That was the question posed in a recent study published in the journal Learning and Behavior about canine behavior. The answer, apparently, is both a little bit yes and also, a little bit no.
Researchers at the University of Florida set out to better understand the origins of exactly how it is that dogs respond to human gestures, focusing specifically on what the study's lead author, Monique Udell, called "attentional states."
To do that, they set up several different experiments. Dogs from both domesticated situations and shelters were given the choice to beg for food from a person with her face or eyes concealed, versus one whose attention was fixed on the dogs. The same experiments were also conducted with wolves -- the idea being that it would show whether or not they have some kind of genetic barrier that prevents them from responding to cues of attention in the same way dogs can, as previous studies have suggested.
What the researchers found is that both the dogs and the wolves were less likely to beg for food from the experimenters who had their backs to them, which indicates a "capacity to behave in accordance with a human's attentional state," the authors wrote. In other words, most of the canines and wolves displayed some kind of ability -- perhaps inherent -- to sense how people were acting, regardless of whether or not they grew up in contact with humans.
But the researchers also found that, generally speaking, the dogs raised as pets rather than in shelters were more likely to respond to cues when they had a human's attention. Which indicates that in the course of living with, and being cared for by humans, they'd learned to better understand their cues.
"What this shows is that it's not a question of nature versus nurture," explained Udell. "It's always going to be a combination to the two that informs a dog's responsiveness to humans."
Story continues below
Udell added that people could take this information and use it to help train the dog of their dreams.
"Dogs aren't born being man's best friend," she said. "The experiences they have and the type of environment they live in -- these influence their behavior. If you want a dog that's very responsive to humans, that does take work."