Pete Eveleigh photo — Creative Commons License
Source: Pete Eveleigh photo — Creative Commons License

There are many behaviors that dogs and human children have in common. Generally speaking if there are differences between the performance of a dog and a child it is because the child is doing better, and is more efficient than the dog. However a new study* conducted by Angie Johnston, Paul Holden, and Laurie Santos at Yale University's Canine Cognition Center shows that sometimes dogs can be smarter and more efficient than 3 to 4-year-old kids.

Both human children and dogs learn a lot of their behaviors by watching other individuals doing things and solving problems. Both dogs and kids recognize that the information that they get this way can be useful, and therefore they tend to imitate or model the behaviors that they see. While most of the behaviors that they see may be on target when it comes to solving a problem or completing a task, sometimes the individual serving as a demonstrator may also include some activities which are unimportant and unneeded. When children imitate what they have seen they will often copy those actions which are irrelevant as well as those which are actually needed. For example, when one of my grandchildren was only around four years of age she learned how to make oatmeal in the microwave oven by watching her mother do it. For some reason, after measuring the oatmeal and water into a bowl, her mother let it sit on the counter for a minute or two before putting it into the microwave. From that time on, whenever my granddaughter would make oatmeal for herself in the microwave she would insert that extra step, deliberately letting the bowl with the ingredients sit for a minute or two before cooking it. Her behavior persisted despite the fact that this extra step was completely unnecessary. This is not unusual. When learning from others, human children tend to faithfully copy all of the actions that they see even if some are meaningless with reference to totally solving the task at hand. This kind of behavior is called overimitation.

An example of overimitation by children comes from an earlier study conducted at Yale by psychologist Frank Keil and his colleagues. This experiment used a puzzle box. The children who were tested watched a demonstrator solve the puzzle by first moving a lever and then lifting the lid of the box which allowed them to pull out a prize. However the lever movement that was demonstrated was totally irrelevant for solving the problem and the box lid could be lifted even though nothing at all was done with the lever. Nonetheless children repeatedly performed both steps (move the lever and then lift the lid), even when they were in a race to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

In this recent study a dog friendly version of the puzzle box was used. As in the case of the experiment involving children, a demonstrator showed the dogs how to open the box and get a treat using two steps. The first involved moving the lever (which, as in the case of the investigation with children, was an unnecessary step that had no effect at all) and then by lifting the lid. Just like the kids, at first the dogs manipulated the lever before opening the lid, however after a few experiences with the puzzle box, most of the dogs dropped the extraneous step of manipulating the lever before opening the lid. Angie Johnston, who was the lead author on the study noted, “Although dogs are highly social animals, they draw the line at copying irrelevant actions.” Thus at least in this situation dogs turned out to be more efficient learners than young children.

Another member of the research team, Yale Professor of Psychology Laurie Santos notes "So this tells us something really important about how humans learn relative to other animals. We’re really trusting of the information that we get from other individuals – even more trusting than dogs are."

This overimitation on the part of the children relative to the dogs might seem like a silly strategy, however, the authors note "Once kids are out in the world there are uncountable social conventions–shaking hands, saying 'please,' holding a door for the person behind you–that may seem irrelevant to getting immediate needs satisfied but are essential to the maintenance of social order." Dogs apparently focus on the task at hand and obviously are not designed to adhere to social niceties, meaning that they seem to be able to ignore any aspects of behavior that are not relevant to achieving their goals.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; 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

* Data from: Johnston, A.M., Holden, P.C. and Santos, L.R. (2016). Exploring the evolutionary origins of overimitation: a comparison across domesticated and non-domesticated canids. Developmental Science, DOI: 10.1111/desc.12460

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