The pups have started to separate into two distinct groups, one that loves to see us coming and the other that doesn’t really give a damn. Interestingly, the pups who bound up to us (and any visitors) have among them some of the most shy pups from last week. They have all received the same amount of interaction and handling. This got me thinking on one of my most favorite, yet sorely under-discussed topics: innate canine human orientation.
Many canine obsessed people such as myself will refer to dogs as “people oriented”, and point out the level of that orientation that is clearly visible. Labrador Retrievers and Border Collies come to mind when we talk about dogs who consistently respond positively to most people and seem easy to direct. Great Pyrenees and Siberian Huskies do not.
Some trainers perpetuate the idea that a dog’s willingness to engage with people rests solely on the skill of the handler, regardless of breed or type. They believe that all dogs should respond equally well to training and attempts at engagement, placing all of the onus for this on the handler. Interestingly, according to a study by Gacsi, McGreevy, Kara and Miklosi published in 2009, nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to Hare’s study of wolves and dogs which concluded that dogs covergently evolved social skills with humans than wolves did because they possess a far superior ability to follow pointing gestures, Miklosi et al’s study looked at whether the pointing gesture is followed equally well across different breeds. Not surprisingly, they found that certain type of dog breeds were less able to follow the gestures, leading them to conclude that the ability of a dog to respond to human communication is more a result of selection pressure and less the result of being of a certain species.
Miklosi et al set out to prove that dogs who have undergone selection pressure to work more cooperatively with people will naturally show a higher natural ability to engage with us. The results of their work do support this hypothesis and lead us to bigger questions about the intelligence of the dogs we live and work with as well as whether we can ever rightly conclude that handler engagement is a one way street. As many dogs who readily respond to human interaction are prized and selected above others as possessing a superior intellect, how will that affect the dogs of the future? How can we change our view of less people oriented dog types or breeds so that their full abilities can be appreciated?
The fascinating thing for me in observing and interacting with this particular set of pups is how the innate preference for human interaction is showing itself so early, and so definitively in what we believe to be the 8th week of life. It’s amazing how experiences like this, which were never intended to happen, can enlighten us on subjects that we never might have had a stake in otherwise.