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Can Dogs Be Trained by Watching Other Dogs?

A recently published research study indicates using dogs to teach other dogs may be an effective way to train.


Dogs are social creatures and their affinity for humans and other dogs makes the chance that dogs can learn from modeling other dogs very likely. A study published in January in Applied Animal Behaviour Science found evidence that supports this theory.

The research study was conducted by Anna Scandurra, Paolo Mongillo, Lieta Marinelli, Massimo Aria and Biagio D'Aniello of the Universities of Naples and Padua in Italy. 50 adult Labrador Retrievers were recruited for the study, all of whom were currently being trained to do water rescue. Prior to recruitment, the dogs had not received any type of training other than training related to rescue work. The researchers split the dogs into two groups - beginner and advanced. The beginner dogs could do simple behaviors such as sit, down, etc. while the advanced dogs could do the same behaviors in distracting environments with longer durations. The advanced dogs had also learned to perform commands given to them through nets which was part of the water rescue training. All of the dogs lived in a regular home as the only dog and their owners and/or handlers were not experienced dog trainers.

The researchers asked the handlers to teach one group of the dogs to either jump on an object (a trunk) or onto a children's playground slide. These exercises were selected because they were not "typical" types of behaviors taught to dogs and therefore the dogs were unlikely to know them. The dogs were randomly grouped to learn either behavior and each group had a mixture of beginner and advanced dogs. The purpose of this phase of the study was to determine which dogs could learn the behavior in a short amount of time so that they would be removed from the second phase of the test (a total of 17 dogs). Dogs that could not learn the behavior quickly were randomly assigned to a group that observed a dog doing the behavior, or to a control group that did not. 

The "demo dog" was an older, experienced water rescue dog who had been trained to perform both the jump onto a trunk and onto the slide behaviors without any type of verbal or physical cue, other than the handler moving to the object. The reason behind this was so that the observing dogs could not pick up on any cues that might become a variable affecting the results later on.

In the demonstration group, the dogs watched the demo dog perform both tasks twice and then the handlers once again attempted to teach the dogs the behavior they were assigned. In the control group, the dogs did not observe the demo dog and the handlers taught them the assigned behavior for the same amount of time as the demo group.

When the researchers examined the results, they found that there was a statistically significant number of dogs in the demo group that were able to perform the behavior in the time allotted compared to the control group. The age, sex and training level of the dogs appeared to have no effect on whether or not they could do the behavior, although they found some significance to older dogs in the demo group being more likely to do the behavior, although it was not statistically significant.

In a sport such as dog agility, where dogs are trained to perform behaviors that are "out of the norm" for your average "everyday" dog, the use of learning novel exercises, such as agility obstacles, by observing more experienced dogs could provide clear benefits to improving training for dogs new to the sport. It can even provide benefits for dogs that may be doing agility for confidence boosting due to fearful behavior, as these dogs may be more comfortable learning watching others of their own species doing an obstacle exercise. The researchers also suggest that this method of learning may also be very useful when the handler is also new to training and hasn't yet mastered good timing, reinforcement and body language, and therefore a "newbie" dog could learn more from an experienced dog than from just an inexperienced handler.

If you would like to learn more, the full study is available online.

Source: Conspecific observational learning by adult dogs in a training context. Scandurra, Anna et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 174 , 116 - 120.

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