Copy Dog

Morning after morning, our big bad personal protection dog huddles up next to my spouse and I, bows his head, and ….prays?  Not long after establishing the habit of praying together before we walk out the door each day did we notice that our dog was right next to us with his head bowed too. This raises some curiosity about a dog’s ability to learn human behaviors. A recent study shows that dogs are capable of not only mimicking their human counterparts but also performing the same behavior when asked 10 minutes later.

The journey began during a 2006 study when behavioral ethologist, Jozsef Topal, first discovered dogs’ ability to imitate, known as deferred imitation, revealing that dogs can consciously recall memories about events in a way only humans were thought to be able. The study proved that Philip, a Belgian Tervuren, was able to mimic his action using the “Do as I do” method. This method was first developed and used by Keith and Catherine Hayes to teach infant chimpanzees to copy their actions. While the experiment proved the dog’s capability to repeat an action it did not prove the capacity it may have to mentally remember a task.

A subsequent study took place in 2009 concluding that dogs were only able to correctly imitate if there was no more than a 5-second delay between watching the action and repeating it. As ScienceNow reports, “With such a short retention span, dogs’ vaunted imitation skills seemed useless.”

This motivated Behavioral Ethologist at Eotvos Lorand University Adam Miklosi, also a member of Topal’s 2006 and the 2009 research team, to conduct a third study designed to test a dog’s true memory capability. Along with a graduate student and dog trainer, Claudia Fugazza, Miklosi discovered that there was one command missing in the previous studies, “wait.”

Miklosi and Fugazza discovered that by using ‘deferred imitation’, which requires an individual to recall an action after a delay of 1 minute or more, the dogs were still able to remember the previous task. The previous study which used only “Do as I Do,” gave the dog the need to only pay attention to what was being demonstrated, and similarly, telling the dog to “Do it” required them only to imitate what was just shown.

To prove this, Miklosi and Fugazza told owners to train their eight adult dogs in the “Do as I do” method. After the dogs retained the task, owners were asked to add the additional step of walking their pet behind a screen 14 meters away, hiding the experimental object, after given the command, “Do it!” They then returned to the original starting position, after about 30 seconds, to perform the task again. They also slowly increased the time between the demonstration, “Do as I Do,” and the command to “Do it.”

Despite the time they had to wait in between the two commands the dogs were able to remember the task that they had been trained to do. This proves that dogs possess declarative memory, which was previously only believed to be among humans and apes. But the study concluded that dogs too have this type of memory, allowing them to recall facts and events that happened longer than 10 minutes ago.


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