Two‐year‐old children but not domestic dogs understand communicative intentions without language, gestures, or gaze

Richard Moore, Bettina Mueller, Juliane Kaminski, Michael Tomasello

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Infants can see someone pointing to one of two buckets and infer that the toy they are seeking is hidden inside. Great apes do not succeed in this task, but, surprisingly, domestic dogs do. However, whether children and dogs understand these communicative acts in the same way is not yet known. To test this possibility, an experimenter did not point, look, or extend any part of her body towards either bucket, but instead lifted and shook one via a centrally pulled rope. She did this either intentionally or accidentally, and did or did not address her act to the subject using ostensive cues. Young 2-year-old children but not dogs understood the experimenter's act in intentional conditions. While ostensive pulling of the rope made no difference to children's success, it actually hindered dogs' performance. We conclude that while human children may be capable of inferring communicative intent from a wide variety actions, so long as these actions are performed intentionally, dogs are likely to be less flexible in this respect. Their understanding of communicative intention may be more dependent upon bodily markers of communicative intent, including gaze, orientation, extended limbs, and vocalizations. This may be because humans have come under selective pressure to develop skills for communicating with absent interlocutors – where bodily co-presence is not possible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)232-242
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number2
Early online date9 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


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