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Learning by Observation

Research suggests that dogs learn by observation and imitation
Research suggests that dogs learn by observation and imitation

This is a really exciting time to be a canine professional. Dogs have come to the forefront in research, giving us new information about how they learn as well as their cognitive abilities. This new data allows trainers and behaviorists to influence canine learning and explain behavior using innovative and scientifically valid methods.

A simple example is dogs learning through observation. When I began training dogs 15 years ago, we did not believe dogs learned by watching us or other dogs. I distinctly remember being scoffed at by my mentor when I suggested imitation was a possible teaching method. By my own observation, I saw dogs learning from each other. And now, “Do as I Do,” a training method developed by Claudia Fugazza PhD and Adam Miklosi, clearly demonstrates dogs can and do learn by using observation and imitation. This is a new concept for many of us in the dog training industry.

Dr. Brian Hare, in his efforts to understand human evolution, has developed ways to understand and quantify canine cognition. Dr. Hare is focused on how dogs and humans are so adept at understanding each other. He has an interesting website,, where you can analyze your dog’s personality and cognitive abilities. He also found dogs learn by imitation, supporting the finding of Fugazza and Miklosi. And in fact, Dr. Hare feels dog trainers might find it advantageous to use more “Do as I Do” type training and concentrate less on operant and classical conditioning. This is heresy in the dog world, and I confess, I love it.

Another great resource for cutting edge canine research is the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science. SPARCS’ mission is to be a platform where modern animal behavior science can be presented, discussed and debated by some of the greatest minds in canine research. The information is fascinating and often challenges how we see and think about our canine friends.

Dog training, like most animal training, is steeped in tradition and superstition. Change comes slow and people are resistant. Having new research with data to support the findings is a fantastic step in facilitating change. I encourage you, whether you are a professional trainer, behaviorist or dog enthusiast to embrace the excitement. Try to break the shackles of your mind and step into the future of understanding our canine companions.

To learn more about force-free training, dog behavior and emotions, join us at the Pet Professional Guild’s inaugural educational Summit in Tampa, FL on Nov 11-13, 2015.

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