Can a Dog Learn Obedience Commands from Watching Other Dogs?

A demonstration by another dog may be a useful training aid

Posted Dec 09, 2015

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Bringing a new puppy into my house always makes me more observant and attentive as I watch my new dog learn to adapt to this novel environment. My new pup is a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, that I call Ranger. He is less than three months old and is still at the stage where he considers the ears of my adult Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, as chew toys.

It is well-established that dogs watch the behaviors of other dogs and try to gather useful information from their observations. Dogs will often model the behaviors of other dogs when there seems to be some kind of advantage to be gained (click here for an example). 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. For example this makes housebreaking considerably easier,  as the puppy follows along and learns where and when to eliminate.

I expected that responses to obedience commands, however, would be quite different. At this stage of the puppy's training, when I have the two dogs together, I usually 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. In the case of this new pup I found that I would give the instruction to my adult dog, and then, after only a few instances, when I turned to the puppy I observed that he was already responding correctly. Later, when I had the puppy alone and gave him the obedience command, I found that he would already correctly respond, at least a certain proportion of the time. This surprised me, since it suggested the possibility 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 that was the case then someone would have attempted to demonstrate that experimentally.

When I searched the scientific literature to see if dog demonstrators could be useful in teaching obedience commands to other dogs I failed to find anything directly bearing on this question in the published research archives. I was therefore very pleased to find a recent report from a investigative team headed by Anna Scandurra in the Department of Biology at the University of Naples. This article has just been accepted for publication by the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science*, and should be in print within the next few months.

The subjects of this study were 50 Labrador Retrievers, who lived at home with their owners all. One interesting aspect of this study is that none of these dog owners were professional handlers, so the question is going to be whether an untrained dog can learn a new obedience command after seeing it demonstrated when being handled by a relatively untrained, naïve, dog trainer.

Dogs could be trained to perform one of two different tasks. One was to jump on a rectangular trunk on command, while the other was to hop onto a child's toy slide. The first part of the experiment involved a pretest to see whether or not the dogs could already perform the task. The owners were asked to induce the dog to perform the task assigned to them 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 were not performing the task would go on to the training stage.

In the experimental stage of the study, after making sure that the observer dogs were paying attention, the task was then demonstrated to the experimental group of dogs by another Labrador Retriever who had already learned the "trunk" and "slide" commands. Then, after a short interval, the observer dogs and their handlers were given another chance to try to perform the task.The handlers were asked to use the same technique that they tried to use in the pretest. Their performance was compared with a control group who also got a second chance to perform the task, however they were not given an opportunity to observe a demonstrator dog performing the action.

The results were interesting and unambiguous. Of the dogs who observed a demonstrator dog, 62.5% performed the task correctly in the test phase, as compared to only 23.5% of the dogs who did not get to observe 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 based on the fact that a lifetime of watching other dogs behave had already taught them that sometimes it was useful to model the behavior of other canines.

The experimenters summarize 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 trainer rather than a professional dog handler.

So for me it seems to validate my casually developed technique of giving obedience commands first to my adult dog, who is then serving as a demonstrator, and then following it by attempting to lure the puppy to do the same thing.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: 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

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* Data from: Scandurra, A., Mongillo, P., Marinelli, L., Aria, M., D’Aniello, B. (2015). Conspecific observational learning by adult dogs in a training context, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.11.003