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An 8-week-old yellow retriever puppy follows a human point to find hidden food. Photo: Canine Companions for Independence

By our side for thousands of years, dogs are masters of understanding human communication. A new study finds their ability to understand social cues emerges from an early age — without much training — and that genetics plays a key role.

Why it matters: The findings suggest human preferences for communication may have shaped the domestication and evolution of one of our best animal friends. It could also help researchers to understand dogs' social cognition — and how it compares to humans.

  • The dogs' abilities to evaluate social cues were similar to humans — and appear to be more sophisticated than chimpanzees and bonobos, our close social relatives.

What they did: Some 375 8-week-old golden and Labrador retriever puppies or a mix of the two breeds, which were bred to be service dogs and had spent most of their lives at that point with their littermates, were given a range of cognitive and behavioral tests to assess their responses to human gestures, speech and interaction.

  • Some of the puppies used pointing and gazing from humans to successfully complete the task of finding a treat hidden under a cup, starting with their first trial, researchers led by Emily Bray of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Canine Companions for Independence report today in the journal Current Biology. Their performance didn't improve over 12 trials, indicating they weren't learning over time.
  • Speech was important, too: Experimenters had to initiate the interaction with the dog using a high-pitched voice.

Knowing the pedigree of the puppies, the researchers then tried to tease out whether genetics played a role in the differences in the individual puppies' abilities.

  • They found more than "40% of the variation in dogs’ point-following abilities and attention to human faces was attributable to genetic factors." (Other abilities — including the tendency to approach the experimenter or to use a marker placed next to a cup to indicate the food — were less heritable.)

What's not known ... the cognitive mechanisms dogs use to follow these cues and the specific genes that are implicated in playing a role in these social behaviors, says Bray.

What they're saying: Scientists have long debated whether the ability of dogs to follow human social cues was innate or learned.

  • The new study suggests dogs have innate skills and that the ability to follow social cues was actively selected by humans in early dog domestication, says Zachary Silver, a graduate student at Yale University who studies domestic dogs and their communication and wasn't involved in the research.

The big picture: "We don’t know of other species that, without extensive exposure, can successfully interpret the cues of a different species," Silver says of dogs.

  • "That says something interesting and important about dogs' domestication that they can communicate with their own species and others."

Go deeper

What happens now that emergency orders are lifting

Expand chart
Data: National Academy for State Health Policy and various governor declarations; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Soon, more than half the states will have ended their formal emergency declarations for the pandemic — which could have ripple effects across the economy.

Why it matters: Lifting those orders will allow businesses to serve more customers, but will also end certain safety nets, including expanded food and housing assistance, as well as eviction protections.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

500 Hong Kong police officers raid pro-democracy newspaper

Chief Operations Officer Chow Tat Kuen (front 2nd R) is escorted by police from the Apple Daily newspaper offices before being put into a waiting vehicle in Hong Kong on Thursday. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong's Apple Daily said 500 police officers searched the pro-democracy newspaper's offices and arrested five senior executives on Thursday.

Why it matters: The arrests of the paper's chief editor, Ryan Law, along with its chief operating officer, two other editors and the CEO of Next Digital, which operates Apple Daily, were made under China's national security law — which gives the government broad power to limit people's political freedom.

World Bank rejects El Salvador's request to help implement bitcoin

President Nayib Bukele, giving a speech in El Salvador's legislative assembly in San Salvado earlier this month, pushed for bitcoin to become legal tender. Photo: Emerson Flores/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images

The World Bank has rejected the government of El Salvador's request to help the country implement Bitcoin as legal tender, Reuters first reported late Wednesday.

Why it matters: The international lender's rejection could hamper the government's goal of making the digital currency accepted across the country within three months.