Dingoes May Get The Point
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