It's official: dogs really do imitate their owners

Jul 30, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
Image credit: Mdk572, Wikipedia.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists studying imitative behavior have found that, just like people, dogs learn quickest by automatic imitation. Apart from the budgerigar, this is the first time automatic imitation has been demonstrated in a non-human species.

The researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, and the University of Oxford in the UK, first trained ten to open a sliding door in a box using either their mouth or paws. They then asked the owners to open the door using either the mouth or hand, and gave the dogs food rewards if they opened the door using the same method (compatible group) or the other method (incompatible group).

The results showed that the dogs in the compatible group were able to gain the reward much more easily and with fewer trials than those who had to counterimitate their owners. This strongly suggests that dogs, like humans, learn by automatic imitation.

In a second experiment all the dogs were rewarded if they imitated their owners, and in this case the dogs who had been in the incompatible group fared worse than those in the compatible group, making more errors through counterimitation. The researchers say this suggests the imitation depends on "sensorimotor experience and phylogenetically general mechanisms of associative learning" and that imitation in dogs is shaped more by their interactions with people than by their of domestication.

All ten dogs were over eight months old and had completed agility, rescue, and obedience training. They were randomly assigned to the two groups, with three border collies, one Australian shepherd and a mixed breed in the compatible group, and four border collies and a mixed breed in the other. The experiments were carried out at the homes of the participants, who all resided in Austria.

Leader of the team, Dr Friederike Range, from the University of Vienna, said learning by automatic imitation has evolutionary advantages because animals can learn without having to go through a trial and error process, which always carries a risk. She also said the results suggest the dogs brought to the experiment a tendency to automatically imitate their owners, even when it proved costly to do so.

Scientists are interested in automatic imitation because it is pervasive in human life, where it promotes cooperation, and it is thought to be necessary for imitation learning, which may be crucial for the cultural inheritance of behaviors. The results of the study support a theory of learning that suggests a "mirror neurons" system is involved, and that the capacity to imitate develops as an animal learns and interacts with humans, rather than the ability being present from birth.

The paper was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and is available online.

Explore further: Honey bees sting Texas man about 1,000 times

More information: Automatic imitation in dogs, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Published online before print July 28, 2010, doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1142

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User comments : 18

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getgoa
1 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2010
the way your dog is raised is a direct reflection of how the people raised it are. I like this idea it makes sure dogs are man's best friend and the people who say are your friends are really foes.
frajo
2.6 / 5 (9) Jul 30, 2010
Dogs are the best friends of people who think and feel hierarchical, who prefer a relationship made up of master and servant.
People who think and feel differently prefer cats.
sherriffwoody
4.5 / 5 (6) Jul 30, 2010
Dogs are the best friends of people who think and feel hierarchical, who prefer a relationship made up of master and servant.
People who think and feel differently prefer cats.

Rubbish
Cats are hierarchical aniamals as well, look at Lions. When living with groups of animals/humans cats also become hierarchical. They just act differently in their interactions.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.6 / 5 (5) Jul 30, 2010
Dogs are the best friends of people who think and feel hierarchical, who prefer a relationship made up of master and servant.
People who think and feel differently prefer cats.
Cats are (for the most part) antisocial. All social animals operate with a hierarchy based mindset. If you think that just because you don't piss on the street that you're free from the influence of your social instincts for hierarchy and structure, you're wrong.
_ilbud
2 / 5 (8) Jul 30, 2010
It's a documented fact that people who own cats are losers in life. That's why they feel they deserve to be ignored by their pets and start silly cat vs dog hissy fits. Cats are vermin, not livestock and not pets, at least rats are intelligent.
frajo
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 30, 2010
Cats are hierarchical aniamals as well, look at Lions.
When I speak of "cats" I don't mean "felidae".
When living with groups of animals/humans cats also become hierarchical. They just act differently in their interactions.
The kind of interactions happening between humans and cats are definitely different from the kind of interactions between humans and dogs. No cat will ever be as servile as a dog.
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2010
It's a documented fact that people who own cats are losers in life.
Please, do define "loser in life" for me, will you? Does it imply a lack of unprovoked rudeness?
And, please, show me one or two of the "documents" you are referring to.
bugmenot23
4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 30, 2010
frajo,
While I agree that ilbud is inappropriately flaming or trolling, your first comment also contains inflammatory characterizations of "dog people".
GJS
5 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2010
There are many "Service Dogs" who live to please their owner. Why there have even been instances of "Service Monkeys". Perhaps I'm a bit stupid but I've never seen a "Service Cat". We have had Labrador Retrievers. All have been delightful to have "in the family".
HealingMindN
not rated yet Jul 30, 2010
Well, you know the old saying, "doggy see, doggy doo."

@GJS, I've heard of "men who stare at goats." What about the "goats who service men?"
MarkyMark
4 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2010
Cats are hierarchical aniamals as well, look at Lions.
When I speak of "cats" I don't mean "felidae".
When living with groups of animals/humans cats also become hierarchical. They just act differently in their interactions.
The kind of interactions happening between humans and cats are definitely different from the kind of interactions between humans and dogs. No cat will ever be as servile as a dog.

Actually there are 2 reasonscats are not 'seen' as servile.
1. Cats are not pack animals like dogs so are by nature more independent.

2. lots of ways cats act towards you is often mistaken to be a act opposite of social. For example you tell a cat off it walks away a bit then sits with its back towards you, this is a sign of submission in cats.
croghan27
not rated yet Jul 31, 2010
MarkyM .... (do I know you from Dawg's?)

That is really interesting about the cats sitting with their backs toward those they are affectionate toward .... is there any literature on that? I would like to read more about it.
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2010
While I agree that ilbud is inappropriately flaming or trolling, your first comment also contains inflammatory characterizations of "dog people".
Maybe I'm not eloquent enough. But it is a fact that the relationship between dog owners and their dogs has more hierarchical components than the relationship between cat owners, "cat lovers" (i.e. people who don't own cats but like to see them in their vicinity (as in Greece, where most people never let cats into their homes)) and (their) cats.

How can facts be "inflammatory characterizations"?
Hierarchical relationships are nearly everywhere and it's nearly impossible to live on this planet without being forced into some kind of hierarchical relationship.
Why is it "inflammatory" when I mention that some people prefer to not engage in hierarchical relationships? Does this in any way belittle the friends of "man's best friends"?
Hoppy
not rated yet Jul 31, 2010
I'll bet you people would argue over the relative merits of fleas and bedbugs.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2010
I'll bet you people would argue over the relative merits of fleas and bedbugs.

Possibly. You're missing the subtext. If you watch a lot of the regular posters, there appears to be an overall thread of debate about the nature of human interaction and the development of human morality, ethics, and social convention, within the framework of western culture.

It's actually quite interesting and has exposed a great many of us to information and viewpoints we otherwise wouldn't have. That's probably the only reason why I keep comming back.
bugmenot23
not rated yet Aug 01, 2010
frajo,
You don't think it is inflammatory to accuse dog lovers as preferring a "relationship made up of master and servant"?
I think this says more about yourself than those you attempt to describe.

Btw, the first paragraph of your last post was much better. The rest reads mostly as a CYA attempt.
croghan27
not rated yet Aug 01, 2010
I wonder if anyone has ever done any work into whether dog's (or pet's) owners begin to imitate their pet?
croghan27
not rated yet Aug 01, 2010
Suppose it would be difficult with goldfish.