Missing the point?

July 21, 2010 at 11:08 am 6 comments

A recent blog post by Jesse Bering over at Scientific American caught my eye today. Bering looks at a study published by Monique Udell, Nicole Dorey and Clive Wynne earlier this year in the journal Animal Behavior. Udell et al. claim to have demonstrated that stray dogs think about human social behavior and intentions in a fundamentally different way than our pet dogs do.

Bering recently returned from a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria and writes that:

Stray dogs are about common as squirrels there, and from what I saw, most of Sofia’s human population also has about as much interest in strays as Americans in the suburbs have in the squirrels living in their backyards. A June, 2010 estimate placed the figures at around 9,500 dogs running loose in the Sofia confines. So when you’ve got that many animals—even man’s best friend—in a relatively small, concentrated city (not to mention one with its own human homeless problems in the form of the ostracized Romanian Roma, or “gypsies”), mass desensitization is sadly inevitable. But this human-dog indifference is even more striking because it appears to be mutual.

I watched incredulously as the Sofia strays ambled casually down the sidewalks like proper Bulgarian citizens. They stepped aside politely for human pedestrians before continuing on their way, stopped patiently to look both ways before loping across frantically organized, crowded freeways, mingled with one another at storefronts and had their mangy coats tousled by the whooshing tires of passing commercial trucks while in the midday heat they slept quietly in tree-shaded gutters mere inches from the road. Most of these animals are multigenerational strays, which means that they are the offspring of strays who were the offspring of strays and so on, and on, for many breeding generations. Natural selection must work quickly indeed under such conditions: these are the descendents of the craftiest ancestral dogs of yesteryear Sofia, those who survived puppyhood without being crushed by some juggernaut and who managed to live long enough to pass on their wily natures to their offspring. Too much reliance on humans or interest in human behavior may well be maladaptive to these dogs’ overall genetic interests within this selective context, given the situation. I love my dogs, Gulliver and Uma, and they’re pretty smart as far as dogs go. But they wouldn’t last two minutes on the streets of Sofia.

The ability to read and correctly interpret human behavior is a vital skill if you’re a stray dog who wants to survive in an urban environment. The hordes of people who surround him are boon and a threat at the same time. A stray dog has to be able to judge whether a strange human’s intent is aggressive or benign in a nanosecond.

But while domestic dogs have been the focus of several studies on social cognition, feral dogs remain a resource for information that’s rarely been mined. Until recently, that is.

I wasn’t able to pull up a free copy of Udell et al.’s study and I’m too cheap to buy one, but Bering writes that:

Udell and her group in Florida, however, say that these impressive social cognitive abilities in dogs may not represent the “default” canine cognitive system. In their review of this literature on dog social cognition, the authors point out that:

The currently available data suggest that populations of dogs differing in [breeding] and in environmental and lifetime pressures might display different behavioral responses to the actions of humans. Despite this fact, the great majority of subjects in studies of the origins of domestic dogs’ human-compatible social cognition have been pet dogs living in human homes, with human-oriented working dogs representing the remainder of the subject pool.

In other words, Udell and her coauthors’ contention is similar to arguments made by many researchers studying human psychological evolution—that our ability to make claims about “human nature” are seriously limited by the fact that the data upon which such claims are made are derived almost entirely from middleclass American undergraduate students between 18-22 years of age and recruited from a psychology department subject pool. She’s basically arguing that existing social cognition research on Canis lupus familiaris has largely neglected large demographic swells of the species and therefore does not necessarily paint an entirely accurate portrait of this species’ natural (default) psychological stance.

Comparing feral dogs to pet dogs is a lot like comparing undergraduates to middle-aged suburban housewives – but… I think Udell et al. made a bigger mistake if they extrapolated data collected from truly feral dogs living in shelter environments to those living free on the street or, for that matter, to dogs in general. Feral dogs in shelter environments are like early Native Americans forced into confinement camps. Trapped in an alien environment they have little or not control over, they won’t respond in a way that’s normal for them, much less the species in general. While they may be an interesting group to study, their behavior is not characteristic of the population at large.

We’ll get back to that point later. Meanwhile, back at the lab Udell et al. administered two different pointing comprehension tests to dogs at an animal shelter. The goal of the study was to assess the relative importance of a dog’s life experience in shaping his ability to understand human pointing gestures. The use and interpretation of pointing and other indicative gestures are important because they can tell us a lot about an animal’s higher cognitive abilities.

