Being ready to interact with people is something puppies are born with, new research shows: Up to 40 percent of a young dog's ability to communicate with us is genetic, even before any training or bonding has taken place.
In other words, the friendliness that young pups are known for is partly innate – though some start off better at it than others, based on their genes. The team behind the findings says their discovery could help in improving training for service dogs in the future.
The study involved 375 puppies with an average age of 8.5 weeks old. The canines were asked to complete a variety of standardized tasks designed to measure their responsiveness to human interaction and their willingness to cooperate.
"These are quite high numbers, much the same as estimates of the heritability of intelligence in our own species," says animal psychologist Emily Bray, from the University of Arizona, Tucson. "All these findings suggest that dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans."
Bray and her colleagues have spent a decade working with dogs at the service dog organization Canine Companions in the US, which gives them access to plenty of puppies together with their breeding history and pedigree record.
Using data from observations collected between 2017 and mid-2020, the team built a statistical model comparing genetic with environmental factors in the dogs they tested, while controlling for breed, sex, age and rearing location.
The young pups were most responsive when a handler looked at or pointed to a container hiding food – though the dogs only followed orders when the gaze or gesture was preceded by a social cue (the handler talking to the dog).
In another test, the puppies were shown to be keen to look at a handler while the person was talking, and to come forward for a pet. However, in an experiment with a sealed container holding food, the dogs looked less to their human companions, suggesting while they were good at responding to our cues, their ability to communicate in kind comes later in their development.
"We show that puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans," says Bray.
"For example, even before puppies have left their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer raisers, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the indicated location."
There's actually a growing amount of evidence that very young dogs share the same willingness to cooperate and communicate as human babies do, though scientists have yet to establish the genetic influences that might be behind this behavior.
Next, the researchers want to look for specific genes that influence sociability in puppies, which will require a genome-wide association study, the involvement of more types of dog, and following these canines over time rather than just analyzing their behavior at a single point in their development.
As well as helping in dog training, future discoveries could be informative in tracing the evolution and domestication of dogs – exactly when they started exhibiting these behaviors as they became a human's best friend.
"From a young age, dogs display human-like social skills, which have a strong genetic component, meaning these abilities have strong potential to undergo selection," says Bray.
"Our findings might therefore point to an important piece of the domestication story, in that animals with a propensity for communication with our own species might have been selected for in the wolf populations that gave rise to dogs."
The research has been published in Current Biology.