Why Do Dogs Understand Pointing

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Introduction

Dogs have worked their way into our lives and in so doing have become great communicators. Dogs, in tests with chimps and wolves, came out on top when the art of following finger pointing was being tested. This goes to show that dogs can understand a higher order of communication and follow commands that involve finger pointing. Tests were carried out requiring them to find a treat hidden under a cup. They had to find the treat by following the eye movements and finger pointing action of the person testing them. Dogs responded well to the cues and were happily rewarded with the treat. Chimps did not see the reason for looking where someone was pointing and wolves were not able to follow the commands either. It was interesting to note that even young canine pups were able to follow the pointing finger and figure out there was a treat in store. Dogs, through their evolutionary process, are predisposed to learn how to respond to humans and follow their cues. Pointing and following instructions in response to their owners shows dogs have superior communication skills.

The Root of the Behavior

Pointing is a basic human form of communication and one of the earliest mannerisms learned by young children. A baby points and makes a few guttural sounds, and mom or dad fetches something for the baby. The interesting thing is the pointing is not about the finger, it is about the direction of the finger-pointing. Dogs have learned to follow directions and look for the rest of the clue. When you communicate with your dog and point towards something, your dog follows the direction you are pointing towards. It could be a treat, a toy, or a ball to chase after. It could be food to eat after a sit, stay command or it could be an indicator of bedtime. Your dog understands that the pointed finger is not the object of interest, rather it is where the finger is pointing that is the place to investigate. 

Many dog owners know if they point to the open door and dismiss their dog with a command of "outside," dogs will reluctantly go outside. How did they know this? Basically, they follow the point, and their owner's eyes, while they pick up on the tone of voice. A stern voice sending them out or a voice encouraging them to come inside is part of the communication. The pointing draws attention to the idea that something is going on. Then your voice, together with the point, brings you and your dog into a shared attention state. Pointing is known as "Adaptive Specialized Learning," in other words dogs have managed to adapt their sensory skills to tune into the action of pointing. Dogs did better than all the other animals over various pointing exercises including a "momentary point." This form of pointing is when the pointer points and then lowers the pointing arm. The point is physically discontinued, but the dog still remembers the gesture and follows the point. The dogs in the experiment had continued to understand that the pointed finger, even though it had been lowered. had indicated the whereabouts of a treat. This shows that dogs are more in tune with human gestures and able to respond to advanced communication skills.

Encouraging the Behavior

The gesture of pointing and having your dog follow your point and respond to whatever you are indicating is a very important aspect of communication and leadership. When your dog follows the pointing gesture, he is really trusting your leadership and being guided by your act of indicating a direction. It may be your way of retrieving a ball or play item. In obedience and agility training, it may be your way of seeing a command through. Some breeds of dogs are more responsive to pointing gestures. Gun dogs and herding breeds or working dogs are great dogs out in the field and follow physical commands as part of their training. The gun dog and hunting breeds have been trained to point. The tables are turned as the dog points and the owner follows the point. This is a specialized characteristic of certain gun dogs and breeds that have the innate ability to "stand at point" and show where the hunter should shoot or flush out the birds. The pointing is done with the dog’s nose while the tail is erect. The pose is finished off with a front leg held up off the ground. Dogs have been trained to point out drugs and sniff out all kinds of unwanted imports at airports. Pointing and sniffing out undesirables is a great way to use dogs and their strong sense of smell and their training to point.

Other Solutions and Considerations

You may be tempted to ask what the "point" of all this pointing is about. The point is all about communication and the fact that dogs, over 10,000 years of evolution, have learned to understand human commands and communication. Dogs pay attention to our gestures and want to please us by being part of our lives. Watching and learning how to interact with us is the underlying link between ourselves and our dogs. It is this understanding that sets man and dog apart from other animals. The bond between man and his dog is far greater than just finding a pet waiting for you when you get home. Dogs have evolved into our seeing, hearing, and understanding companions. Following your finger pointing, for whatever reason, is yet another sign of their devotion and desire to be people pleasers.

Conclusion

Your dog is always trying to show you that he is your number one fan. You point, he follows. Training a dog and getting to understand how he responds to you is a great way to become closer to your canine friend. However, expecting him to be nearly human is not the only point says American author Edward Hoagland. “The point is to open one’s self to the possibility of becoming partly a dog!” he says, because communication and understanding your dog is the key to a great relationship with man’s best friend.