Puppies and young children have a bit more in common than we think.
To many parents (of either two-legged or four-legged children), this probably won't come as a surprise. Recent findings in two studies show that dogs and children respond in similar ways to specific communication techniques. One study details how puppies and babies respond similarly when addressed in high-pitched tones. The other shows the similarities in social intelligence between dogs and toddlers.
Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon, set up an experiment to find out how dogs respond to dog-directed speech. Mathevon and his colleagues had 30 women look at photos of puppies and adult dogs while reading from a script. The script contained passages that people usually say to dogs, like “good boy” or “hello, cutie”. The women were also instructed to repeat the same passages to a human.
As expected, the women spoke in high-pitched tones while looking at photos of dogs and puppies. However, the women did not speak in the same way to human beings. The researchers then played the recordings for 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs. What's interesting was that when the puppies heard the recording, nine out of 10 reacted in an excited, playful manner. “It got their attention,” says Mathevon, though they were less enthused when they heard the recordings spoken to a person. The researchers postulated that puppies, like babies, respond to high-pitched and sing-song voices as a way to learn human words.
Interestingly, the adult dogs paid little attention to any of the recordings. The reasons for this were unclear to the researchers, though they think that it was because the sounds weren't coming from an actual, visible person.
In another study, researchers found that two-year-old toddlers have more in common with dogs in terms of social intelligence. This is compared to the social intelligence of chimpanzees, which are one of our closest primate relatives. Evan McLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, analyzed the performance of toddlers, dogs, and chimpanzees on similar cognition tests. Toddlers and dogs did well on cooperative communication tests, but the chimpanzees fared worse. The toddlers and dogs also exhibited similar communication patterns, while the chimpanzees did not.
MacLean proposes an explanation for these similarities. "Our working hypothesis is that dogs and humans probably evolved some of these skills as a result of similar evolutionary processes, so probably some things that happened in human evolution were very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication," he says. It's important to note that in human and canine social circles, cooperation is often more rewarding and beneficial.
These studies shed more light on why we consider dogs to be “man's best friend”. From learning communication in early life to cooperation with others, dogs and humans have a lot in common. However, while the findings are certainly interesting, they would do well with more research to address unanswered questions. For the meantime, at least we now know more about why we get along so well with our furry four-legged friends.
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