Um, Mike, I think my dogs can do that
September 11, 2009 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Wait... Is this article saying that other great apes don't understand what a pointed finger means?

That can't be right.
posted by 256 at 7:20 AM on September 11, 2009

They're saying that they don't understand it without training or intervention. Dogs seem to understand it 'natively'
posted by device55 at 7:23 AM on September 11, 2009

Babies don't even understand it, so I'm not surprised that other great apes don't. (Neither do cats [NOT CATIST])
posted by DU at 7:33 AM on September 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some dogs do this better than other dogs do. Compare my dad's German Short Haired Pointer (a bird dog) with my Wire Fox Terrier (a ... terrier). When the Pointer loses focus and needs direction, she'll stop and look back at Dad for a clue about where to go. When the Terrier loses focus, she tears off sideways after a shimmer in the shadows that might be a rat.
posted by notyou at 7:39 AM on September 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Bruno is a heckuva nice looking dog. They all are.

Some dogs are smarter than others, and the margin is pretty wide.
posted by Xoebe at 7:45 AM on September 11, 2009

I don't think I've ever been able to get our Corgi to follow a pointed finger. I'll give him a treat and parts will fall off and I'll try to point to them for him to get them but he just jumps around crazily until I have my finger actually on the bit of food and then he might eat it. I guess that might just be because our Corgi is very very excitable. (And he's named Einstein, of course.)
posted by kmz at 7:47 AM on September 11, 2009

Isn't the fact that dogs recognize the pointed finger without training indicative of the fact that there is little cognition going on? Shouldn't we just conclude that they have been hardwired, by breeding, to respond to gestures instinctively and not as a sign of generic intelligence?
posted by oddman at 7:53 AM on September 11, 2009

Oddman: If humans understand pointing "naively", does this indicate that we have little cognition going on?

If dogs naturally respond to similar cues as we do in similar ways, we could say that they have "our" sort of intelligence; and "our" intelligence is pretty much the model of intelligence in general.

At any rate, I hardly think that it proves dogs to be dumber than we previously thought.
posted by creasy boy at 7:59 AM on September 11, 2009

I thought it was especially cool that those tame Russian foxes (those barking, curly-tailed, spotted, drooping-eared foxes) understood the pointing finger, too.

(Nova on the Belyaev foxes. Extended video of a docile Belyaev fox begging for skritches and belly rubs. Extended video of an aggressive Belyaev fox not wanting any human around at all.)
posted by maudlin at 8:12 AM on September 11, 2009 [8 favorites]

Oh, right - the article. I got distracted by the link to Presidents and their dogs, especially Lyndon B. Johnson and Yuki.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2009

Some dogs do this better than other dogs do.

Totally. My Australian cattle dog gets the pointing thing and understands that I'm telling her to 'look over there'. My rat terrier typically sees a pointed finger and comes over to investigate if it has any food on it.

I know that rat terriers can be impressively smart, mine just isn't one of those kind.
posted by quin at 8:28 AM on September 11, 2009

maudlin, that is crazy awesome. Thanks for the links!
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:33 AM on September 11, 2009

This article is... not good.

Some people say that apes cannot understand a pointed finger. However, "pointed finger" is a bit of a misleading frame. Not all humans in the world have the same gesture that means what "pointed [index] finger" means. Some use the hand in other configurations, some facial gestures to convey the same meaning. Taking that into account, after viewing a video of an ape gesturing with a hand of curled fingers, I asked a primatologist if that wasn't equivalent to pointed fingers, and didn't it put the whole "apes don't point" thing into a bit of question. She agreed, based on decades of studying apes, that it was and it did. I would be surprised if there isn't a fair amount of dissent among primatologists about what "pointing" means and whether ape gestures are indications that they can or can't point. For example, maybe chimps have a harder time than dogs learning about pointing because they have an existing gesture with the same meaning. Perhaps what they are having difficulty with is learning multiple gestures with the same meaning, because existing cognitive structures get in the way. Or maybe there really is something to it. All that one can really tell from the article is that dogs are more able to learn specific reactions to human gestures than chimps are. And that is interesting on it's own, but it does not really translate into humans and canines being the only species that can comprehend pointing.

The writer says that there was a process that turned combative apes into cooperative humans . This is a rather extreme misrepresentation of apes that reduces the many, many different patterns of ape social organization and behaviour into a ridiculous dichotomy. Apes of all species (including humans) show both aggression and cooperation. Bonobos (pigmy chimpanzees) in particular have a very high level of co-operation among. Gorillas are not particularly combative within their social groups. Orangutans don't live in close-knit groups and are pretty territorial. Chimpanzees are known to have high aggression between groups, but they also have high levels of cooperation.

speed up dogs' social evolution.

AAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! Is it really too unsexy to say "breed for social behaviour"? You have to add to the misleading metaphor of evolution as a directed process with a knowable endpoint?

