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Do Dogs Spontaneously Imitate Behaviors?

There are many instances where dogs spontaneously imitate animals or humans.

Key points

  • As early as 1871, Charles Darwin noticed that dogs sometimes, of their own accord, imitated the behaviors of others.
  • Dogs have been observed imitating the vocal behaviors of people in some instances in order to produce word-like sounds.
  • Dogs have also been seen to imitate the movement patterns of certain humans, such as toddlers or people with unusual gaits.
Ben McLeod, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Source: Ben McLeod, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I got a note from Pam Lee who lives in Vancouver, Canada. She described some interesting behavior displayed by her 3-year-old Alaskan Malamute, Icy.

Pam is a young mother and her son, Alexander, is just at the age where he is starting to move himself around the room. He is really at that pre-crawling stage, where the tot is not up and moving on his hands and knees, but rather uses his upper arms to drag his body along. It is an awkward form of movement, but the little boy does manage to move from one side of the room to the other without ever lifting his belly from the floor. Alexander had just taken to traveling around this way, when one afternoon Pam noticed her dog, Icy, moving along beside him. Icy had scrunched down so that his belly was on the floor as well and was dragging himself along in a perfect canine imitation of the baby's dragging movement pattern.

Pam assured me that neither she nor her husband had done anything to encourage Icy to behave this way and were certainly not rewarding him for doing so. Her husband found the behavior to be so strange that he went on to the internet to find an explanation, and actually found some YouTube videos that have been posted of other dogs similarly mimicking babies early crawling. She went on to ask, "Is it typical for dogs to spontaneously imitate behaviors even if there is no apparent reward for their doing this?"

Imitating Sounds

Actually, it turns out that there have been many reports of dogs spontaneously imitating other dogs or animals and even Charles Darwin mentions some examples in 1871 in his classic book The Descent of Man.

Perhaps the first instance that I remember where a dog showed unprompted imitation behavior involved an apricot-colored standard poodle named Brandy. He was owned by psychologist Janet Werker and stayed home alone during the day when the family was at work. Each evening when the family members returned home they habitually greeted Brandy by tousling his ears and saying "Hello!" in a cheerful and singsong tone of voice. Without any specific training, Brandy learned to give an imitative two-syllable "arl-row," which for all the world sounds like a doggish attempt to say the word "Hello!" in the same tone which his family usually greets him. He emits this behavior when family members enter the house at the end of the day; however it is reserved for family and is never given to strangers.

Imitating Other Animals

Dogs may also spontaneously imitate other animals as I learned from Marvin Goldman, of Brooklyn, New York. He brought home a young puppy named Willy. In his house, he also had a female cat that had just had a litter of kittens. His cat "adopted" Willy, treating him like one of her kittens, even to the point of washing him with her tongue. Willy responded by quickly learning to imitate some aspects of cat culture, including the familiar cat habit of washing his paws with his tongue and then using them to clean his face and ears.

A Phantom Limp

The aspects of behavior that dogs choose to imitate seem to be quite random as became clear from a recent report coming out of London. Russell Jones lives in the UK and he accidentally broke his ankle last year and ended up in a cast. As a result he required crutches to move around. To add to these woes his dog, an 8-year-old lurcher named Billy, also seemed to be suffering from mobility issues since Billy started limping as well. Russell took the dog to his veterinarian worried that something must be wrong with Billy's foot. The appointment cost £300 (over $400 USD), and it involved both a scan and x-rays. Yet, as far as the vet could determine, nothing seemed wrong or out of place. As Russell described it, “He walked in normally, and when he came out they said they couldn’t find anything wrong with him.”

Nonetheless, when they got home, Billy immediately started limping again. A short while later Russell's wife Michelle glanced out of her kitchen window and noticed Billy sprinting around the garden. He was showing no signs of limp or impairment — at least while Russell was not around.

It took a bit of time but ultimately Russell pieced together the truth. It seems that Billy was only imitating Russell's limping gate while he was hobbling around on crutches. Without Russell in the room to provide a visual model, Billy's limp was miraculously cured.

Why dogs choose to spontaneously imitate certain behaviors of humans or other animals is not clear. However, Charles Darwin suggested that the fact that dogs do imitate others was a sign of their intelligence and their attempt to adapt to their environment — even though what they are choosing to imitate may not seem to be sensible or useful when viewed from a human perspective.

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Charles Darwin (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

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