Teaching your dog basic commands is one of the most effective ways to provide your pet with the knowledge he needs to be a well mannered dog you can easily and reliably control. Some dogs have a mind of their own, however, and would rather play than sit for a training session. Some dogs may require many repetitions before they catch on to a command, which can make training frustrating. A new study found that you may be more successful teaching your dog by giving him a chance to watch a dog that already knows a command do it first.
When watching a team of experienced sled dogs navigate over a snow covered trail with ease, onlookers marvel at the control the driver has over the dogs. It takes lots of work and practice to get to that point, though. Most experienced drivers will tell you the best way to teach a dog the skills he needs to be a successful sled dog is to let experienced four legged team members teach a younger pup the ropes. The newcomer learns by observing the other dogs.
In the mid 1700s, Augustine monks living in a pass in the Swiss Alps discovered that their Saint Bernard dogs had a unique ability to rescue lost travelers who strayed from the road. The monks were impressed because they had never officially trained their dogs to go out on rescue missions. Eventually the monks established a training program, but the most effective one was done by experienced dogs themselves teaching younger ones how to do their job.
Our canine friends pay attention to what we and other dogs are doing. It’s easier to housebreak a puppy when there is another housebroken dog to show him where to go. If you are trying to teach your pup basic commands, his favorite CANIDAE treats can help him learn to associate certain words with behaviors you expect from him. But having an older dog who already knows his commands can help your pup learn commands easier and faster when he pays attention to how the other dog responds. This isn’t to say that the pup will be able to comply perfectly to a command when he is alone with you. It takes daily practice, patience and commitment on your part, and time for him to mature and learn to do what you ask on a regular basis. Until recently, however, no studies had been done to show that dogs can learn by watching other dogs.
Researchers from the Department of Biology at the University of Naples used 50 Labrador Retrievers who lived with their owners. None of the owners were professional trainers. The study was conducted to see if untrained dogs could learn a new command simply by watching another dog perform the command first, as well as learn from someone who wasn’t a knowledgeable trainer.
In the first part of the research, owners were asked to have their dog perform one of two challenges: either teach their dog to jump onto a rectangular trunk on command, or jump onto a child’s toy slide. If a dog already knew how to perform one of the tasks, the owners were asked to see if they could get their dog to do the one they didn’t know using a food or toy reward. All dogs who met the challenge within a 15 second allotted time were excluded from any more testing. Those who couldn’t do the task went on to the next test.
In the next step, the dogs and their owners were split into two groups. One group would be used as a control group while the other would watch as another dog performed the commands. When all of the dogs in the observer group were paying attention, a Lab who had already mastered the two commands demonstrated how to perform them. After a short period, the owners were asked to see if they could get their dog to perform the same task. The control group also had a chance to try again, but these dogs didn’t have the benefit of watching another dog who knew how to do the commands.
Of the dogs who had an opportunity to watch another dog perform the commands, 62.5% were able to correctly do it during the testing phase. Only 23.5% of the dogs in the control group were successful. What’s even more interesting is that after watching the experienced dog perform the task, older dogs seemed able to “get it” more so than younger ones. Researchers think this is because older canines have a lifetime of observing other dogs and understand that sometimes it’s in their best interest to follow the same behavior of other dogs. Researchers concluded by saying that observational learning could be helpful during training.
So if you are training a dog who doesn’t understand what you want, it might be helpful to let him watch a dog who already knows the command. It’s certainly worth a try!
Read more articles by Linda Cole