Our ape cousins are simply too distracted by their aggression and competitiveness to fathom gestures easily. Chimps can cooperate to get food that they can't get on their own, but if there's the slightest chance for them to fight over it, they will.

Apes and chimps are not interchangable! Chimps might cooperate and fight over food; bonobos have giant orgies when they find a loaded fruit tree and then share without aggression. Yeesh.

Co-species evolution is very interesting in its own right. I don't see why we have to have this overly simplistic frame of ape behaviour at all.
posted by carmen at 8:35 AM on September 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Note to self: Having a docile fox as a pet is probably not as good an idea as it seems right now.

look at his tail!
posted by device55 at 8:41 AM on September 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I imagine "Run away from the Frisbee" as being the dog equivalent of "purple monkey dishwasher" - they may understand the individual concepts, but to them the full statement is perplexing and meaningless.
posted by idiopath at 8:47 AM on September 11, 2009

carmen: "Not all humans in the world have the same gesture that means what "pointed [index] finger" means. Some use the hand in other configurations, some facial gestures to convey the same meaning."

from the first article: They're not limited to reading hands and fingers alone. Dogs understand what Hare means if he points with his foot or sets a piece of wood on top of a container with food inside. Even puppies understand, which means it can't be a skill they need to learn.

So the interesting thing is that regardless of how pointing is done, both humans and dogs grok pointing, no matter what gesture "pointing" is.

But yeah, agreed on the other stuff, typical science writing (well maybe just a little better than average, but the average is so very low).
posted by idiopath at 8:58 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by nanojath at 9:06 AM on September 11, 2009

Idiopath, that just makes it all the more disingenuous. Pointing is really a physical expression of gaze-communication, right? So, the article says that chimps can follow one-another's gaze, but then goes on and on about how dogs can understand pointing. The interesting thing isn't the pointing, it's the inter-species communication. Chimps "point" to each other. They don't get it when humans point to them. Dogs however, do get it when humans point to them. (Do dogs "point" to each other? The article seems to suggest not, but it would be interesting to know.)

So the crux of this research is not that dogs and humans are the only species that understand pointing (which I doubt, by useful definitions of pointing, is true), but that dogs and humans share certain points of communication that results (probably) from a sort of co-evolution (probably primarily through selective breeding).

Anyway, ya, criticizing science writing is probably pointless and annoying. But primatology is my second love (academically), and this just rankled.
posted by carmen at 9:38 AM on September 11, 2009

"If humans understand pointing "naively", does this indicate that we have little cognition going on?"

Well of course not, we might be hardwired for X while still needing to learn Y and so might dogs be. The mere fact that dogs don't need to be taught pointing isn't evidence that they have sub-par cognitive faculties. But then that wasn't my point.

My point was that there ability to respond to the gesture properly isn't evidence of cognition, because we are fairly sure that they arrived that the correct response without learning it. We achieved the same outcome (the correct response to a gesture) via different means. We have to learn what the gesture means, dogs don't. Thus a dog's correct response is not evidence of significant cognitive abilities.
posted by oddman at 9:43 AM on September 11, 2009

You know, he failed in his experiment. What about pointing with your toe? Or pointing with your whole foot in a shoe?

My Berner is smart enough to have learned to wipe his feet as he comes in the door. However, he doesn't get the whole pointing thing. You nearly have to move his nose to an object before he clues into what you're wanting. The Boxer is a totally different story. You make a general body movement in the direction of what you want and she's right there investigating. Finger point? Check. Toe point (cause I'm too damn lazy to bend over)? Check. Toe point while shoe is on? Check. Wipe her damn feet as she comes in from the rain? Not in a million years.

As a result, a piece of chicken that was under the little one's chair last night went to the Boxer. The Berner was closer and made multiple attempts to find the tidbit. But he kept looking at my hands which were occupied with pulling a toddler out of his chair. The Boxer finally came over and took the bit with an air of "I can't let this go to waste since hairy over there can't stop growing hair long enough to pick this up."
posted by onhazier at 10:31 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Both my dog (terrier) and my spouse (French Canadian) have responded to a pointed finger by looking at the finger.

I leave conclusions to others.

Sorry, dear.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:50 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hey Quin: See if you can teach your rat terrier and your Aussie how to play hide and go seek (sit and stay while you hide a toy; return, command "Get It!".)

I have a feeling your terrier will excel, perhaps topping the Aussie, since it plays to the terrier's natural ability -- solo search and destroy missions. While the Aussie is looking to you for tips on where to go, your terrier will be skittering here and there until he finds it.
posted by notyou at 10:54 AM on September 11, 2009

onhazier: "What about pointing with your toe? Or pointing with your whole foot in a shoe?"

