My dog Avon has a habit of losing treats by the simple expedient of dropping them on the ground, where they suddenly vanish from existence — as far as he is concerned. He then looks me straight in the face with an expression of immaculate incomprehension as I try to point out the lost morsel. Only when I get on my feet, pick it up and present it right to him does he seem to get the message.
Which is why I was quite surprised to learn that dogs are meant to be really good at interpreting human pointing. So either this shaggy invader in my house is not a dog or he is playing an elaborate joke on me — or one of us just isn’t good at playing their part in the ancient dance of dog domestication. I delved into the annals of research into “pointing for dogs” to see whether there was something fundamental about pointing for puppies that I had somehow failed to grasp.
Now on Avon’s side of the equation, he would have an excuse if he was less than 21 weeks old, which is apparently when dogs figure out pointing (it is nine months for human babies). However, Avon is 14 years old and has no such excuse. Or if he was a chimpanzee, who apparently don’t understand pointing (dolphin do, however). All of which is starting to wander a bit far afield from the point. So to speak.
Research by Krisztina Soproni and her team in 2002 provided me with some pointing tips to see if I can improve my end of the situation. They showed that you can’t point with a stick or with your upper arm; as far as dogs are concerned, only the human finger will do. And you should not bend your elbow, but you must point with a clear straight arm, using the arm closest to the object. I had no idea pointing had so many technical elements.
There was, in fact, enough confusion that pointing for dogs has been standardized, with three temporal and five spatial characteristics (basically whether you move your hand and how you hold it out from your body). It has also been shown that looking at the object also increases the chance that the dog will pick it. This might be considered cheating, but I take any advantage I can get.
The ability to follow a pointing gesture was once seen as part of domestication. But Monique Udell led research in a 2008 study (“Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues”) showing that wolves who are socialized with humans from an early age can follow a pointed finger, while many shelter dogs do not. So the critical element seems to be whether the animal knows and trusts the person who is giving the cue.
The main thing to understand about pointing is that wolves point out prey for each other using their gaze and nose — much in the same way that hunting dogs do. So the finger is basically a nose prosthesis for us poor humans, who are considerably lacking in the muzzle department.
I started off trying to understand why my dog can’t follow my pointing finger and now I am worried that he doesn’t love me?! I became more determined than ever to get my dog to understand when I was pointing at food. So with some trepidation, I went out onto the deck with bacon treats and two small cardboard boxes.
While Avon wasn’t looking I put one treat behind a box to my left and the other under the box and out of reach on my right. I called Avon and pointed straight out to my left while also remembering to look at the treat, rather than the dog. Magic! Avon went to the left. Sniffed around for a while and eventually he found the treat. Ten repetitions and Avon ends up with 8/10. I’ll take it.
As he sat on the deck digesting an unexpected bounty in bacon treats, Avon seemed to be thinking, Finally, after a full decade the woman has learned how to point properly. You can teach an old human new tricks!
About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).