Research – Dogs know this, pigs don’t

By comparing the behavior of dogs kept as family pets and miniature pigs, ELTE ethologists came to the conclusion that directing a person’s attention to something desirable for them is not a general ability among domesticated animals: while dogs do, pigs do not have the characteristics necessary for this ability are necessary.

People often direct another person’s attention to what interests them. This behavior has received serious scientific attention in recent years, and researchers have studied many species to see if they can show humans what they want.

“Domesticated animals may be particularly prone to communicate with humans in this way” – explains ELTE in its statement sent to MTI on Monday Paula Perez FragaPhD student of the Neuroethology Research Group of the ELTE Department of Ethology, is the main author of the article.

As he adds, at the same time, individuals of some non-domesticated animal species socialized with humans are also capable of referential communication with humans, which suggests that domestication is not the key to the emergence of this behavior.

The researchers looked for the answer to what, if not domestication, causes this ability. Ethologists have noticed a common feature among species that are capable of this type of behavior: they all play a prominent role in visual cues in communicating with conspecifics.


To test whether the effectiveness of visual communication can really be the key to the development of the ability to show, they compared the behavior of individuals of two species raised as family pets: the dog, for which visual signals are very important, and the piglet, for which it is not.

The tested piglets are participants in a long-term project called the Family Piggy Pig Program, in which the piglets are placed with families at a young age and receive upbringing similar to family dogs. This gave the researchers the opportunity to compare the behavior of the two species towards humans.

The researchers investigated whether dogs and piglets living in families show their owner the location of food that is inaccessible to them (but available to their owner). They found that when only the owner was in the room – no food – the pigs paid a similar amount of attention to their owner as the dogs. However, when the food was also in the room, the dogs tried to direct their owner’s attention to the box hiding the food, but the pigs did not.

dog, child


“We expected that the referential communication signals would mostly appear in the situation when both the owner and the food are present in the room, i.e. the animal tries to direct the human’s attention to the box hiding the food. We found that when only the owner was present in the room, dogs and pigs paid similar attention to their owner. However, after the food was also in the room, only the dogs tried to direct their owner’s attention to the position of the food, the pigs rather tried to get it themselves” – details the investigation in the announcement Attila Andicshead of the Neuroethology Research Group.

Based on the results, it seems that not all domesticated animals are able to direct human attention to a specific location. “Pigs probably don’t have the traits needed for this ability” he explains Paula Perez Fraga.

Dogs are considered to be outstanding when it comes to communicating with humans, but other species such as horses, cats, and even kangaroos are capable of referential communication with humans, and visual cues play an important role in their communication. In contrast, not in piglets. The ethologists’ study was published on January 23 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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