I don't know the full deal with how the experiment was conducted, but the article explicitly mentions pointing with feet etc. I think some of this is more replying to some concept of "intelligence" as a linear variable. Dogs are overall dumber than apes, and I don't think anything in this article claims otherwise. They are well adapted to readily understand human body language (and also we are better at understanding their body language than that of many other animals, whether this is cultural or instinctive). Facility in a certain kind of communication is a metric of one aspect of intelligence, which is a nonlinear group of aptitudes (by nonlinear I mean that some kinds of aptitude are just plain different without really being measurable as being better or worse overall).
posted by idiopath at 11:12 AM on September 11, 2009

I point and I point and I point, and my dog just looks at my finger and says "WHAT??"
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:30 PM on September 11, 2009

There's a Zen story where the master shouts at the students, "I am pointing at the moon! Stop looking at my finger!" So it's not just chimps who don't get it.
posted by RussHy at 12:48 PM on September 11, 2009

notyou : I have a feeling your terrier will excel, perhaps topping the Aussie, since it plays to the terrier's natural ability -- solo search and destroy missions. While the Aussie is looking to you for tips on where to go, your terrier will be skittering here and there until he finds it.

A fine idea, and one, under normal circumstances, which would lead to a no doubt very interesting experiment.

Unfortunately, my cattle dog is hell-spawn and there is no way that any rat terrier would get the chance to use its instinctive powers to do anything but run away from her terrifying ability to herd anything into anything else.

When the two of them play, the only thing that give the terrier a chance is the fact that in a dead run, he can actually outdistance her outside. When indoors, he spends a lot of time being pushed around by being told to stand here... now over here... now here... etc.

It's my own fault really. I shouldn't have gotten a white terrier with black spots. He looks like the world's smallest cow.
posted by quin at 12:56 PM on September 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh... RussHy pointed to it first.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2009

They can use their sense of taste and smell to see if the returnee has caught some prey on its journey. If it did, the licking often prompts it to vomit up some of that kill for the other members of the pack to share. The kiss dogs give us probably evolved from this inspection. "If we happened to spit up whatever we just ate," says Horowitz, "I don't think our dogs would be upset at all."

This conjures quite a mental picture. That said I know that my three beagles would be more than happy if I were to spit up whatever I'd just eaten.

In some cases, their research suggests that our pets are manipulating us rather than welling up with human-like feeling. "They could be the ultimate charlatans," says Hauser.

This is truly not news to anyone who owns a dog.
posted by blucevalo at 2:44 PM on September 11, 2009

She got a new pup. It was really friendly and always wanted to be at her side. She found this problematic as the pup was always under her feet, tripping her up and getting in her way.

She: "This dog is so stupid. It hasn't even learned it's name."

Me: "Well, maybe that's because your always telling it to fuck off."

She: "No, the dog's just stupid."

Me: "Fuck off, come here."

The pup comes running over to me, tail a wagging.

She: "Oh, shit."
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:15 PM on September 11, 2009 [6 favorites]

your - you're. Gah, my spelling sucks these days.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:23 PM on September 11, 2009

My pugs understand pointing when it is food related, or to an object they've already learned the name (get THE MAN) but otherwise (creatures on TV, someone walking down the block) they just think I have something on my finger and give me a "can I eat it?" look.

Wonder how other dogs do with this.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:05 PM on September 11, 2009

Happy dog
posted by homunculus at 6:06 PM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few years ago, I had a (deaf) ferret who understood pointing. My dog still doesn't get it.
posted by dilettante at 7:59 PM on September 11, 2009

In the 1950s, Soviet scientists set up an experiment on a farm outside the city of Novosibirsk to understand how animals were domesticated. They decided to study foxes...

The foxes that the scientists bred selectively have become remarkably doglike. They will affectionately run up to people and even wag their tails.

posted by bicyclefish at 11:48 PM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love the greyhound Bruno in the video. Such a funny breed. My greyhound would never in a million years flip over that cup with her paw to get the treat, and it's clear that's what happened in the video too, "He's doing so good, we'll use his gaze and where he's standing as his selection." My girl would be the same -- stare at it, stand next to it, and wait for it. She stares at people food sitting on a coffee table so intently that it seems like she thinks she's telekinetic and if she just concentrated hard enough it would end up in her mouth.

P.S. How can I get a job where I play with doggies all day???
posted by misskaz at 8:46 AM on September 12, 2009

Just thinking about this more and contemplating Blitzen, the deaf ferret. The article announces quite confidently that no other known species but dogs and humans understand pointing. But I already have one counterexample - how many species have they actually tested? Have they checked any African Gray Parrots, or crows?

I tried it out with my two younger ferrets (mustn't disturb the old ladies' naps) and got pretty much the same reaction as from my dog: a variant on "Your finger, you fool" (with apologies to Mr. Pratchett). Doesn't seem to be universal among ferrets, either.
posted by dilettante at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2009

I was wondering the same thing. They say cats don't understand pointing (and mine certainly don't) but what about lions? What about other cooperative animals? Maybe we'd find out chickens or sheep get it too.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:49 PM on September 12, 2009

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