When is it pointless to point for dogs? A new study has found that you can point all you like, but dogs under a certain age won't know what the heck you're doing.
The findings, accepted for publication in the journal Animal Behavior, suggest that the ability to understand pointing isn't just something we and other animals are born with, as had been previously theorized. It's a skill that seems to develop with age and experience.
For the study, Nicole Dorey and her team from the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida studied 36 puppies representing multiple breeds, such as German shepherds, collies, Dachshunds and yes, pointers.
"To determine the age at which
domestic dogs first show the ability to understand human pointing cues,
we tested puppies in their human caregivers' homes when the puppies
were 9–24 weeks old," Dorey and her team wrote. "We found little evidence that puppies younger than
21 weeks had the ability to follow human pointing gestures."
So don't expect your pup to fully understand your pointing until your pet is 21 weeks of age and older.
The findings are consistent with studies on other animals. When tested on their ability to understand human pointing, chimpanzees steadily improve from the age of 8 months to when they are three years old.
Children and dogs perform equally well on pointing studies when the kid participants are two years old and younger. Three-year-old children, however, do much better than dogs on such tests. It likely has to do with the emergence of certain language skills in young humans. Other studies indicate the part of the brain that handles visual cues also processes language.
Future studies on puppies that are younger than 21 weeks old will likely focus on what types and amounts of human interaction may affect their later understanding of human pointing gestures.
As for our understanding of dog gestures, it's hard not to miss the meaning of a dog point. Like a living arrow, they can use their entire body to direct our attention to something. In this case, the dog is pointing at a Bobwhite quail, which hopefully survived the encounter.