Doggy See, Doggy Do

March 5, 2008 at 5:55 am 2 comments

Being able to understanding the intentions of others while watching their actions and learning to imitate their behavior are two fundamental building blocks of social behavior.  Until recently, humans were thought to be unique in our ability to understand the goals and intentions of others and to selectively imitate their behavior. 

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that of all the animals on the earth, the one who is most like us in this respect is not the chimp or the gorilla, but our long-time companion the domestic dog.  Recent studies at the University of Vienna and Eötvös University in Budapest, have revealed amazing similarities in the way humans and dogs imitate the actions of others. The research focused on a phenomenon known as “selective imitation.” In selective imitations, an animal not only copies the actions it observes, it also adjusts the way it imitates those actions to meet its perceived goals of that action. To quote from the article in Science Daily:

In the study, dogs were faced with the task of opening a container with food by pulling a rod. Whereas dogs prefer to use the mouth for this task, a female dog was trained to open the box with her paw. When the other dogs observed the female’s action, they imitated it in order to get the food. However, the dogs imitated selectively. They used their mouths instead of their paws for manipulating the rod when they had seen the demonstrating dog using her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. However, when the demonstrating dog’s mouth was free, the dogs imitated her action completely and used the paw themselves. 

The behavior of these dogs implies not only that they understood the goal of their actions, but that they were also capable of doing it selectively.  When given an opportunity, they usually chose the simpler method to gain the food.  Again from Science Daily:

This reveals a striking parallel between dogs and human infants in that they do not simply “ape” an action, but only do so if it appears appropriate for the goal. In that sense, dogs seem more similar to us humans than are our biologically closest relatives, the chimpanzees, which will in similar tasks always opt for the more effective way of attaining the goal. 

In recent years, studies have found many striking parallels in the ways that humans and domestic dogs perceive and understand our world.  These parallels may have evolved during our long relationship together.  

Studies conducted at Eotvos Lorand University’s Department of Ethology in Budapest demonstrated that wolves do not share this skill with their brother, the domestic dog.  These findings add credence to the theory that dogs have evolved to be masters at observing AND understanding human behavior. 

Dog trainers have taken advantage of our dogs’ ability to observe and imitate us since the dawn of dog training.  Watch any skilled handler lure or guide their dog through a task and you’ll see a dance comprised of two creatures who understand each other’s goals and intentions.

This video, showing some lovely footage of a dog imitating a human, is for my friend Zorro.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog, dog training, dogs. Tags: , , , , .

The Power of Dog Hair Where’s the Beef?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  March 5, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    I was reflecting on Audie’s sister’s ability (at 10 months of age) to contextualize what I mean when I tell her to “move.”

    I’m in bed with the flu this week. I have the English Shepherd Comfort Squad on duty, usually pressed into my sides.

    At times I have to rearrange them — a dog is crowding my feet, or two of them are gullivering me by pinning the comforter, or I’m too warm. Or there are dog schnozzes encroaching on the laptop keyboard or into my book.

    They seem to be able to grok when “move” means “get off the covers,” when it means “give my feet some room,” etc. They move in whatever way responds to what I need. If I need to arrange the comforter, Rosie will move onto the pillows, wait until that’s done and I’ve resettled, and then take up her former position.

    Now that I’ve noticed them doing this, I’m observing it more today, and making an effort not to telegraph with directional body language. There’s no difference in their responses.

    This is, in its way, even more advanced than imitation or mirroring. I’d call it true empathy. That’s not just emotionally evolved, it’s quite cognitively sophisticated.

    This flu came on during SAR training this weekend, hit me acutely while I was skiing back from a task. I collapsed several times — didn’t fall, collapsed. I was genuinely scared that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the car under my own power, the sun was setting, and At Night The Ice Weasels Come.

    Normally, if I fall while skiing, the dogs think it’s funny and jump all over me, get kissy while mocking my bipedal failures. When I collapsed with swimming head, ringing ears and tunnel vision, the girls kept their distance, and Moe would tuck under my uphill arm and brace to help me up. He’s never been trained to brace. And he went to the uphill side without fail. How’d he know to do that?

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  March 5, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    This empathy thing is an enormous gaping hole in the behaviorist’s little black box of operant conditioning tricks. What was the antecedent for the proper ‘move’ behavior? And what was the consequence?

    These days the only interesting or insightful work on dogs is being done in eastern Europe. They study pet dogs and free range dogs, not pathetic yoked creatures or beasts raised in mind numbingly sterile lab conditions. The dogs have names. They get petted. They get encouraged. And more and more the research shows, they think and they communicate. And they’re more like us than apes are.

    One can only hope that real science will continue to march ahead in the Balkans and eventually find a way to invade the US.

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