09 February 2012

Dogs Understand Better Than Chimpanzees When Humans Point To Something

A study published in the online journal PLoS One reveals that dogs are better then chimpanzees at interpreting pointing gestures. When someone points at an object, the dog knows what it means better than a chimp.

Research has shown that dogs understand pointing gestures in the same capacity as that of a two year old child. It is likeley that dogs' skills with human communication are part of their evolutionary adaptation to life with humans. This is also supported by the fact that untrained wolves perform poorly. Dogs develop this skill earlier and need no specific training in order to follow pointing

Chimpanzees on the other hand failed in the object-task experiments of the study.

The problem is not that chimpanzees do not follow the gaze direction of humans to outside targets; they do do this. If that target is food, then they may go and fetch it. However, in the socalled object choice task in which the food is hidden, the situation is different. Here the human points to one of several opaque containers. In this situation the subject must not only locate the target but also infer why the pointer is directing attention to the container, which in itself is uninteresting. Human infants as young as 14 months are successful in this task

Video: Comprehension of Pointing Gestures With Dogs Compared to Children

The abstract of the study, Dogs (Canis familiaris), but Not Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Understand Imperative Pointing, states that:

"The Chimpanzees routinely follow the gaze of humans to outside targets. But in most other studies using object choice, they fail to use communicative gestures (e.g. pointing) to find hidden food. Chimpanzees’ failure to do this may be due to several difficulties with this paradigm. They may, for example, misinterpret the gesture as referring to the opaque cup instead of the hidden food. Or perhaps they do not understand informative communicative intentions. In contrast, dogs seem to be skilful in using human communicative cues in the context of finding food, but as of yet there is not much data showing whether they also use pointing in the context of finding non-food objects. Here we directly compare chimpanzees’ (N = 20) and dogs’ (N = 32) skills in using a communicative gesture directed at a visible object out of reach of the human but within reach of the subject. Pairs of objects were placed in view of and behind the subjects. The task was to retrieve the object the experimenter wanted. To indicate which one she desired, the experimenter pointed imperatively to it and directly rewarded the subject for handing over the correct one. While dogs performed well on this task, chimpanzees failed to identify the referent. Implications for great apes’ and dogs’ understanding of human communicative intentions are discussed..."

Katharina Kirchhofer, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, led a team in the investigation of 20 chimps and 32 dogs presented with the same task: retrieving an object the experimenter wanted, as indicated by the experimenter pointing. The researchers found that the dogs performed well, but the chimps failed to identify the object of interest. These results emphasize the difference in chimp response to human gaze, which they have been shown to be good at following, versus gestures.

"The fact that chimpanzees do not understand communicative intentions of others, suggests that this may be a uniquely human form of communication. The dogs however challenge this hypothesis. We therefore need to study in more detail the mechanisms behind dogs' understanding of human forms of communication", says Dr. Kirchhofer.


Dogs (Canis familiaris), but Not Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Understand Imperative Pointing
Public Library of Science
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
New Eye Scan Data Uncovers How Menus are Read
Dogs Know When We Want To Talk To Them
How Our Brains Keep Us Focused
Words About Size and Shape Help Promote Spatial Skills in Children