How Dogs Learn From Other Dogs

Let your adult dog teach your puppy! Dogs can teach other dogs obe­di­ence com­mands.


Har­ness your puppy’s nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to im­i­tate other dogs—en­list your adult dog’s help in puppy train­ing!

Pup­pies show ten­den­cies to im­i­tate the be­hav­iours of other dogs from an early age. Bring­ing a puppy into a home where there is an adult dog who knows the rou­tines and the reg­u­la­tions can make house­break­ing con­sid­er­ably eas­ier.

Bring­ing a new puppy into my home al­ways makes me a more at­ten­tive ob­server of dog be­hav­iour. My re­cently ar­rived dog is a Nova Sco­tia Duck Tolling Retriever that I call Ranger. When he ar­rived at my house he was less than three months old and was still at the stage where he con­sid­ered the ears of my adult Cav­a­lier King Charles Spaniel, Ri­p­ley, to be chew toys. Al­though he was a typ­i­cal play­ful retriever puppy, one of the more se­ri­ous tasks that he seemed to have set for him­self was ob­serv­ing the be­hav­iours of my adult dog. He watched Ri­p­ley very care­fully, al­ways look­ing in the di­rec­tion Ri­p­ley looked, as if to see whether there was some­thing im­por­tant to ob­serve. Sim­i­larly, he would fol­low Ri­p­ley's move­ments around the house. It looked to me as though my puppy had de­cided that the adult dog prob­a­bly knew some use­ful things and that by copy­ing his be­hav­iours he might de­rive some ben­e­fits for him­self!

As a psy­chol­o­gist, it still sur­prises me that one as­pect of dog learn­ing that is over­looked by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has to do with dogs mod­el­ing their ac­tiv­i­ties on the be­hav­iours they ob­serve in other dogs. This type of learn­ing in­volves what sci­en­tists call al­lelomimetic be­hav­iours, or group-co­or­di­nated be­hav­iours that de­pend upon dogs’ in­born in­cli­na­tion to want to be with other dogs, to fol­low their lead, and do the same things. As a sim­ple ex­am­ple, how do you think that wild ca­nines, like wolves, learn to hunt? It is clear that they watch the adult mem­bers of the wolf pack en­gag­ing in those ac­tiv­i­ties and then copy those be­hav­iours, ap­ply­ing them when they grow large enough to be able to do the work them­selves.

In a sim­i­lar man­ner, our do­mes­ti­cated pup­pies show ten­den­cies to im­i­tate the be­hav­iours of other dogs from an early age. This con­tin­ues through­out their lives. It ap­pears that many so­cially sig­nif­i­cant be­hav­iours are learned as a re­sult of par­tic­i­pat­ing in such or­ga­nized so­cial be­hav­iours. This is one of the ben­e­fits of bring­ing a puppy into a home where there is an adult dog who knows the rou­tines and the reg­u­la­tions. It makes house­break­ing con­sid­er­ably eas­ier, for one, as the puppy fol­lows along and learns where and when to elim­i­nate.

There are many ex­am­ples of com­plex tasks that dogs can learn by ob­ser­va­tion. Per­haps one of the more dra­matic in­volved the work of Saint Bernard res­cue dogs. The breed was named for the hospice founded by Saint Bernard and lo­cated in the Swiss Alps on one of the prin­ci­pal roads that con­nect Switzer­land to Italy. For many years the hospice pro­vided win­ter trav­ellers with a refuge from wind, cold, bliz­zards, and avalanches. The dogs as­sisted the monks in their searches for trav­ellers who had strayed off of the main road. The monks sel­dom left the hospice with­out dogs, be­cause the moun­tain fogs can come on sud­denly and with no warn­ing, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to see even a few feet ahead. With­out the dogs the monks might have never found their way back to the hospice.

To­gether, the monks and dogs saved thou­sands of trav­ellers. The dogs worked in teams of three; when a lost trav­eller was found, two of the dogs would lie down be­side him to keep him warm and lick his face to try to keep him con­scious. Mean­while, the third re­turned to sound the alarm and bring back help. These dogs were never given any spe­cial train­ing, and, in any event, no one is ex­actly sure how one would go about train­ing a dog to do this task. Young dogs were sim­ply al­lowed to run with the older ex­pe­ri­enced dogs when they went on pa­trol. In this way the new dogs learned what was ex­pected of them. Ul­ti­mately, each dog not only learned his job but also de­cided for him­self whether his pro­fes­sional spe­cialty would even­tu­ally be to lie with the vic­tim or go for help.

