Early-emerging and highly heritable sensitivity to human communication in dogs

Emily E. Bray, Gitanjali E. Gnanadesikan, Daniel J. Horschler, Kerinne M. Levy, Brenda S. Kennedy, Thomas R. Famula, Evan L. MacLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Human cognition is believed to be unique in part because of early-emerging social skills for cooperative communication.1 Comparative studies show that at 2.5 years old, children reason about the physical world similarly to other great apes, yet already possess cognitive skills for cooperative communication far exceeding those in our closest primate relatives.2,3 A growing body of research indicates that domestic dogs exhibit functional similarities to human children in their sensitivity to cooperative-communicative acts. From early in development, dogs flexibly respond to diverse forms of cooperative gestures.4,5 Like human children, dogs are sensitive to ostensive signals marking gestures as communicative, as well as contextual factors needed for inferences about these communicative acts.6–8 However, key questions about potential biological bases for these abilities remain untested. To investigate their developmental and genetic origins, we tested 375 8-week-old dog puppies on a battery of social-cognitive measures. We hypothesized that if dogs’ skills for cooperating with humans are biologically prepared, then they should emerge robustly in early development, not require extensive socialization or learning, and exhibit heritable variation. Puppies were highly skillful at using diverse human gestures, and we found no evidence that their performance required learning. Critically, over 40% of the variation in dogs’ point-following abilities and attention to human faces was attributable to genetic factors. Our results suggest that these social skills in dogs emerge early in development and are under strong genetic control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3132-3136.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 26 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • canine
  • cognition
  • communication
  • development
  • dog
  • domestication
  • evolution
  • genetics
  • heritability
  • social behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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