The effects of distance on pointing comprehension in shelter dogs

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Animal Cognition


The Object Choice Task is a methodology that has been increasingly popular for several decades and many strong claims have been made regarding the differential results between species. However, many studies use differing methodologies and individuals with systematically different backgrounds, which makes any comparisons suspect. One of the methodological differences that has been shown to result in differing responses is distance, both between the objects, and between the object and the gesture. Here, we systematically test these differences with a sample of shelter dogs and note the potential mechanisms underlying the results. Dogs were more successful if the objects were further apart (Distal Object) or the point was very close to the object (Proximal Cue). Success in both of these conditions can be most parsimoniously explained by mechanistic strategies, i.e. strategies that do not rely on mental representation or communicative mechanisms. We also note the results of some pilot data suggesting a non-communicative mechanism (body alignment through touch) by which shelter dogs and other animals may successfully respond when the objects and gestures are distant. We argue that the only point type that likely relies on communicative mechanisms is when the objects are close together, but the point is distant the condition in which dogs are least successful. Future research should take into consideration that individual dogs may use different strategies, or may switch between strategies, and note that all point-following is not necessarily indicative of communicative comprehension.


Psychological Science

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