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Are dogs able to understand pointing? University study reveals the truth!

Dalmatian on black background licks its lips
© Pixabay

A 2012 study carried out by scientists at the University of Vienna looked at whether dogs can be directed just by pointing or whether subtle unseen signals are also at play.

By Nick Whittle , 21 Jan 2020

Teresa Schmidjell and her team set about to understand the effect of human pointing on a dog’s behaviour. She came up with two tests: 1) To test the theory that an owner's pointing would influence their dog's ability and 2) to find out whether their pointing is enhanced by other unseen ways.

In total 111 dogs of various breeds were examined of their response to being directed to food. Owners were both present and absent, and in some tests they were blindfolded. Taking part were Sheepdogs and Cattle dogs, Terriers, Retrievers, Companion and Toy dogs as well as some mixed breeds.

Study 1

Ms Schmidjell discovered that an owner's active belief in their dog's ability enhanced the results of the test, and that dogs do respond well to the human act of pointing. However, when owners were blindfolded and thus not able to appreciate when their dog had received a reward, the dog's ability slumped.

Schmidjell concluded that the dogs lost motivation when they did not receive an encouraging cue from their owner.

Study 2

In their second round of tests researchers wanted to find out whether subtle (even subconscious) owner actions influenced their dog’s ability to follow a pointing cue. Schmidjell discovered that to a large extent the success or otherwise of the test was determined by the closeness of the relationship between owner and dog.

About this she says, “The subconscious cues owners and dogs use are strongly influenced by the emotional aspects of their relationship.”

Clever Hans

The study was inspired by the results of tests carried out on a horse called Hans in 1907. Hans was apparently able to solve arithmetical problems posed to him by his handler. However, further analysis of the horse's ability showed that the handler, who was exceptionally close to Hans emotionally, was subconsciously giving him clues.

In her tests, Ms Schmidjell admits that her experiment was not complex enough to prove whether the same “Clever Hans” effect is seen of dogs or not. But she acknowledges that at the very least, “the pointing gesture seems to have a strong effect on the choice of dogs in an object-choice task. Pointing can lead the dogs to success without help from their owners.”