July 28, 2010

Dogs Really Do Imitate Their Owners

According to a new study, dogs "automatically imitate" the body movements of their owners.

This automatic imitation is a crucial part of social learning in humans.

Austrian researchers found that the phenomenon of body movement causing the observer to move in the same way is evident in many other animals.

The researchers say that it reveals clues about how this type of learning evolved.

The study also suggests that the way in which people interact with and play with their dogs as they are growing up shapes their ability to imitate.

"It's not a spontaneous thing," Dr Friederike Range, from the University of Vienna in Austria, told BBC News. "The dogs needed a lot of training to learn it."

The researchers investigated this imitation with a series of trials using a door-opening test.

The team built a box with a sliding door on the front that could be opened by using a knob.

The owners demonstrated how to open the door by using their mouth.

"When the owners used the hand, the dog had to open the door with its paw to get a reward," Range told BBC.

Once the owner opened the door with their mouth, the dog used the same technique.

"A second group of dogs had to learn the alternative method - if the owner used their hand, they had to use their mouth, and when the owner used their mouth, they had to use the paw," Range explained.

The dogs imitated the same action as their owner and learned their task far more quickly.

This task showed the dogs had a predisposition to imitate their owners' hand/paw and mouth/muzzle movements.

She said that because dogs have a very different body shape than people, they also had to interpret what they saw.

"This type of learning has obvious evolutionary advantages for animals," Range told BBC. "They can learn about certain aspects of life without having to learn by trial and error, which always comes with some risk."

The new evidence supports a theory of learning that suggests a system of "mirror neurons" and the capacity to imitate are forged as an animal learns and develops.


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