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Dogs Imitate Novel Human Actions and Store Them in Memory

A recent scientific study shows that dogs can learn to copy human behavior and repeat it later. By Claudia Bensimoun

The next time your canine companion starts watching you intently, keep in mind that he's capable of copying your behavior. The latest research in 2013 by Dr. Adam Miklosi and Claudia Fugazza, both ethologists from the University of Eotvos Lorand in Hungary, demonstrates that dogs do indeed copy humans. This was first discovered in 2006 at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. Philip, a 4-year old Belgian Tervuren working with Jozsef Topal, a behavioral ethologist was capable of matching Topal's actions. Topal would command "Do It," and Philip, a trained service dog, was able to imitate the researcher's actions. This included jumping in place, barking, then placing an object in a box, or carrying it to Philip's owner. Topal created these experiments to explore a dog's imitative abilities. They were not intended to measure how long Philip's memory lasted. "Nobody really cared, or saw that it could be useful for investigating how dogs learn or see their world," says Miklosi, who was also involved in this research. 

In 2009, another team of researchers established that dogs were only able to correctly imitate an action if there was just a 5-second delay between watching an action and then imitating it. However, Miklosi did not accept these results and realized that the experiment needed to be adjusted. In order to do this he taught the dogs two basic commands: "Do as I do," whereby they needed to pay attention to what he was showing them, and "Do It." In the second command, the dogs needed to imitate what he was showing them. However, what was missing was the command to wait before performing the imitation. Claudia Fugazza, an Italian dog trainer and graduate student at Eotvos University agreed to work on the missing command. In this new study, Miklosi and Fugazza wanted to find out if dogs possess the cognitive ability of deferred imitation. Miklosi and Fugazza believe that deferred imitation provides the first evidence of a dogs cognitive ability to encode, as well as to recall actions.

Deferred imitation requires that the dog recall an action after a one-minute delay or more. This can only take place if the dog has retained the mental representation of that specific action. In this study, Fugazza and Miklosi carried out the experiments with eight adult pet dogs that ranged in age from 2-10 years old and with their handlers. The dogs were of many different breeds and were all females. The breeds included Border Collies, a Yorkshire Terrier, a Shetland Sheepdog, a mixed breed, and a Czechoslovakian wolf dog. These dogs were all trained with the "Do as I do" method. They had to wait for a short interval varying from 5-30 seconds prior to being allowed to imitate the observed human action. The researchers then observed if the dogs were able to copy these actions after a 40 second to 10 minute delay. During the delay, the dogs were engaged in other activities. 

Miklosi and his team were looking for confirmation of the dogs ability to encode and recall the specific action after an interval. "We just kept slowly increasing the time between the demonstration and the 'Do it' command," Fugazza notes. If the dogs could imitate the specific behavior twice after waiting for 30 seconds, they were then ready to begin the second phase of testing. This would entail each dog being given 19 tests in eight different conditions. The dogs would now have to copy a familiar action, a novel action, and a distracting action. The same dogs would then be shown the same novel action to repeat. 

Every dog watched their handler go into a wooden box. These dogs would then have to wait for one minute before going back to their starting position. They were then told to "Do it." When they had to do the distraction action tests, the dogs were made to watch their handler do something they had seen before. Then they were led behind the screen, but instead of being commanded to "Do it," they had to lie down, or fetch a ball. It was during these sessions that the waiting periods lasted from 30 seconds to 4 minutes. Fugazzi adds, "They can wait even longer but we really dont expect the owners to stay behind the screen for an hour!" 

The dogs in this research experienced their longest breaks after watching a familiar action that included times that varied from 24 seconds to 10 minutes. The researchers observed that these dogs displayed their intelligence by correctly repeating the action that they had witnessed. This occurred even when a person other than the demonstrator had given them the command. This person was also unaware of which action the dog was expected to imitate. "The statistical results are very robust," Fugazza notes, "and they show the dogs can do deferred imitation." 

Fugazza also says that dogs have declarative memory, which is long term memory about facts and events that they can recall. She describes how in one of her tests the owner, Valentina made her dog, Adila, stay and pay attention to her, always in the same starting position. Three randomly selected objects were placed on the ground, each at the same distance from Adila. Her handler then showed her the object-related action, like ringing a bell with her hand. While Valentina and Adila took a break behind the screen that was used to hide the objects, Adila was not able to see the object. They played ball or practiced a different training activity. Adila was able to do whatever she wanted - lie down, bark, or play during this break.

When the break was over, Valentina and her dog walked back to the original starting point and Adila was commanded to "Do it." This time, the command was given by the owner and not a stranger, as in the control condition. After the command, Adila performed the action that had been previously demonstrated.

The studies demonstrate that dogs are able to reproduce familiar actions, as well as novel actions, after different delays; familiar actions that had taken place after intervals as long as ten minutes; and novel actions that had a delay of one minute. This ability had been demonstrated in different conditions, and even when the tested dogs had been distracted by different activities during their break behind the screen.

The researchers summed it up: "The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs. This would be so-called 'declarative memory,' which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge."

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Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.


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