When did dogs figure out pointing?

In “Transposition,” a sermon delivered during World War II and published in 1949 in Transposition and Other Addresses, C. S. Lewis refers to dogs’ inability to understand pointing.

You will have noticed that dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you will no doubt find this a rather extraordinary thing to say. Dogs obviously understand pointing, even without any training, and it’s quite common to train dogs to respond to pointing as a command (for example, pointing to a doorway to tell the dog to go into the room indicated). No dog I’ve ever met would waste time sniffing my finger when I’d just pointed out a bit of food it could eat. Cats, yes, but certainly not dogs.

However, Lewis had already had no fewer than six dogs by the time “Transposition” was published (details here), so it’s hard to dismiss what he says about them. This isn’t Pliny the Elder we’re dealing with, reporting hearsay about animals he’d had no personal contact with. Lewis knew dogs well and must surely have known from direct experience how they respond to pointing.

Is it possible that Lewis was right, and that dogs have changed in the half-century since he wrote?

We know that dogs’ ability to understand pointing is a relatively recent evolutionary development. According to dog expert Stanley Coren (as quoted in a 2009 Bloomberg article), domestic dogs understand pointing but their wild conspecifics do not.

“Suppose I point at something — the dog recognizes that I’m indicating something in that direction and looks,” Coren said, referring to a 2004 experiment carried out by Harvard anthropologist Brian Hare, which focused on the increase in dog IQ from domestication. “They do this even if they’re eight to ten weeks old, whereas a wolf, reared since puppyhood in a human environment, would look at my hand,” explained Coren.

Is it possible that the change Coren alludes to could have happened within living memory, sometime after the Second World War? It would be interesting to comb old books for references to dogs’ understanding or not understanding pointing and try to infer when the change took place.

I suppose it’s also possible that geography is a factor. Perhaps the North American dogs studied by Hare and Coren have abilities which English dogs do not. (Iain McGilchrist, a Scot, also refers to dogs’ ability to understand pointing, but he seems to be drawing on the same American research as Coren, not on his own experience.) Most of my own experience with dogs has been in America, but I often see stray Taiwan Tugous (a local breed far removed from anything in Europe or America) and should be able to test their responsiveness to pointing.

If you have any direct experience with dogs and pointing, or if you know of any references to it in books, please leave a comment.


Filed under Dogs, Evolution

8 responses to “When did dogs figure out pointing?

  1. I seem to recall our own dogs (no geniuses I know) looking to the finger, not the direction indicated. I’m guessing from your writing this post you remember that differently… in general, I have learned to defer to other’s memories as mine tend not to align as precisely with written records as I would like.

    I would not be at all surprised to discover dogs react quite well to the act of pointing (the motion of extending an arm) but not the state of pointing (the physical layout of the hand and arm). This would also provide a partial explanation for a cat/dog disparity: dogs are inclined to chase, looking toward the future location, where cats are inclined to pounce, following the current location. It might also speak to wolves, for whom an appendage is too small to chase. But this is mere speculation, I having virtually no interaction with pets at the present time.

    I do seem to recall cats and dogs alike being sensitive to the pointing of one another’s faces; but perhaps that was a faulty interpretation of groups reacting to shared directional stimuli.

  2. Although i like cats more than dogs, i may be willing to concede that cats in this respect are ‘less responsive’ to this particular kind of interaction !
    – –
    The Explanation that i would think is more applicable is that The Individual dogs that Lewis has owned are just ‘dumb’. It may be that he’s attracted to dumb dogs and finds them more endearing ( ? )
    – –
    i knew a very small dachshund a few years ago that not only understood pointing, but learned a trick just from explaining it to her and pointing to the things that i wanted her to interact with. The trick was that in the front yard, there was a small gap under the fence along one side, too small for her to easily get through, without some effort on her part, So i showed her the spot and then told her to get the ball that i threw over the fence. Dogs are certainly able to follow the path of a Ball, and in this case ‘Minnie’ had to follow it out of her line of sight, then crawl under the fence to get it. ( The fence was made of wooden planks, fitted edge to edge ) After getting the ball, she then returned to the gate, which i opened and let her in.
    – –
    This brings up another pet peeve of mine, and that is; People that own dogs that immediately run away if you take them off their leash or inadvertently leave the door open. ( Stupid Dogs ! )
    – –
    And : While i find it curiously annoying that many animal behaviorists and lay people attribute a very specific intelligence or fixed behaviour in any given Breed of Dog, It is interesting that certain dogs DO reliably exhibit some specific Behaviour for that breed.
    If this is true, How unreasonable is to believe that Eskimos really are more promiscuous than Swedes ?

  3. Craig

    The possibility immediately occurs that some breeds of dogs understand pointing — the pointers are the obvious place to start, what with the name — and others do not. You can breed amazingly specific behaviors into dogs; I would expect this to be another example.

    A good check would be what kind of dogs Lewis had, and then what the breed books say about them.

  4. You’re probably right, Craig. My own dogs certainly understood pointing — but they were pointer/Labrador mixes.

    Of Lewis’s eight dogs, one was an Irish terrier and another was a boxer. (However, he didn’t own the boxer until after he had written the “dogs don’t understand pointing” essay.) As for the other six, I haven’t been able to find any information.

  5. ann

    I don’t think my lab is very bright at all….BUT he does get pointing. You point, he runs to where you are pointing and sniffs as it usually means i’ve dropped something tasty there or at least he thinks it is tasty. I don’t think it is IQ related however.

  6. Since posting this, I’ve experimented with several stray Taiwan Tugous (Formosan Mountain Dogs); so far, none of them have shown any signs of understanding pointing.

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