Fido, Can you Get the Light, Please?
How to teach your dog to imitate things you do — and strengthen your bond with your pet in the process.
Claudia Fugazza’s dog Siria would get thirsty after Dr. Fugazza went to bed for the night. So the dog did the logical thing. She turned on the faucet in the bathroom and took a drink from the tap. At first Dr. Fugazza thought she left leaving the water running by accident. But then, to satisfy her hunch, she snuck in on Siria one evening and quietly spied as the dog pressed her nose on the faucet until water came out and she quenched her thirst. That’s what led Dr. Fugazza, a professor of ethology (animal behavior) at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, to begin her research on dogs’ social learning — their ability to remember things we do and engage in those same actions later on. In the February issue of Your Dog, we wrote about her proof that dogs can memorize our actions — like touching an umbrella or going over to a traffic cone — up to an hour after their owners had demonstrated the behaviors for them!
A number of readers were incredulous, saying that maybe a PhD who studied animal behavior could teach her dog and a few others some neat imitative behaviors — but not regular people with regular dogs. But in her terrific book, Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs (Dogwise Publishing), Dr. Fugazza explains that what really got her research off the ground was trying out memorization techniques with a group of plain old dog owners who, like Your Dog readers, really loved their pets and were enthusiastic about trying something new with them. And guess what?
In fact, it did better than work. It improved behavior problems for a number of the dogs. For instance, one restless Border collie mix learned to focus better on her owner, overcoming the lack of ability to settle that had created something of a barrier between them. A shy Yorkshire terrier came out of her shell, actually becoming cheerful in the process. And a German shepherd who, though clever, had never taken initiative, “blossomed,” Dr. Fugazza says, “thanks to the patience and persistence of her owner.”
As to why the new kind of training opens the door to “an improved relationship between the dogs and their humans,” Dr. Fugazza says it could be that it relies on social cognitive skills, allowing both species involved to achieve “a deep and reciprocal level of understanding.” What’s more, says the researcher, the technique “allows dogs to reach a deeper level of consciousness about themselves…and their own skills.”
Social learning, that is learning to do something in a social context by observing someone else doing it, was for a long time thought not to occur in species other than humans. “There was a prevailing opinion that learning through imitation in non-human animals did not exist or was rare,” Dr. Fugazza explains. But more recent research has turned that dismissive thinking on its head. One scientific investigation suggests that dolphins amuse themselves by copying the movements of seals, turtles, and penguins. Indian blackbirds imitate the vocalizations of primates. And wolves locked in cages have demonstrated an ability to open them upon observing their human caretakers doing it. So why wouldn’t dogs, who live in social groups and whose sociability is what has so endeared them to us, be able to learn to copy behaviors, too? Indeed, one team of researchers has proven that puppies who were training to become drug detection dogs learned the drill faster if they were allowed to observe their mothers working.
Making the case stronger still, Dr. Fugazza says, is that dogs appear to have a predisposition to look at us; it was presumably that predisposition that paved the way to the special relationship we share with them. It’s a fair enough assumption when you consider that even within our own species, visual observations preceded the development of verbal language as our main form of communication.
How to Get Your Dog to Imitate You
The nitty gritty of this engaging book, which though slender packs in plenty, consists of the steps it takes to teach your dog to copy your actions. It sounds simple enough — and it is once you get the hang of it. But keep in mind that virtually no one (except maybe people who know Dr. Fugazza) has been training their dog this way. After all, we don’t teach a dog to sit by sitting, or to come by coming. Those tricks come through a whole other set of cues. So learning a new set of steps is required — for you as well as your pet.
It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it will work best if you look at this not as a timed test but as a new way to lovingly and enthusiastically interact with your dog for short bursts over the course of several weeks, and even months.
It starts with teaching your dog — or reinforcing — six different behaviors, three of which she must be able to do upon being given a verbal cue. From there you can move on to teaching the dog to “Do it!” — which means “copy the behavior I have just demonstrated.”
Let’s say one of the behaviors is in fact “sit.” First you do just that — sit. Then you tell the dog to “Do it!” She won’t understand because she has always been cued with the word “Sit.” You continue by giving the old cue: “Sit.” Your dog does as you wish, and you reward her with loving praise and a delightful treat. With practice, the old cue fades and the new cue starts to take over — in part because each time she “gets it” you handsomely reward her. When she responds to the new cue without the old one, she has begun to cross over to understanding that “Do it!” means “imitate what I’m doing,” not “sit.” It moves forward from there.
Okay, that’s the shorthand. The book gives many tips for refining the exercise, including not using a facial expression or other means to get the dog to comply, which are forms of static in the leaning process. It explains, too, that training sessions must be kept short so the dog doesn’t become frustrated or bored and also that lessons have to be stopped immediately if the dog appears stressed in any way. It should all be challenging in a fun way that brings you and your dog closer, not in a taking-the-physics-final kind of way.
Do As I Do also elaborates on how to expand the training so that you can move from behaviors the dog already had been trained to do, but with different cues, to brand new copy-cat moves. Some dogs really do learn how to flip a light switch and other cool stuff. In fact, Dr. Fugazza says the whole method is particularly useful with behaviors that involve interaction with objects — light switches, perhaps, or other tangible items.
She also devotes a chapter to troubleshooting. For instance, some dogs keep performing a move they’ve been taught to the exclusion of all other imitations (the move often involves touching a favorite object), and she tells how to get around that. She reminds readers, too, that if a dog becomes distracted during a training session, chances are good that you may have worked it for too long and that she needs a break. (She says to stop training before a dog starts exhibiting fatigue, pointing out that short sessions promote faster learning and make the best strategy for keeping a pet’s motivation high at the next session — a point worth observing for any training in which you might engage your dog.)
Perhaps most important, Dr. Fugazza points out that if a dog really resists learning a certain behavior, maybe it’s because engaging in it causes pain. Perhaps the move you want her to copy involves jumping over an obstacle, lying down, or climbing up onto a platform. If she just can’t — or won’t — perform a move, consider that it may cause pain in her joints or spine. Switch the learning to less physically taxing stunts, and consider taking her to the vet for an evaluation.
Fortunately, bringing out your dog’s intelligence in this whole new “Do it!” way of training will not tax your body. Although you may very well have to expand your zone of patience while your dog taps into a part of her intelligence that hitherto went unexplored, you don’t have to be especially fit or agile to teach your pet to imitate human behaviors. For you, this is not Ultimate Frisbee — it’s gentle and easy on the body.