Why do dogs point?
February 18, 2008 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Why does my dog lift one of his front paws when he sees something that interests him, in that classic "pointer" gesture?
posted by vraxoin to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What kind of dog is it?
posted by empyrean at 7:00 AM on February 18, 2008

Response by poster: I'm not asking about my dog in particular, just the gesture in general -- what does it mean? What it its evolutionary advantage? My dog is a classic mutt of extremely uncertain breeding and certainly no prior training whatsoever.
posted by vraxoin at 7:09 AM on February 18, 2008

To add datapoints, just this weekend I saw a pit bull and a German Shepherd mix do the same semipoint that vraxoin's describing.
posted by COBRA! at 7:13 AM on February 18, 2008

I think there's two reasons:
1. So as not to scare away what they're looking at and, more often
2. I think most dogs are sort of ADD with respect to their surroundings. Dog says "La la la la la, wait, WTF?!?" and sort of stops mid-movement to get a better idea of what they're looking at. At that point, you can sometimes see their gears moving "is it worth the trouble I'll be in to chase that? want to chase it...want to...want to...ah, here comes dad. Biscuit!"

The breed standards say it's so they don't scare away the birds they're finding, they point, handler scares up the birds, and blammo. They've been doing it since about the 13th century (when there just had to be fewer breeds of dogs), so I'd assume that dissemination has sort of flowed through the years. My dogs all smile too, for what it's worth.
posted by TomMelee at 7:19 AM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

What it its evolutionary advantage?

Dogs that have it would be allowed to mate by human breeders trying to create a pointer breed, and those that don't would not. This can very quickly transform a trait that is postulated to be deleterious to a wild dog into one that is extremely advantageous.

If you don't know the ancestry of your dog, there's no reason to think that it doesn't have a pointer ancestor somewhere.
posted by grouse at 7:27 AM on February 18, 2008

Apart from being a genetic trait this is also a behaviour which could have been shaped by rewards for your dog in the past - perhaps not those given consciously. As TomMelee mentions above this is a behaviour which occurs right at the moment when when the dog has detected something and is deciding what to do about it - this pause is a very useful moment for a trainer to hook onto.

If you happened to have rewarded the dog for not chasing something at a point when it happened to have its leg in the air then it might be more likely to try that again. Equally it is possible the dog has merely been praised for doing this because it looks cute.

It is also possible that this kind of behaviour serves some sort of purpose in wild dogs: if the dog is by itself then standing around with its paw in the air when it sees a potential meal is probably not a good idea. However dogs are pack animals and would probably hold off going in for an attack until given a signal from the leader. In the mean time signalling to other pack members that game is present - and where is is present - could be useful. Total speculation on my part.
posted by rongorongo at 7:55 AM on February 18, 2008

What it its evolutionary advantage?

Why would it have an evolutionary advantage? Your dog does it because he wants to. Dogs aren't robots. They have quirks of personality, they do things because that's the way their brain is wired, same as we do. Why do people cock their heads when looking at paintings in art galleries? Who knows? If your dog is cute when he does it, just enjoy that fact.
posted by Dasein at 7:59 AM on February 18, 2008

Coyotes and foxes will do something similar, as will huskies. It's a stop-listen-look reflex when assessing the location of quarry. The evolutionary advantage is obvious, all of the animal's attention can be focused to it's sensory receptors (eyes, ears, nose), which it can use to determine what the quarry is, where it is and how to strike. This trait was selectively bred for in pointers, but most dogs will do it to some extent.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:17 AM on February 18, 2008

This is considered by many dog behaviourists to be just a default behaviour dogs perform when they are concentrating on something or a sign of anxiety or unease (depending on the dog and/or situation) - you will often see dogs do this when they meet strange dogs or people. I don't know that there's any real reason behind it (that we know of), it's just part of dog body language.
posted by biscotti at 8:20 AM on February 18, 2008

What separates domesticated dogs from wild dogs is their ability to interpret human facial and body gestures, and respond with cues that a human can understand. They were selectively bred for these abilities over many thousands of years by humans, and put to work. The evolutionary advantage in breeding is that you will continue to be bred.

I can't find the links right now, but there have been reputable studies to show that these abilities are largely genetic. One experiment I remember reading about was the cross-breeding of domesticated dogs with wild dogs. 50% wild vs. 100% domesticated offspring were then subjected to a very simple test: under one of two turned-over cups there was a treat hidden (which the dog couldn't detect by smell) -- could the experimenter indicate to the dog where the treat was hidden just with a quick glance or other facial gestures? Domesticated dogs passed the test without fail -- wild or semi-wild dogs failed miserably.
posted by randomstriker at 8:46 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

my dog does it while creeping towards something of interest. Often it is the result of her freezing her motion in the middle. Other times she'll have a back foot in the air.
posted by Good Brain at 8:53 AM on February 18, 2008

To follow up a bit on what's been said, the pointing trait is bred into upland bird dogs. Upland birds, like grouse, quail, or pheasant, generally run more than fly. They will stay put if they feel threatened, relying on camouflage. If danger seems imminent, then they'll fly (though only for relatively short distances). When a bird dog finds a bird and knows exactly where it is, they are trained to freeze, alerting the hunter where the bird is. The hunter will then get in position to shoot the bird, and then give the dog another command. Upon that command, the dog will lunge at the bird, scaring the bird into the air where the hunter can shoot it.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:04 AM on February 18, 2008

To me, the obvious reason is that it's a stance that is both stable and ready to take the next step. From it, the dog can kick off with a back leg and the front leg is ready to come down for either a walking, troting, or running gait. This translates into a split-second advantage compared to starting basically flat-footed. Cats do it as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:11 AM on February 18, 2008

My money's on a signal to the pack. Vestigial group hunting behavior.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2008

My pug points. He can't track worth a damn (because he has no nose), but he points. I think it is a default behaviour across breeds. I don't think it is selectively bred in, because why would you breed that behaviour into a dog that has been selectively bred for human companionship for centuries?
posted by crazycanuck at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2008

Why do people cock their heads when looking at paintings in art galleries? Who knows? If your dog is cute when he does it, just enjoy that fact.

Wanting to understand it doesn't mean wanting to strip all the enjoyment out of it. I'd personally love to know why people (and dogs) tilt their heads at curiosities.

My staffy / kelpie cross does it when she's playing with me, if I have something in my hand that she wants. I think it's a pose which signals others, but also her paw is ready to spring out at me and help her drag the toy or my hand towards her mouth.
posted by tomble at 6:28 PM on February 19, 2008

Asking why some dogs point is similar to asking why some dogs have long hair. Both are traits that can be emphasized through the practice of selective breeding.
posted by pmbuko at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2008

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