Index finger pointing is an innate skill in humans but it’s not the only way we send and receive directional and attentional cues. We also do it by shifting our gaze, turning our heads and re-orienting the position of our bodies. Dogs don’t have fingers so they may need to learn to interpret finger pointing gestures. I believe, however, that dogs do have some innate skills in using and understanding other types of pointing gestures.

And indeed there is strong evidence they do. Bering writes:

Several years ago, Duke University psychologist Brian Hare and his colleagues reported some striking evidence showing that domestic dogs performed above chance on a variety of human-guided selection tasks—including studies in which human experimenters pointed to different objects in the room. At the time, these data were interpreted as showing that dogs have human-like social cognition allowing them to understand cooperative intent in humans. In fact, whereas tame wolves fail to score above chance in such studies, domestic dogs even outperform chimpanzees on similar pointing tests, suggesting that we may have more in common psychologically with dogs than with species for which we’re taxonomically (much) more closely related. This prompted Hare to argue that the co-evolution of humans and the domestic dog had created in the latter a genuine ability to reason about human mental states.

Some of our human understanding of pointing gestures develops over time. In very young children (babies and toddlers) pointing is used primarily as a request. These kinds of declarative pointing gestures are the human equivalent of what I refer to as the “That! That!” point in my dogs. It’s the nose and gaze aimed with laser beam intensity at an object of desire that is literally or culturally out of a dog’s reach. In a declarative point a dog will stare fixedly at the object for long periods of time. If the dog thinks his dimwit owner has missed (or is ignoring) the gesture, he may turn and give her a brief inquisitive (please?) or cross (hey dimwit, over HERE!) look before returning his attention to the object.

As a human child matures she will start to use pointing gestures to guide your attention to things she thinks you may find interesting.  The indicative or “Hey, look at That” point is seen as a sign of an increased cognitive maturity in a child because its use indicates that the child is able to understand when others are and are not aware of something. That she has developed a theory of mind.

I believe that dogs (at least some of them) use indicative pointing gestures too. When Audie notices that one of our hens has escaped the back yard fence he’ll run to me with a very alert posture and work to catch my eye while stepping, dancing or making short darts to and then away from me. This “Timmy’s in the well!” attitude contrasts sharply with the still, fixated postures characteristic of a dog’s declarative pointing gestures.

Once he gets my attention Audie will lead me to the place where he found the lost hen (or dead raccoon or some other Thing of Vital Import) and use animated body postures combined with quick back and forth glances to direct my attention appropriately. The ability to use indicative and declarative gestures would imply that dogs have some ability to understand them as well.

Udell et al. wondered whether or not this ability to understand human pointing gestures is innate in dogs. Their thesis was that if stray dogs performed as well as pet dogs on pointing tests it would indicate the ability is innate. If they did not, some form of experiential learning is required to develop the skill.

Bering writes:

The most significant findings from Udell’s studies were these. Although the strays performed above chance when the experimenter was kneeling on the floor and the tip of the experimenter’s finger was rigidly held 10 cm from the target can, unlike the domestic dogs in prior studies these strays failed to respond correctly to the pointing gesture when such an obvious physical cue was removed. On pointing trials in which the experimenter’s finger was 50 cm from the closest edge of the target container at full extension and then her arm was retracted back to a neutral position before the subject was allowed to make a choice, the strays’ performance fell to chance levels. This distinction is critical for the debate over whether domestic dogs have some semblance of theory of mind, because in the first instance at least, dogs may be using a simple behavioral heuristic such as “pick-the-box-closest-to-the-hand” that does not require human-like social cognition in which they are inferring cooperative intent.

The data shows that the shelter dogs tested displayed inferior skills at interpreting two basic human indicative pointing gestures. This would appear to indicate that there is at least some learned component involved in dogs’ abilities to interpret pointing gestures.

In an article titled “Ontogeny’s impacts on human-dog communication” Clive Wynne, Monique Udell and Katherine Lord discuss how they studied 6 to 24 week old puppies’ skills at interpreting three different human pointing gestures. They report that “In each case, the oldest dogs performed better on each point type than the youngest dogs.”

This provides additional evidence that these skills have an acquired component – but… a study strikingly similar to Wynne et al’s conducted by Tanya Behne, Malinda Carpenter and Michael Tomasello on human toddlers in 2005 produced, well…  strikingly similar results. So it appears that we need to learn these skills too.

