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Dogs Learn by Modeling the Behavior of Other Dogs

Where human prompting may fail to teach a puppy, another dog can help.

One aspect of dog learning that often seems to be overlooked by the scientific community has to do with dogs modeling their activities on the behaviors that they observe in other dogs. This involves what scientists call allelomimetic behaviors. These are group-coordinated behaviors that depend upon an inborn inclination for dogs to want to be with other dogs, to follow their lead, and do the same thing. Puppies show tendencies to imitate the behaviors of others from an early age and this continues throughout their lives. It appears that many socially significant behaviors are learned as a result of participating in such organized social behaviors.

Creative Commons License CC0
Source: Creative Commons License CC0

Many dog owners have learned that bringing a puppy into a house that already has an adult dog that has been trained greatly simplifies its training. The puppy learns to come when called by tagging along with the other dog. Teaching a pup to hop into your car on command is simple when you have another dog that responds to the command. Housebreaking is simplified because the pup will follow along with the adult and will eliminate at the same times and in the same outdoor locations that his companion does.

There are more complex tasks that dogs seem to learn by observation as well. Some are of sufficient complexity that it would be difficult to design a program to train dogs to do effectively. An example of this is the work of Saint Bernard rescue dogs. The breed was named for the Hospice founded by Saint Bernard. It was located in the Swiss Alps on one of the principal roads that connect Switzerland to Italy. 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 one foot ahead. Without the dogs the monks would never find their way back to the hospice. Together the monks and dogs have saved thousands of travellers. These rescue dogs work in three dog teams. When a lost traveller is found, two of the dogs lie down beside him to keep him warm, while the third returns to sound the alarm and bring back help. These dogs are never given any special training, and no one is exactly sure how one would go about training a dog to do this task in any event. Young dogs are simply allowed to run with the older experienced dogs when they go on patrol. In this way the dogs learn what is expected of them. Ultimately, each dog learns his job, and also decides for himself whether his professional specialty will eventually be to lie with the victim or go for help.

Let me give you an example of the effectiveness of having another dog to model behavior after. Take the common, but initially frightening, task of walking down stairs. Many puppies find this to be a terrifying experience, and even coaxing and physical prompting combined with social support may not be successful, as you can see in this video.

Now consider an almost identical situation with a terrified puppy at the top of a set of stairs, only now we add the support of another dog, who serves as a social stimulus for the allelomimetic tendencies in the puppy, and also as a model to demonstrate the behaviors. Under these conditions the puppy ultimately succeeds in mastering his fear of stairs.

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

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