A RECENT report claims that if you think your dog can read your mind, you're probably right. US anthropologist Dr Brian Hare, of Harvard University, says that because dogs and people have kept company for hundreds of generations, Canis familiaris is conditioned to pick up human social cues.
Researchers at the university found that dogs have developed an ability to read human gestures - a characteristic that may help trace the evolution of dogs. Another possibility is that it will help explain the origins of autism in people and point towards possible therapies.
Dr Hare said the first diagnostic test for autism is the inability to use social cues - autistic people are very poor at reading things like eye-gaze or pointing because of joint attention. But the average dog has evolved an ability to read human gestures and cues, and to manipulate and predict human behaviour ... something they have developed with domestication.
Dr Hare told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, meeting in Seattle recently, that he and colleagues in Germany and Hungary found that dogs are better at a test of their ability to interpret social cues than human cousins the chimpanzees, or than the dog's closest relative, the wolf.
In one test, based on a test developed to identify autistic infants, food is hidden beneath one of two cups about a metre apart. The animal is then shown where the food is by the experimenter, who looks or gestures at the right location.
"The wolves and the chimps didn't use the cues in the task, but the dogs were awesome," Dr Hare said. Clearly, wolves and chimpanzees are not stupid, but neither did the dogs inherit their skill from ancestral wolves. So Dr Hare next tested the possibility that dogs learn their ability through constant exposure to humans.
He gave two groups of puppies nine to 20 weeks old the same test. One group was raised by a family, while the other was raised in a kennel with little human contact. The isolated puppies performed just as well as dogs raised in a family, proving that the ability to read cues was now a characteristic of the domesticated species. Dr Hare said this research confirmed his belief that human contact during domestication created the selective pressure driving the evolution of this type of canine expertise.
The cup test was also given to six New Guinea singing dogs, a species related to the dingo and isolated from humans. The six domestic dogs were near-perfect, but the singers failed completely. This suggests that without human evolutionary pressure, the singing dog either lost, or never developed, its ability to read human minds.