Dogs were likely the first animals that human beings domesticated — scientific guesses vary as to whether that was 10,000 years ago in Europe or 30,000 years ago in Asia (or, as one theory goes, humans tamed grey wolves two separate times). Regardless, they have been our companions for much of human history, and all of modern history.
And that longstanding connection shows up in feral dogs.
Behavioral biologist Dr. Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, India, revealed this by studying stray dogs in several Indian cities. In the experiment, Bhadra and her colleagues would find a solo stray dog and put two covered bowls on the ground nearby. They they'd simply point to one of the bowls; some did this just once, others did it a few times.
The researchers, who published their work in Frontiers in Psychology, recorded the dogs' reactions. Half the dogs seemed nervous, and didn't look at or come close to either bowl. But the other half — noted as less anxious dogs by the researchers — approached the bowls. Of those friendlier dogs, about 80% went to the bowl the researcher pointed at. As long as the dogs weren't too scared of the people, they were easily able to interpret what the pointing meant.
"We thought it was quite amazing that the dogs could follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing," Bhadra said in a news release. "This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision. This shows their intelligence and adaptability."
In another study, three out of 13 untrained 8-week-old wolf puppies spontaneously retrieved a ball for a person who threw it, as MNN's Mary Jo DiLonardo explains. It was a small study, and a low percentage of retrieving puppies, but it was an unexpected result as these weren't domesticated dogs. "It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication," Christina Hansen Wheat, a biologist at Stockholm University, said.
Her observations show that playing with people may be a very old trait for wolves, and one that could reflect how our human ancestors first got to know them. This playful behavior may have sparked humans' interest in domestication. If a dog could fetch a stick or other thrown object, they could be quite useful to hunting humans.
Of course, their adorable, big puppy-dog eyes and floppy ears (both adaptations that have become accentuated over time) are among the reason we are still drawn to dogs today. (It also helps that they're great listeners.)
But long before that happened, dogs served an important purpose — assisting people in locating and retrieving prey, and serving as eyes and ears for an intruder. Simple tasks like showing they can follow directions or fetch an object may have moved prehistoric dogs from outside the fire circle to within it, which is why understanding these behaviors are so important.