Researchers have found that dogs may be more similar to people than previously thought.
In a study published in the journal Animal Behavior, Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, and colleagues showed that dogs share similar social intelligence patterns with 2-year-old children, much more than what human children share with chimpanzees, one of their closest relatives.
The researchers assessed 552 dogs, which included pets, military explosive detection dogs, and assistance-dogs-in-training, of various breeds. To test for social cognition, MacLean, Brian Hare, Esther Herrmann, and Sunil Suchindran used game-based approaches where toys and treats were hidden and their location communicated to dogs via nonverbal instructions such as looking or pointing at a certain direction.
Data gathered from the dogs were then compared to results from 105 2-year-olds who completed a similar series of cognitive tests earlier and 106 chimps from an African wildlife sanctuary, and the researchers found that dogs and children outperformed chimps on cooperative communication tasks which assessed for the ability to follow human gaze or a pointing finger. However, the chimps did better than dogs and children when it came to tests that involved spatial reasoning and the physical environment.
Similarities Between Dogs And Humans
Over the past 10 years, more and more studies have explored what sets human psychology apart. Based on findings from these studies, basic social communication skills appear to be what differentiates humans from other species. In humans, basic social communication skills start developing at about 9 months.
According to MacLean, earlier works have already highlighted similarities dogs have with humans but the deeper question he and his team wanted to answer was whether a superficial similarity exists or is there a specific kind of social intelligence present in both species.
"What we found is that there's this pattern ... Our working hypothesis is that dogs and humans probably evolved some of these skills as a result of similar evolutionary processes," he said.
One explanation the researchers of the current study have for the similarities they discovered was that dogs and humans evolved under similar situations where "survival of the friendliest" was favored, which meant rewards and benefits were bestowed where cooperative social behavior was present.
As such, MacLean said that studying dogs and how they were domesticated can offer potential insight into how humans evolved. He added that the results of their study may be able to help researchers in the field of human disabilities that include deficits in social skills as symptoms.
Studying Animals To Gain Insight Into Human Evolution
Turning to animals to gain a better understanding of human evolution is not a new idea but working with dogs is. After all, researchers have commonly relied on humans' closest relatives such as gorillas, bonobos, and chimps. Training research focus on dogs may be advantageous because the kind of intelligence that the researchers think is highly important to people is social in nature, which is specifically the kind of intelligence canines have a lot of.
"[However], future research will be needed to examine whether the observed similarities are a result of similar psychological mechanisms and evolutionary processes in the dog and human lineages," clarified the researchers.