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November 13, 2013

Do animals understand pointing like humans do?

I don't know the full heritage of my mutt from the pound, Buster Brown. Buster was listed as a "Lab mix" by the Humane Society, but my vet has said he is more of a German Shepherd mix. We all can agree he’s a mongrel – indeed, one or both of his parents may have been mutts themselves.

When he was young, there were a couple of occasions when Buster froze and seemed to point toward the wildlife we encountered as we ambled along the bottom of the Snake River canyon. It’s impressive when a young dog, full of wild amounts of energy, stops in his tracks and points. I don’t know how we bred that into some dogs, but it’s an impressive trick.

People, of course, are good at pointing. Babies learn to point to what they want quite early.

“If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard W. Byrne recently in The New York Times. Byrne is a biologist at the University of St. Andrews.

Most animals don’t seem to understand pointing. The matter is fairly easy to test: you can put food into one of two identical containers, set them in front of an animal, and point to the one with the food in it. If the animal checks the containers at random (with a 50-50 split between the buckets) then it isn’t getting the point of the pointing.

Understanding pointing apparently takes some sophistication. Even chimpanzees, who are smart cookies in many ways, don’t “get it” when it comes to pointing.

Buster might be pleased to know that domesticated dogs do well on the pointing test. That’s right, dogs do better than chimps – the closest relatives to us humans.

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