Domestic dogs and puppies can use human voice direction referentially

Federico Rossano, Marie Nitzschner, Michael Tomasello


Domestic dogs are particularly skilled at using human visual signals to locate hidden food. This is, to our knowledge, the first series of studies that investigates the ability of dogs to use only auditory communicative acts to locate hidden food. In a first study, from behind a barrier, a human expressed excitement towards a baited box on either the right or left side, while sitting closer to the unbaited box. Dogs were successful in following the human's voice direction and locating the food. In the two following control studies, we excluded the possibility that dogs could locate the box containing food just by relying on smell, and we showed that they would interpret a human's voice direction in a referential manner only when they could locate a possible referent (i.e. one of the boxes) in the environment. Finally, in a fourth study, we tested 8–14-week-old puppies in the main experimental test and found that those with a reasonable amount of human experience performed overall even better than the adult dogs. These results suggest that domestic dogs’ skills in comprehending human communication are not based on visual cues alone, but are instead multi-modal and highly flexible. Moreover, the similarity between young and adult dogs’ performances has important implications for the domestication hypothesis.

  • Received December 6, 2013.
  • Accepted April 10, 2014.
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