As the recently departed Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Our dogs probably understand that as well as anyone can, because dogs are able to learn a new behavior by seeing a person demonstrate it. Imagine being able to teach your dog a new behavior by simply showing him the behavior and having him copy you! That fits in with many dog trainers’ goals of finding additional, better or easier ways to train our dogs.
Learning a new behavior by watching someone else perform it is a type of social learning, and for many years, people thought dogs were not capable of doing so. A natural tendency to assume that only humans are capable of various high-level processes partially explains that, but once various animals were tested, proof of social learning was undeniable. Chimpanzees were the first non-human animals tested and shown to be social learners, but dogs have been in the club for years now. Despite that, social learning has not been used extensively in dog training.
A training technique called “Do As I Do” is becoming increasingly popular, and may make social learning a more common part of dog training. This technique, which is described in detail in creator Claudia Fugazza’s book Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs, shows great promise as a new tool for helping our dogs learn. Dogs first learn to copy humans doing behaviors that they already know how to do when given the proper cue. An early step in the process is teaching dogs to copy a demonstrated known behavior when told, “Do It!” Once the dog has learned that “Do It” means to do what the person did, the dog can learn a new behavior with this technique. Later, a verbal or visual cue can be added so that the person does not always have to perform the behavior to let the dog know what to do.
Fugazza and Adam Miklósi (from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary) recently published a study comparing the effectiveness of two training techniques. In “Social learning in dog training: The effectiveness of the Do as I do method compared to shaping/clicker training,” they report that the Do As I Do technique is more effective for quickly teaching dogs a behavior that involves interacting with an object than Shaping/Clicker training. They chose the behavior of opening a sliding door on a cabinet because it was a novel behavior for all dogs in the study. (All dogs in the study and their guardian-trainers were experienced with the training technique used by the pair in the experiment.) More Do As I Do dogs than Clicker/Shaping Dogs learned the behavior within 30 minutes, and they learned it faster on average, too. The experiment did not find a difference between the two training methods when teaching dogs a body movement—in this case to lift the front paws off the ground.
Dogs who learned with the Do As I Do method were better able to remember the behavior and perform it in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the original training session. In addition, they were better able to generalize their learning by performing the behavior in a new context.
The authors conclude that this new method, which relies on social learning, is more effective than using a clicker to shape a new behavior, which relies on individual learning (in this case, operant conditioning.) The dogs who learned with the Do As I Do method certainly outperformed the dogs who learned without it, but the comparison is more complex than comparing social learning to individual learning. In the traditional view of social learning, individuals learn a new behavior by observing others and without direct reinforcement. In Do As I Do dog training, dogs do learn by observation, but they are also reinforced for correct responses, meaning that their learning also involves operant conditioning. In other words, these dogs are learning with the benefit of multiple techniques. There is compelling evidence that the use of the Do As I Do technique enhances learning in dogs, but it is not completely fair to say that it is better than using operant conditioning. I think it’s more accurate to say that social learning combined with operant conditioning is more effective than operant conditioning alone.
Either way, I am excited about the Do As I Do technique of training dogs and would encourage everyone to incorporate it into their training. It’s likely that we will look back in a few years and wonder why we didn’t use dogs’ social learning abilities sooner and more often in dog training. That doesn’t mean that Do As I Do dog training will replace other methods, because as Fugazza herself writes, “We should not limit ourselves to using one single training method. The major benefits accrue from the combined use of social learning with other techniques.”
(Editor's note, for demonstations and more on this topic go here.)