Udell et al. chose to study stray dogs from American shelters because they were interested in testing a population of dogs who hadn’t had a chance to learn human gestures in a home environment. But Wynne et al.’s work indicates that even spending a few months or even weeks in the company of humans who use pointing gestures meaningfully with them provides puppies with enough exposure to significantly improve their ability to understand these gestures. This leads me to wonder whether the dogs in Udell et al.’s study performed poorly because they were feral – or because there were in a highly stressful shelter environment. (Or maybe just because no human had ever communicated meaningfully with them before.)

Do feral dogs lack the ability to correctly interpret human body language? Perhaps those living in rural areas do, but when I watched the video of stray dogs at large on the streets of Moscow below, the first thing I noticed was how effortlessly they interpreted subtle cues from the people around them.

I also thought it was interesting (and a little depressing) that they displayed far better manners than most pet dogs do.

I think it would be a lot more interesting to test feral dogs at large in their natural environment using different kinds of indicative gestures. Finger pointing, gaze, head / facial orientation and body orientation gestures are used by humans (and dogs) to signal location and intent. Feral dogs need to be brilliant students of human behavior and intent to survive in urban environments and I wouldn’t be surprised if they performed significantly better than pet dogs at interpreting subtle cues – when tested in their natural environment.

It would also be interesting to study how being in the stressful environment of a shelter affects dogs’ performance at these kinds of tasks. The poor performance of the dogs in Udell et al.’s study may have been related more to the stressful environment they were tested in than their level of skill. If this is true it has important implications for shelter dog testing.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, science. Tags: , .

Defying the laws of behavioral physics A breath of not-so-fresh air

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. SmartDogs  |  July 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    I didn’t get into this in my post but – Heather, you may want to chime in here on how this relates to the behaviors you saw in the ONB dogs. I think there are some really interesting connections.

  • 2. LabRat  |  July 21, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Maybe what needs to be acquired is not so much an ability to interpret indicative gestures, but a suspicion that humans are intelligent and may be gesturing in meaningful ways.

  • 3. Viatecio  |  July 21, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Check your email for the full study.

  • 4. H. Houlahan  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I think the ONB dogs, who we have been characterizing as effectively feral, are a fascinating case study in a war between genetic programming and experience.

    The more I see, reflect, and compare to true ferals, the more their behavior tells me about what kind of lives they had before Dec. 2008, as well as the incredible strength of genetic selection for cooperative partnership with humans. The level of fear was significantly beyond that consistent with “lack of socialization” or even “never been touched.” Captive adult coyotes are less fearful of humans. Highly-trained working dogs are less expressive and attuned to humans. A paradox.

    Briefly, these English shepherd puppymill/hoarder survivors were by far the most fearful group of dogs I’ve ever encountered — default of flight or freeze on almost all of them. After living eight months as criminal evidence, with mostly good care from volunteers, but not enough humans to go around, they were also the most intensely communicative and observant animals of any species I’ve ever encountered.

    Their dog language amongst themselves was the clearest, purest, and most expressive I’ve ever seen. Although they were mostly afraid of me and my partner, they were also intensely attuned to us, constantly communicating, and often visibly relieved and encouraged when we acknowledged and responded to those communications. As a group, they were looking to make connections with human beings, and wanted to bond with a credible leader. This could be almost compulsive — a dog might be entirely convinced that we were most likely going to eat her in the morning, but still have a powerful desire to follow us two strangers, even showing discomfort if the three of us didn’t move as a “pack.” Intense eye contact was the rule; I received more minutes of communicative eye contact from a typical one of these dogs in our brief evaluations than I have from the perfectly-normal, friendly, and well-mannered Labrador who has been living with me for the past month.

    I do not think that the ONB dogs would have responded like a normal pet or working dog, or even a laboratory beagle, to tests in which a human gesture was related to a “thing” that the dog was presumed to want. I don’t think they would have responded at all, unless to worry that the human might attack in defense of the resource. “Stuff a dog wants” is presumptuous; at the top of that hierarchy is “to feel safe” — this will take precedence over even food for a starving animal. (Many of these dogs took months of foster care before they would eat in the presence of a human.)

    The signals to which the ONB dogs responded positively were human analogues to canine calming and safety signals, and subtle leadership rituals. The had little to no tolerance for thoughtless human paralanguage.

  • 5. cassie  |  July 22, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    How interesting. Will take this article home and study it some more!

  • 6. elliot  |  July 25, 2010 at 10:30 am

    A too-sanitized look at stray dog aggression, I think. As opposed to the WSJ video you embedded look at this one from 2008 which reports that 27,000 Muscovites were bitten the previous year amidst increasing stray dog attacks.

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