To The Point

Telling our dog where the ball is after we’ve thrown it and it is still standing there with its tongue hanging out, looking at us with adoring and expectant eyes like we had magical powers to conjure it back into our hand, is one of the joys of communing with animals. It is only equaled when the dog delivers it back, well chewed and slippery for us to throw it away again.

After a frustrating morning of such doggy responses when we have had to retrieve half the balls ourselves, we go home and explain to our next visitor that our pet understands every word we say. But what does our average dog think when you point and say fetch or seek? Scheider et al have set out to seek an answer to this big question or something close to it. They studied dogs responses to pointing gestures and the tone of instructions in looking for hidden treats.

Forty-eight dogs took part and were asked to find food in a room. The tester pointed to where there should be food and told the dog “there” either in a high pitch friendly voice or a deeper bossy voice. As a control dogs were told with no pointing.

Results? If dogs had found a treat in the room previously, they searched diligently in the direction of the pointing finger. If there was no pointing, they just looked and waited for the tester to get their act together. They also worked harder when the friendly voice was used – don’t we all.

The interesting control was that the dogs that hadn’t had treats in the test room, didn’t think too much about the pointing. They just looked at the mad scientist and waited for the little black van to come and collect them. Before a dog will go running off in the direction of a pointing finger, it expects to know why – don’t we all.

Of course, you have to be consistent. If it expects food and all it finds is a soggy ball, it may instigate the call for the little black van. A dog does after all have its expectations as well a sense of entitlement.


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