dingos that classify them simplistically as “wild” are starting from a highly questionable premise — one that can disturbingly mirror versions of Australian aborigines as “savages” and lacking culture. Ditto for a version of dingo/aborigine that sees them as degenerated forms.

    I wonder if, for example, one wouldn’t see more differences in the tested forms of cognition between” modern” dog breeds than between many of those breeds and dingos — or, for that matter, wolves.

  • 2. retrieverman  |  December 16, 2009 at 12:59 am

    If you really want to skew these studies use only herding and gun dog breeds and their derivatives.

    ***

    Dingoes are domestic dogs that have returned to the wolfish form. They hunt in packs. They howl. But their ancestors most likely barked and had features we associate with domestic dogs.

    The dingo isn’t that much different from the Arabian wolf in size, appearance, and behavior.

  • 3. LabRat  |  December 17, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    What I really want to know is exactly what trait selection is enforcing. “Ability to read human body language” seems an unlikely selectable “trait” in a carnivore as “ability to ride a bicycle” would be for humans.

    Have studies been done to see if dogs are any better at reading each other than wolves and dingoes are? What about how subtle and complex their body language, vocalizations, and intra-pack relationships are compared to wild canines? Are dogs just more socially sophisticated in general?

  • 4. retrieverman  |  December 17, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    The studies I have seen suggest that dogs are actually a bit inferior at reading each other than wolves. (It’s all in Vilmos Csanyi’s book If Dogs Could Talk).

    The studies I’ve seen from Brian Hare’s group at the Max Planck Institute suggest it may simple be breeding animals that aren’t afraid of people.

    The tame silver foxes from Siberia (The Belyaev fox experiment) animals were found to be as good as dogs are at reading human body language.

    However, I’ve seen other studies that suggest that herding breeds and gun dogs (including poodles) are better at reading people than other breeds.

    I wish I had the citations on all of these studies. I you would send me an e-mail, I can find them and send them along.

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  December 19, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    I don’t have any scientific studies to cite (though damn it, now I’m going to have to look) but – in the last year several of us have been working with a largish (n>200) number of feral and semi-feral English Shepherds. If the ability to read human body language is a learned trait, I think that one would expect these dogs to have very poor skills in this area.

    But – instead of having impoverished skills at reading people these dogs are hyper-tuned to it. So much so that in early taming and training work one must “speak” to them in a very subtle and very accurate way or they react wildly.

    I also think that your bicycle analogy fails in that learing to use a complex tool, like a bicycle (as opposed so, say, a stick), is an utterly artificial trait. Correctly interpreting and responding to communication signals, even from non-conspecifics, is not — and I think there are many examples of this in the animal world. For example the sheep, cattle and herding dogs I’ve worked with certainly seem to have an innate ability to read many aspects of each other’s body language. I can not remember details or cites, but I’m sure I’ve read about prey animals in Africa that can tell whether a lion is stalking them or relaxing with a full belly.

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