July 30, 2010 -- Dogs just can’t help it. They automatically and voluntarily imitate the behavior of their owners, even if it costs them a snack.
A new study by scientists at the universities of Vienna and Oxford says it provides the first evidence that dogs copy at least some of the behaviors and body movements of people in spontaneous and voluntary ways.
Friederike Range, PhD, of the University of Vienna and author of the study, says 10 adult dogs participated in experiments with their owners.
All of the animals received preliminary training to open a sliding door using their heads or a paw, after watching their owners get down on their own hands and knees to use their heads or hands to perform the same tasks.
The pooches were divided into two groups, Range says. One group of dogs received a food reward when they copied what human owners did. Dogs in the second group received a food reward when they did the opposite.
But the researchers say all the dogs seemed bent on copying their owners, even if it meant getting no reward.
The dogs “brought with them to the experiment a tendency automatically to imitate hand use and or paw use by their owner -- to imitate these actions even when it was costly to do so, when imitation interfered with the efficient performance of an ongoing task,” the authors write.
They say the finding provides “the first evidence of automatic imitation” by dogs.
“Dogs are special animals, both in terms of their evolutionary history of domestication and the range and intensity of their developmental training by humans,” the authors say. “Both of these factors may enhance the extent to which dogs attend to human activity.”
And they suggest their findings could be used in canine training.
If a pet owner wants to shake hands with his dog, he might be more successful if he extends his own hand to demonstrate, the authors say. Then the dog, watching all this, would be more likely to stretch out a paw.
The study suggests that, like humans, “dogs are subject to ‘automatic imitation’” and cannot inhibit “the tendency to imitate head use and or paw use.”
Automatic imitation is a crucial part of the way humans learn.
“As far as we are aware, this is the first study in which dogs have been tested specifically for automatic imitation,” the authors say.
Dogs in the research included seven border collies, an Australian shepherd, and two mongrels.
A few years ago, other researchers showed that dogs yawn when they see people doing so.
The study is published in the journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.