New Study Says Dogs Are Capable of Imitating Us

By Linda Cole

One nagging question dog owners have is “Why is my pet always staring at me?” Dog experts may have cracked the mystery to that question. According to a new study, dogs watch what we do, remember an action and imitate it with their own interpretation of what they saw us do.

Our long relationship with dogs has given them plenty of time to study us. They pay attention and can learn through observation. To prove this concept, researchers at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest tested dogs to see if they could learn by watching, remember what they saw and then repeat an action on command. According to the scientists, the study shows that dogs can do those things, and provides evidence for the cognitive ability of our canine friends.

Researchers tested eight adult pet dogs ranging in age from 2 to 10 years. The dogs were all female of different breeds, plus one mixed breed. They began with a preliminary test to prepare the dogs for the actual test. Taking turns, each owner had their dog stay and gave the command “Do as I do.” While the dog watched, her owner walked around a traffic cone, rang a bell hanging from a bar, or stuck their head in a bucket on the ground. Returning to the dog, the person waited 5 seconds, then gave the command, “Do it,” and waited for the dog to copy what her owner had done.

Another step was added, and the dog was taken behind a screen for 30 seconds after watching her owner perform an action, returned to the testing site and given the “Do it” command. The wait time behind the screen was slowly increased once the dogs imitated an action two times in a row after a 30 second wait. Then they were ready for the real testing to begin.

The canines were given 19 tests with different conditions. For example, the dogs were asked to watch their owner do an action they had never seen before, a familiar action, and a distracting action. The new action was walking inside a wooden box. For this test, the dogs waited behind a screen for a minute before being taken back to the start and given the command.

The distracting test required the dog to watch something she had seen before, but this time during the wait time, she was given a distraction like fetching a ball or lying down, and had to wait anywhere from 30 seconds up to 4 minutes. The longest wait period was 10 minutes, after watching a familiar action. Six dogs made only one error, one had two mistakes and one had six errors.

The researchers wanted to see if dogs can perform deferred imitation, which is recognized as a sophisticated cognitive skill. Deferred imitation requires a person or dog to recall an action after a delay of one or more minutes. It’s only possible if a person or dog has retained a mental picture of an action. The results showed dogs have long term memory when it comes to recalling events and remembering them.

A similar study was done in early 2013 by a researcher in the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna. Ten adult dogs of different breeds were taught how to open a sliding door with their head or paw. They then watched their owner open the door with their hand or head. The dogs were divided into two groups; one received a food reward when they copied their owner, the other group didn’t get a reward. All of the dogs imitated their owner, regardless of receiving a reward or not. This research showed that dogs do imitate us even when it’s not in their best interest.

In 2009, a team of scientists concluded dogs could imitate our actions only when there was a 5 second delay or less between the action and command to repeat it. But an earlier study had different results, with a dog named Philip, a four year old Belgian Tervuren trained to assist his disabled owner. The researchers did a simple action like dropping an object inside a box, jumping in place, or taking something to Philip’s owner. He was given the command “Do it,” and Philip performed the exact action he had watched. These actions were not ones Philip was already accustomed to doing. The experiment wasn’t to test his memory; it was designed to test his ability to imitate.

Top photo by Don Graham
Bottom photo by prettyinprint

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