Social Learning in Dogs

I remember reading awhile ago that there was a study done on puppies who watched their mother work (e.g. pulling a cart) vs puppies who never watched their mother work. The results of this study showed that puppies who observed their mother at work learned the skill themselves much quicker than the puppies who never got to watch their mother.

Something about that article stuck with me, so now, when Betsy and I attend agility class, we often hang back and let the others complete a task first, in hopes that watching the other dogs successfully work will help Betsy understand what’s expected when it’s our turn.

Does it help?

I’d like to think it does, but I don’t have any hard evidence.

My best “proof” that dogs can learn through observation involves the agility teeter:

A lot of dogs find the teeter daunting, because it’s unstable underfoot and when it lands it lets out a loud banging noise.

Betsy found the teeter a bit freaky at first. We’d practiced with it in low-to-the-ground (less wobbly) mode fairly often but she had a tendency to shy off to the side when we got close to the ‘bang’ part.


An example of the agility teeter, stolen off @remcat on flickr

However, there was another dog in our class – an Australian Shepherd – who LOVED the teeter. He’d tear up and down it at top speed. I had Betsy sit and watch him a few times, and sure enough, when it was her turn she was SO excited and ran over it like she’d been doing it her whole life. Next class she was running it at regular height, just as excited and confident as her Australian Shepherd role model. The change was so sudden that both me and the agility instructor were surprised.

We’ve never had a problem with the teeter since.

I will forever attribute this change to social learning – Betsy learned the teeter is not-scary by watching a confident dog happily run over it. But if you want to be contentious, you could argue that it was just a coincidence, and she had been on the cusp of coming around to the teeter anyway.

Karen Pryor, famous for her clicker training seminars, believes dogs can learn through observation. She’s not the only trainer who feels this way: When Betsy and I used to attend puppy socialization classes, the trainer who lead them would often talk about the puppies copying play moves off of one another. And I’m sure you’ve read stories about older dogs teaching new young pups the ropes.

There have been a few studies done on dogs and social learning. This study in which dogs observe a human solve a problem, seems to suggest that dogs do not learn through observation. I don’t buy it, but the study exists, so to be fair I am including it. This study, on the other hand, shows that Miniature Dachshund puppies seem to learn better when they get to watch their littermates learn first.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D, a well respected dog trainer, published an article in support of social learning in dogs. He cites St Bernard rescue dogs in the Swiss Alps, who seem to learn their job purely by watching their elders, and not through any human instruction at all.

And perhaps in the most compelling study of all, these german shepherd puppies were split up – some got to watch their drug sniffing mother at work, and some didn’t. The result:

Pups with extended maternal care which were allowed to observe their trained mothers locating and retrieving a sachet of odour-producing narcotic between the ages of 6 and 12 weeks performed the same task significantly better than non-exposed pups when tested at the age of 6 months, without further reinforcement during the interim period.

Honestly, I think it would be silly to say that dogs can’t learn by watching other dogs. They’re social animals, and it only makes sense that they would learn from one another.

Do you have an examples of one dog learning from another?

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