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It turns out that dogs are born with a lot of their ability to interact with people, and songbirds have to mute their minds to stay in sync during their quick back and forth duets.

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Thumbnail Credit: Canine Companions for Independence

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Get Surfshark VPN at and enter promo code SciShow for 83% off and 3 extra months free. [♪ INTRO]. Any dog owner is happy to tell you just how strong the bond between person and pup can be.

They’ll follow you around, look to you for cues on what to do and, hopefully, listen when you call them. Some of that can come down to training, but it turns out puppies are actually born with a lot of their ability to interact with people. And a study published online this week in the journal Current Biology shows just how tuned in pups are to us.

The study took 375 Golden Retriever, Labrador, or Lab-Golden mix puppies who were bred as part of a service dog program in the US, and ran them through a battery of cognitive and behavioral tests. To test their ability to follow social cues, they recorded whether an untrained puppy could follow where a person was gesturing to get a food reward hidden under one of two cups. The experimenter would say “puppy look” and then either point, look at, or place a block next to the cup with the food.

And pups picked the right cup more often when a person gestured, compared to when the puppy was just let loose to search for the food on their own even controlling for their sense of smell. The puppies also didn’t get any better the more they did the task, showing that whatever ability they had to tune in to a person was there from the very beginning they didn’t learn it as part of the experiment. In another experiment to test how puppies interacted with people, the pups first learned how to knock a lid off a container to get some food.

Then the lid was locked in place, making it unopenable. When they couldn’t solve the task on their own, some of the pups would look at the human, presumably for help. But only if the experimenter talked to them in a high-pitched, sing-songy, puppy voice.

So it seemed like the human needed to initiate communication. But what was really interesting about the new study was that researchers showed that this ability came down to genetics -- at least, partly. See, since the pups were purebred, the researchers could track their breeding history and work out how much of the variation in their abilities was inherited.

They do this by comparing how related puppies are to one another, while controlling for factors in their environment. Depending on the test, they estimated that as much as 43% of communication ability is heritable. That means that on average across the group, almost half of the variability in communication is related to genes.

Now, aside from puppies making amazingly cute study subjects, this research actually tells us a lot about dog intelligence. It shows us that as we domesticated dogs from wolves, we probably picked animals to breed that were good at communicating with us. And that they were born with that ability -- we didn’t even have to train it.

Researchers now hope to identify different genes that match up to these different communication abilities. See, heritability estimates are just the beginning. They don’t tell you anything in detail about what causes the different traits in this case a puppy’s communication ability.

They’ll also follow up to see if their results predict whether a puppy will actually graduate from the service dog program. And understanding both the genetic and environmental influences on dog behavior might help them identify and breed service dogs who are better at communicating with us in the future. Now in other animal-ability news, songbirds might be telepathic….

Sort of. Plain-tailed wrens are known for their in-sync duets where males and females sing together with such perfect coordination, that they almost sound like just one bird. They go back and forth with their chirps incredibly fast between two and five times per second.

At that speed, birds need to time their turns exactly right. And now, thanks to a study in the journal PNAS, biologists understand a bit better how they get so in sync. They measured brain activity using wires implanted in the wrens’ brains.

In particular they wanted to see what was going on with neurons in an area called the high vocal center, or HVC for short. This area of birds’ brains has previously been tied to making music. The researchers recorded what their brains were doing either as the birds sang in their duets, or when each bird sang alone.

As expected, when the birds were singing, either alone or in their pair, neurons in that area fired. But when their partner was singing, activity in the HVC was dampened down. And that meant the bird was quiet until it was their turn to sing again.

But the researchers think they weren’t just waiting that this neural dampening was an important part of the joint performance. To really put this theory to the test, researchers temporarily anesthetized the birds. The anesthetic drug blocked a brain signalling molecule called GABA, which dampens brain activity.

So the drug was essentially blocking the blocking. Then, they played the anesthetized birds recordings of their own duets. Instead of going quiet, those same neurons would fire.

And it seemed to be related to whether the male or female part in the duet was playing. Which suggests that the birds are sort of hitting mute in their own brains when it’s not their turn to sing. This study not only shows how wrens can control the timing of their songs so precisely, but it also tells us something about our own brains.

Songbirds aren’t the only creatures who coordinate their vocalizations. We do the same whenever we’re singing our own duets, or even just having a conversation. The authors of the study say there are similar GABA circuits in our brains, which might help us decide when to take turns talking.

They say it could even help explain why video calls are so frustrating. Our brains don’t know how to sync up with the other person, since the sound cues we’re getting are delayed. But whether it’s explaining the awkwardness we’ve been living out recently, or just how these birds get their Hall and Oates on, you’ve got to admit the little guys have some talent.

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