Two recent studies, the first by Gabriella Lakatos a researcher in the Department of Ethology at Eotvos University, compared a 2-year-old child’s capacity to understand human pointing gestures with a dog’s.
The results show dogs had zero learning time to figure out the visual communication. The study goes on to claim that due to domestication dogs appear predisposed to read other human visual signals.
For her study on dogs and kids, Lakatos and her colleagues used a combination of finger-, elbow-, leg- and knee-pointing gestures to help dogs locate hidden food and, for children, a favorite toy.
Two-year-olds and dogs understood everything except knee-pointing and when the experimenter’s index finger pointed in a different direction than the protruding arm. For example, they were confused when the individual raised an arm in a certain direction, but used her finger to point the other way.
Human 3-year-olds, on the other hand, aced all of the tests.
Lakatos said that “in human children between the age of two and three years, important changes take place that go beyond the capacities of dogs.” Many of these changes have to do with development of language skills.
“The ability to generalize in children makes the precision of gesturing by the adult less important,” she added. “Children may have a more complex ability to realize the intention behind the pointing gesture.”
When gesturing to a dog or child under 3, it’s therefore best not to fidget or otherwise move in confusing ways.
“Our results show that dogs can understand the pointing gesture if a body part protrudes from the body silhouette,” Lakatos said.
Lakatos does go on to caution pet owners not to think that because there are some similarities between the two that dogs are furry children. Each case which involves similar performance needs to be evaluated on an individual basis.