They say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but what if it is a stray?


Scientists have examined whether the ability of man’s best friend to follow commands is innate or exclusively learned through training. A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests untrained stray dogs can understand human pointing gestures.

The study showed that about 80 per cent of participating dogs successfully followed pointing gestures to a specific location, despite having never received prior training.

Researchers said this suggests the animals can understand complex gestures by simply watching humans. They added that this could have implications in reducing conflict between stray dogs and humans.

Dr Anindita Bhadra, of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, India, and colleagues, studied stray dogs across several Indian cities. They approached 160 solitary stray dogs and placed two covered bowls on the ground near them.

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A researcher then pointed to one of the two bowls, either momentarily or repeatedly, and recorded whether the dog approached the indicated bowl. They also noted the perceived emotional state of the dogs during the experiment.

Approximately half of the animals did not approach either bowl, according to the study. Those who approached the bowls were noted as friendlier and less anxious, and about 80 per cent correctly followed the pointing signals to one of the bowls, regardless of whether the pointing was momentary or repeated.

This suggests that the four-legged creatures could decipher complex gestures, researchers said.

Reader Q&A: Why do dogs tilt their head when you speak to them?

Asked by: Toby Graham, Shrewsbury

A dog’s range of hearing is wider than ours but not as accurate. Perking their ears up while tilting their heads helps them pinpoint where noises are coming from more quickly. It also helps them to hear and interpret the tone of our voices, and pick out familiar words such as ‘walkies’.

Dog behaviour expert Dr Stanley Coren believes that dogs with shorter muzzles tilt their heads less because they have a better view of our facial expressions and are therefore not so reliant on their ears to understand us.

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Dr Bhadra said: “We thought it was quite amazing that the dogs could follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing. This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision. This shows their intelligence and adaptability.”

Scientists said their findings suggest that dogs may have an innate ability to understand certain human gestures which transcends training. However, they highlighted that the more shy, more anxious animals tended not to participate, so future studies are needed to determine more precisely how an individual dog’s personality affects their ability to understand human cues.

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Dogs were domesticated 10,000-15,000 years ago, possibly making them the oldest domesticated animals on the planet. Humans then started breeding dogs with the most desirable and useful traits, so they could function as companions and workers. This led to domesticated dogs that are highly receptive to human commands and gestures.


However, it was not clear whether dogs understand us through training alone, or whether this was innate.


Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.