evolution: understanding dog understanding

Dogs have an uncanny knack for understanding human gestures — and we may have helped them evolve it. Previous research by Harvard anthropologist Brian Hare demonstrated that domesticated canines interpret human cues such as glances or pointing better than our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, or their closest dog relative, the wolf. Building off that work, Hare and his colleagues announced last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that ongoing human contact during a breed’s domestication is key for this ability to evolve. Testing the feral New Guinea singing dog, a subspecies that shows signs of being domesticated in the past but has been without significant human contact for at least 6,000 years, the researchers found that the animal could not pick up on human-given signals to locate hidden food that a domesticated dog easily understood. “Our new work provides direct evidence that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes,” Hare stated in a press release. “This is the first demonstration that humans play an ongoing role in the evolution of canine cognition.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 2/17/2004.
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