Dogs Imitate People

This seems to be a good day for finding scientific studies about dogs!  It’s not uncommon for people to believe that owners and dogs resemble each other — which is fine if you have a beautiful dog.  It’s not quite as flattering if you have the ugliest dog in the world!  Don’t feel bad.  Remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  But, did you know that our dogs seem to be imitating our actions?  It’s true, at least according to a study published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B.  Dogs seem to copy at least some of our body movements and behaviours, whether it’s in their best interests or not.  It seems to be spontaneous and involuntary.

Ten adult dogs and their owners, from Austria, participated in the study.  The dogs received preliminary training to open a sliding door using their head or their paw.  The dogs then watched their owners open the door using their hand or their head.  For the owner to open the door with their head, they would have to get down on the floor and use their head  to push up or down on the sliding door.  (Yes, wouldn’t you like to see this on video?)

Then the dogs were divided into two groups.  The dogs in the first group were rewarded when they copied what their owner did.  The dogs in the second group were rewarded when they did the opposite of what their owner did.

The experiment showed that all of the dogs were inclined to copy whatever their owner did, even if it meant they would not get a reward.

“This finding suggests that the dogs brought with them to the experiment a tendency automatically to imitate hand use and/or paw use by their owner; to imitate these actions even when it was costly to do so,” the authors report.

The researchers suggested that owners could use these findings to make training their dogs go much better.  For example, if you wanted your dog to do something with his paw, you could use your hand to demonstrate for the dog, such as showing the dog how to shake hands by putting your hand out.

The researchers said that this kind of imitation of another species is very rare.  It’s not unusual for humans to imitate each other; or for primates to imitate each other; or for birds to do it.  But it is very unusual for one species to imitate another.

“Dogs are special animals, both in terms of their evolutionary history of domestication and the range and intensity of their developmental training by humans,” the researchers explained.

“Both of these factors may enhance the extent to which dogs attend to human activity,” they added, “but the results of the present experiment suggest it is the latter — training in the course of development — which plays the more powerful and specific role in shaping their imitative behaviour.”

So, be careful how you behave around your dogs.  Your dogs are likely to display the same behaviour.

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