The Right Direction

Dogs share with humans the ability to follow directional sound cues.
By Joe Fucini,

When you teach a client’s dog to fetch, do you look at your pupil or the ball you just threw? If you look at the ball and say “Go get it,” you’re on the right track—because he’s more likely to head in the right direction!

New research supports the idea that dogs, like people, will look toward the direction a speaker is facing when they give a command. For example, when someone shouts, “Look there!” we automatically focus our eyes in the direction that the person is looking toward, not at the person. We look to see what’s happening, even when the person who spoke can’t be seen.

This is because humans developed the ability to determine the direction a speaker is facing from subtle sound cues, which then causes them to instinctively look in that same direction; however other primates do not. . Based on recent scientific research, canines share this ability to follow a speaker’s “directional cues.”

Interestingly, the study also found that a dog’s prior level of socialization with humans had a big effect on how well she responded to vocal directional cues. The conclusions drawn from the research have valuable implications for training situations, but first here’s a more in-depth look at the study.


New Research

Federico Rossano led a team of researchers in Leipzig, Germany, to study a dog’s ability to follow the direction a human is calling toward. To conduct the research, he used basically the same method previously administered in testing small children for this ability.

One researcher would duck down behind a barrier wall where he could not be seen by the dog. On each side of the barrier was a box that smelled like food, but only one of these containers actually held a treat. The researcher would move closest to the empty box, but call out commands in a positive tone, such as “Look there!” in the direction of the box that contained a reward.

On the first run, most dogs would automatically go to the box that contained the food. In other words, they would go in the direction that was being called toward. This is especially interesting considering that the human involved was sitting closer to the empty box. The dog was not moving toward the human voice itself, but instead to the object they were calling positively toward.

Of course, it’s still not clear how or when the ability developed. Is it ingrained in canine genetics or is it a result of socialization with humans? The research was extended to explore this question.


Puppies and Socialization

The team tested a group of well-socialized puppies only 8 to14 weeks old to see if they also possessed this skill. If anything, this younger age group performed better than adult dogs, suggesting that they learn this communication cue at a very early age.

To push the envelope even further, another group of puppies was tested. Unlike the first group, which had been closely associated with humans, this isolated litter had very little contact with people. The performance results were quite different. These puppies performed at a chance level, not responding to the direction humans were facing when they spoke.

This research suggests that even domesticated puppies or dogs must be socialized by humans to understand this communication skill. Or perhaps without socialization, they don’t share the same level of interest or trust in human communication.



Although we’ve been quite successful at discovering new communication capabilities in our canine friends, we’re still unable to pinpoint exactly when or how those skills developed. These traits may have adapted from dogs’ unique companionship role with humans, be genetically encoded or a combination of both. One thing that’s clear, however, is that direct socialization plays a role in each dog’s ability to understand us.

Canines’ ability to follow human gestures such as pointing was tested on wild dogs in 2004 by anthropologist Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. The dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago, but have been unexposed to humans since. Just like with the unsocialized litter of puppies, these wild dogs were unable to follow human communication gestures. Even with a genetic predisposition for communicating with us and past generations of socialization and companionship, it seems that a dog must actually live with humans to understand them.


Training Applications

The research on dogs’ response to human directional cues is not only fascinating, but also has several valuable implications for training. First, that our canine companions respond well to cues like pointing and speaking toward a given direction shows that these can be great tools for focusing a a dog’s sight and movement.

A practical example of how directional cues can be used effectively in a training situation is teaching a dog to safely cross the street. When the owner reaches a street corner, have her instruct the dog to sit and stay. She should look to the left and call “Look left”, then look to the right and call “Look right,” checking to see that her dog is following along. If a car is approaching, have the owner point it out and ask the dog to stay again, “A car, stay.” When no cars are approaching, the owner can set back out, “All clear, come.” As he practices, the dog learns to stop and look for danger at street corners before crossing.

Perhaps an even more fundamental concept demonstrated by this research—which can be applied to all training in general—is the important role that socialization plays in a dog’s ability to follow our commands. Bonding with humans not only creates more interest in training, it also helps dogs recognize and understand our gestures much better. So if you want to give your four-legged clients a head start on learning, it’s important to take the time simply to interact and build trust with them—and encourage their owners to do so. 

Joe Fucini is the president of Fucini Productions, the public relations agency for Cardinal Pet Care Products. He has been involved in the pet product and pet care industry for over 20 years as a journalist, public relations agent and consultant. An avid supporter of animal rescue organizations, he is a former board member of the Michigan Animal Adoption Network. He and his wife Susan have authored three business books published by MacMillan, including “ Working for the Japanese,” a  Business Week top-ten book of the year.

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