Think about how you learned much of the important knowledge that you use to guide your life. Often that knowledge was simply gained by observing other people, such as teachers, parents, or friends. You learned language by listening to someone speak it and repeating those sounds. You learned how to tie your shoelaces or button your blouse by watching as your mother demonstrated how it was done. You learned how to use a can opener by observing another person doing this same thing. These behaviors came about because people extract information from watching the deliberate or casual actions of other human beings and use it to guide and shape their own actions. Psychologists call this social learning, not because it involves learning social manners, customs, or communication, but because it refers to a type of learning that is socially transmitted or socially facilitated. This kind of learning and performance seems to be unique to the most evolutionarily advanced animals that live in a complex social environment and that includes dogs.

Péter Pongrácz and a team of researchers from Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have been studying testing whether dogs can learn to solve a problem that involves finding a particular path to a reward just by simply observing someone else successfully complete it. The general experimental arrangement that they use is a large V shaped wire fence with each side of the V about 3 meters (10 feet) long and the point of the V facing toward the dog. A highly desirable treat or toy is placed in the point behind the fence. Psychologists call this kind of situation a "detour problem." It is an interesting situation to test animals with because the solution requires the animal to move some distance away from their goal before going back to it. In this case a dog must move down the side of the V shaped fence for a good distance (which seems to take him farther away from the treat he wants) and then eventually he can reach the end of the fence and be able to curve around and enter the V from the open side and reach his goal.

Although initially dogs experience difficulties in solving problems involving such detours, they usually can learn to solve these tasks by trial and error. That trial and error learning, however, is slow and the dogs usually need to blunder their way around until they successfully find their way around the fence. Often they must find the treat at least five or six times before they catch on and have that “Aha!” experience. Once they achieve this insight they quickly and reliably move around the barrier to get their reward.

Suppose that instead of just letting the dog poke around until he finds a solution, he is kept in one place and allowed to watch someone else (either a dog or a human) taking the correct path down the side of the V shaped barrier and in through the back to get the treat. The dog usually learns what to do from observing the correct behavior and when given the chance solves the problem quickly, usually in one single attempt, instead of the expected five or six.


dog canine learning modelling detour barrier problem

In a report published in the journal Animal Cognition, Péter Pongrácz, Viktória Vida, Petra Bánhegyi and Ádám Miklósi asked the question “Does the dominance or social rank of the dog or the rank of the individual who is demonstrating the behavior make a difference in social learning?” We know that it does in humans since, for example, children are much more likely to model their behaviors after demonstrations given by teachers or parents. They are less likely to model their behavior after the actions of adults who are strangers, and even less likely to model their behaviors after other children, especially children who are younger than they are.

The research team started with the presumption that in multi-dog households, the dogs form their own social hierarchy. For example, if there are two dogs in the home, one of the dogs will normally be dominant and the other will be subordinate and give way to the dominant dog in most situations. However, despite the dominance rankings among the dogs, the human beings in the household will nearly always be seen as dominant over all of the canines.

 After determining their dominance rank using a behavior inventory given to the dogs' owners, each dog was separately tested on the detour problem. In this case, given no other source of information other than trial and error, there was no difference in the performance of dominant and subordinate dogs.

Next the experimental procedure was changed. Now a new group of dogs was then allowed to watch a "demonstrator dog" who was a complete stranger to them. This demonstrator solved the detour problem by running down the side of the V shaped fence and around the open end to get the treat. Now here is the interesting outcome. The dominant dogs seem to ignore the information which was being provided to them by the demonstrator dog. They showed very little improvement in their solving of the detour problem. The subordinate dogs, however, use the information from the demonstrator dog without hesitation and rapidly solved the problem. It was almost as if the dominant dog, confident in his position and rank, simply refuses to take instruction from an unfamiliar dog, presuming that that dog was inferior in rank and therefore either not worthy of attention, or not to be believed to be a reliable source of information. A human analogy might be the case where a six-year-old attempts to show an adult (who believes that he is computer literate) how to solve the problem he is having on the computer. The dominant and confident individual might well ignore information from the child who he views as “inferior”. Meanwhile another person who has a lower self confidence about his own knowledge of computers is more likely to accept the information that the child is providing and at least give it a try, thus quickly solving the problem.

Finally, one last change of the experimental procedure was tried on yet another group of dogs. In this test the demonstrator is not an unfamiliar dog, but is a human being who is presumed to be viewed as higher in rank than both the dominant and subordinate dogs. Now all dogs, regardless of their rank and dominance, use the information provided to solve the detour problem. In fact, in this situation, the dominant dog seems to use the information more quickly and efficiently. Apparently dominant dogs are perfectly willing to accept instruction from individuals that they perceive as being high ranking, and to use what they have learned to their advantage.

Apparently dogs, like people, are only willing to believe what they learn from those that they consider to be their equals or superiors in rank, and are likely to dismiss communications and information from those they consider to be their inferiors.

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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