New Proof Dogs Can Imitate

By Kim Ribbink

New Proof Dogs Can Imitate

That "aha" moment, when an idea suddenly clicks, isn't just reserved for people. Dogs also observe and learn, particularly from one another. Ana T. Pieruccetti, president and CEO of Dallas-based Lucca Bella Doggie Spa & Boutique, has witnessed this dog curiosity on a number of occasions. For example, Bailey, one of the dogs that visits Pieruccetti's spa, watched as another dog, Katie, ran through a play tunnel and received a treat. Recognizing the connection, Bailey quickly followed suit. For Pieruccetti and others with expertise in dog behavior, this ability is not surprising. But until recently, there wasn't definitive proof of what most dog owners know -- canines are canny.

Researchers from the University of Vienna in Austria demonstrated that dogs don't just blindly imitate an action, but rather use reason to assess the usefulness of the action. In the study, conducted between March 2006 and February 2007, the canines watched a dog that was trained to use its paw to open a food container, rather than its mouth, as is the norm. In one test, the demonstrating dog had a ball in its mouth while, in a second test, its mouth was free. After witnessing the demonstrating dog perform the task, the other dogs followed suit in both the mouth-occupied and mouth-free test, indicating what the report refers to as "an imitative form of social learning."

New Tricks
Dog behavior and training classes, or even simple tricks taught at home with the aid of a few tasty treats, reveal just how rapidly dogs can learn. "Studies have shown that dogs have relatively high cognitive skills and are supremely sensitive to human cues," Pieruccetti says. "It is believed they also have some predictive abilities."

But the University of Vienna study also shows that dogs take their cues from their fellow canines, not just from us. Marc Bekoff, PhD, professor of biology at the University of Colorado, animal behaviorist and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals (New World Library, 2007) has observed that dogs adopt different play styles with different dogs, suggesting they are flexible and creative learners. So, with the right approach, if you are bringing a new dog into a household with other dogs, you may be able to enlist the help of the long-term residents in teaching the newcomer some ground rules.

"To teach our dogs not to crowd the front door when visitors come over, we set a boundary back from our front door: a thick white rope on the floor that means respect this boundary, don't cross the line," says Jim Burwell, owner of the professional dog training franchise Petiquette. "When we adopted Cooper, he learned very quickly, by observing the other dogs, not to cross the rope."

Cautionary Tales
It's not always good news, though. Just as children tend to pick up one another's bad habits or to latch onto the first utterance of a swear word, dogs also learn unwanted behavior from one another.

"One backyard dog barking at the mailman will cause the other dog in the same yard to also bark at the mailman," Burwell says. "If dogs are allowed to rehearse this behavior, it can lead to territorial aggression, which could transfer inside to territorial greetings at the front door, leading to more serious problems to sort out."

Of equal concern is how owners act around their dogs.

"Dogs are extremely sensitive to their environment and we need to be very careful what we do and say in front of them," Dr. Bekoff says. Burwell adds that, like children, dogs demonstrate be-like-act-like behavior and therefore an owner could, unwittingly, exacerbate his or her dog's problems.

"If an owner gets angry and scolds a child quite often, the dog may start getting edgy when the child is around it," he warns. "On the other hand, if the owner punishes the dog often, the child may start punishing the dog and may get into trouble when the dog defends itself."

Calming Effect
Despite the caution warning, inter-dog relationships are both healthy and beneficial. If your dog is young, undisciplined or just plain difficult, another calm, well-behaved dog can work wonders in teaching good behavior. "Owners can maximize training their animals by placing them in the presence of other trained animals and being able to better understand their pets' behaviors, responses and/or change in behavior depending on the presence of other animals," Pieruccetti says. 

If you have taken on a rescue animal, the problem of calming an abused and terrified dog can be overwhelming. Again, bringing other socialized dogs into the mix may help.

To approach a fearful rescue dog named Jack, Burwell used his 10-year-old husky/golden retriever mix, Boo. "Jack spent the first 18 months of his life in a crate -- 23 hours out of a 24-hour day," Burwell explains. "He was scared to death of being approached by strangers, especially men. My intent was to trigger an acceptance of me by Jack because of my very close proximity to Boo; a kind of, 'if it's okay for him, it's okay for me.' It worked."

Kim Ribbink is a freelance writer and editor based in Perth, Australia, who specializes in health care and the life sciences, as well as pets. She has been a journalist for 20 years, working for magazines, newspapers and online publications covering a broad range of topics.

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Posted on November 13, 2007

Crise Billwalk says: Of course dogs can immitate! My Betty does it all the time! But way too much! Five stars for this article, it was interesting.

Posted on November 15, 2007

Diane says: I know what this article reports is true from watching my two dogs. Lady is a border collie who acts like her breed. Not only does she herd Boyd, the lab mix, she often walks backwards while watching me approach her. (I've seen other border collies do this, so I know it's common to that breed.) Yesterday, I noticed Boyd walking backwards in the same fashion that Lady does. I've also seen him herd Lady into the house when I call them inside and she's not moving fast enough. Loved this article! :-)

Posted on November 27, 2007

Sue says: I noticed that my Italian Mastiff was making faces at us when we would come home. He was trying to imitate my family members and smile back at us! The way he would wrinkle his nose and bare only his fromt teeth while wagging his tail is fantastic to see!

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