Doggy See, Doggy Do
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.