Category Archives: Dogs

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.

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Filed under Dogs, Evolution