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Study: Your “Furbaby” Really Is Like Your Child

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If you, like many pet parents, consider your dog to be your “furbaby,” you’re most certainly not alone. And the truth is — according to one new study — your dog hopes to be your baby, well, furever.

Survival of the Friendliest

A new study conducted at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona and published in the journal Animal Behavior revealed that — in terms of social patterns — our dogs are much more similar to toddlers  than our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee. This means that both dogs and 2-year-olds know how to form rewarding relationships, or what is known as Social Intelligence, and develop cooperative communication skills.

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Thanks in large part to genetics, we’re born with a set IQ but social intelligence is learned by experience in dealing with people and finding out what works or doesn’t in social settings. Dictionary.com defines SI as “The ability to form rewarding relationships with other people.”

One theory is that the ability to develop SI is part of the evolution of both species, a “survival of the friendliest,” where the development of these cooperative communications skills delivered benefits and rewards.

Researchers hypothesized that dogs and humans probably did learn some of the same social skills because they evolved in similar ways. “There’s been a lot of research showing that you don’t really find those same social skills in chimpanzees, but you do find them in dogs, so that suggested something similar between dogs and kids,” says study leader and center director, Evan MacLean, Ph.D, an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “The bigger, deeper question we wanted to explore is if that really is a superfi­cial similarity or if there is a distinct kind of social intelligence that we see in both species.”

Monkey See But, Doggy Does

In the study, the team evaluated 552 dogs of different breeds including family dogs, assistance-dogs-in-training and military explosive detection dogs through game-based tests to assess social cognition levels. Using treats and toys in hide and seek games, the researchers evaluated non-verbal communication cues from researchers such as pointing or indicating the direction of the find.

The findings were then compared to data on 105 2-year-old toddlers and 106 chimpanzees living at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa who had also completed similar testing. Although, the chimps performed well in tests that involved their physical environment and spatial reasoning, following cues like a pointing finger or the direction of a gaze didn’t register as it did with canines. Both the dogs and the toddlers fared better than the chimpanzees on cooperative communication tests and the researchers noted similar patterns of variation in performance in individual dogs and children.

Scientists say that basic social communication skills that begin to develop in babies around 9 months seems to be what sets us apart from other species. By 2.5 years of age, humans are more skillful than other apes on a set of social, but not nonsocial, cognitive tasks. When researchers compared data from all three species it revealed similar patterns of individual differences in cooperative communication between human infants and domestic dogs, which were not observed in chimpanzees. “What we found is that there’s this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that’s the same thing you find in kids, but you don’t find it in chimpanzees,” says Dr. MacLean.

Usually, researchers study our closest animal relatives like chimpanzees or gorillas to learn more about our own nature, so focusing on SI in dogs is relatively new. “There are different kinds of intelligence and the kind that we think is very important to humans is social in nature, and that’s the kind of intelligence that dogs have to an incredible extent,” says Dr. MacLean. He notes that other aspects of cognition like reasoning out physical problems are uniquely human.

Where Can This Research Aid in The Future

This type of research could help scientists in the future puzzle out and better understand disabilities that affect social intelligence such as autism and how humans evolved socially. More research is needed to find out whether canine-toddler social intelligence similarities are due to the same psychological mechanisms and evolutionary processes.

In the meantime, keep in mind when you interact with your dog, that whether she is 2 or 10, she’s still young at heart!

Sources:

Evan L. MacLean et al, Individual differences in cooperative communicative skills are more similar between dogs and humans than chimpanzees, Animal Behaviour (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.01.005

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