The dog was the first animal domesticated by Homo sapiens – about 15,000 years ago – and the only animal to be domesticated before the Agricultural Revolution.
Dogs initially were bred for hunting, fighting and as warning systems against human and wild animal intruders. Over the millennia, our ancestors favored dogs who were the most attentive to human needs and feelings and thus gave extra care and food to those dogs. Consequentially, dogs who paid the most attention to humans were the most likely to survive.
Dogs are standouts in the animal kingdom in their ability to understand human vocal and non-vocal cues. Anthropologists have conducted experiments with dogs where they put a piece of food under one of two cups, placed several feet apart with the dog out of the room. The dog is brought into the room and is held by one researcher. Another researcher points at the cup with the food. The dog is released – and what happens? The dog goes to the correct cup nearly every time. Most remarkably, even dogs raised with minimal human contact can follow a human point and gaze gesture without explicit training. People who own dogs are likely thinking “duh” – but you shouldn’t take this for granted as when the same experiment is repeated with chimpanzees—an animal that shares 98.6% of our genes—the chimps couldn’t get it right. A dog will look at you for help, and a chimp won’t. Other non-human primates and other house pets also don’t cue off the human direction.