I have al­ways thought that the ten­dency dogs have to model their be­hav­iours on what they see other dogs do­ing might be used to help teach com­mon obe­di­ence com­mands. Thus, I de­vel­oped a rou­tine to as­sist in my puppy's train­ing that takes ad­van­tage of the fact that my adult dog al­ready re­sponds to com­mands that I want the puppy to learn. With the two dogs to­gether, I give the obe­di­ence com­mand to the adult dog, and then at­tempt to lure the puppy into po­si­tion (for ex­am­ple a “sit” or “down”) us­ing a bit of bait. This mod­el­ing ap­proach def­i­nitely de­creased the amount of time it took the puppy to catch the gist of what I wanted; af­ter only a few rep­e­ti­tions, when it was the puppy’s turn to per­form he would in­de­pen­dently re­spond

cor­rectly. Later, when I had the puppy alone and gave him the obe­di­ence com­mand, I found that he un­der­stood the com­mand a greater per­cent­age of the time than I would nor­mally an­tic­i­pate. This seemed to con­firm my no­tion that it might be use­ful to de­lib­er­ately use a dog as a demon­stra­tor in or­der to help teach other dogs spe­cific obe­di­ence com­mands. Of course, I rea­soned that if this were the case then some ca­nine be­havioural re­searcher would have at­tempted to demon­strate that ex­per­i­men­tally, but when I searched the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture to see if dog demon­stra­tors could be use­ful in teach­ing obe­di­ence com­mands to other dogs, I found very lit­tle that di­rectly dealt with this ques­tion in the pub­lished re­search archives. I was there­fore very pleased when a re­cent re­port from an in­ves­tiga­tive team headed by Anna Scan­durra in the De­part­ment of Bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Naples landed on my desk. The ar­ti­cle had just been ac­cepted for pub­li­ca­tion by the jour­nal Ap­plied An­i­mal Be­hav­iour Sci­ence.

The sub­jects of this study were 50 Labrador Retriev­ers, all of whom lived at home with their own­ers. One in­ter­est­ing as­pect of this in­ves­ti­ga­tion is that none of these dog own­ers were pro­fes­sional train­ers, so the ques­tion that the re­searchers were try­ing to ad­dress was whether an un­trained dog can learn a new obe­di­ence com­mand af­ter see­ing it demon­strated, even though it was be­ing han­dled by a rel­a­tively un­trained per­son and not a dog trainer.

There were two obe­di­ence com­mands that the dogs could be trained to re­spond to. The first was “trunk,” for which the cor­rect re­sponse was to jump on a rec­tan­gu­lar trunk. The al­ter­na­tive was “slide” where the cor­rect ac­tion was to hop onto a child's toy slide. The first part of the re­search in­volved a pretest to see whether or not the dogs could al­ready be in­duced to per­form the task. The own­ers were asked to per­suade the dog to per­form the task us­ing what­ever meth­ods they felt would work the best (in­clud­ing us­ing food as a lure). Those dogs who man­aged to per­form the task within the 15 sec­onds al­lot­ted were ex­cluded from fur­ther test­ing, so that only dogs who had demon­strated that they did not un­der­stand the com­mand would go on to the train­ing phase.

In the train­ing stage of the study, the de­sired be­hav­iour was demon­strated by an­other Labrador Retriever who had al­ready learned the “trunk” and “slide” com­mands. The dogs who ob­served the demon­stra­tor dog were then given an­other chance to try to per­form the task. Their per­for­mance was com­pared with a con­trol group who were also asked to per­form the task with­out hav­ing ob­served an­other dog demon­strat­ing the cor­rect ac­tion. Re­mem­ber that the dog own­ers were not prac­ticed, pro­fes­sional train­ers and were sim­ply try­ing to lure or in­duce their dogs to per­form the be­hav­iour in any way that they thought might work.

The re­sults were in­ter­est­ing and un­am­bigu­ous. Of the dogs who ob­served a demon­stra­tor dog, 62.5 per­cent per­formed the task cor­rectly in the test phase, as com­pared to the 23.5 per­cent suc­ces­ful per­for­mance rate seen among the dogs who did not get to see the demon­stra­tion. There was one in­ter­est­ing nu­ance in the re­sults, namely that the dogs who were a lit­tle bit older seemed to ben­e­fit from the demon­stra­tion some­what more. Pre­sum­ably a life­time of watch­ing other dogs be­have had al­ready taught them that some­times it is use­ful to model the be­hav­iour of other ca­nines.

The ex­per­i­menters sum­ma­rized their data by say­ing, “In con­clu­sion, our re­sults sug­gest that ob­ser­va­tional learn­ing could be use­ful in dog train­ing.” They point out that it may be par­tic­u­larly valu­able when the dog's train­ing is be­ing done by a rel­a­tively naïve han­dler rather than a pro­fes­sional dog trainer.

For me, this val­i­dates my ca­su­ally de­vel­oped tech­nique of giv­ing obe­di­ence com­mands first to my adult dog who serves as a demon­stra­tor, and then fol­low­ing it by at­tempt­ing to lure the puppy to do the same thing. The down­side of pup­pies watch­ing and learn­ing is that they can also learn un­de­sir­able be­hav­iours from the other dogs in the house­hold. For ex­am­ple, Ri­p­ley has al­ready taught Ranger how to open the clothes ham­per and pull out dirty socks to use as play toys…

Il­lus­tra­tion by Me­lanie Luther

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