Recently, scientist Claudia Fugazza got out of the bathtub, drained it and then watched her newest dog, Velvet, jump in and spend several minutes lying in the tub as though she were relaxing. Despite the potential mess, Fugazza had no objection to Velvet’s activity. In fact, she had decided not to inhibit Velvet from performing behaviors inspired by her own actions.
Many dogs are inhibited, however. We reach into our bag, and when the dog sniffs its interior, we say, “No!” When we sit on the couch and then they sit on the couch, we tell them to get off, and we react the same way if they start to dig in the yard after we do.
Velvet is not the only one of Fugazza’s dogs to mimic some of her actions. One night several years ago, Fugazza was surprised to hear water running in the bathroom; she thought she had turned it off. When it happened again the next night, she began to suspect that her dog Siria, who loved to drink directly from the tap, was responsible. On a subsequent night, Fugazza made sure the water was off, then kept an eye on Siria. As she watched, Siria went into the bathroom, opened the faucet with her nose and drank from the stream.
This experience inspired Fugazza to begin reading about animals’ capacity to learn new behavior by watching others —a specific form of social learning called imitation. Years ago, it was thought that dogs were not capable of social learning of this kind—that only humans could do this. As it turns out, this hypothesis about human-only aptitudes failed to stand up to solid research, as have many others.
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For example, the idea that only humans used tools was disproven by Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees. As pioneering anthropologist Louis Leakey famously remarked in a telegram to Goodall, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Similarly, it was long thought that only humans used language or experienced emotions, but these capacities have been found to exist in many species.
Now, imitation as a uniquely human trait is on the chopping block. Research into social learning (including imitation) in dogs and many other species is extremely well documented.
A paper titled Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog (Topál et al. 2006) was among the earliest to demonstrate the canine ability to copy human actions. It also detailed a dog-training protocol—Do as I Do—that makes use of this natural inclination. Fugazza started using the protocol with her dog India, and loved it. From this spark of interest, she began a new chapter in her own life, changing careers to pursue research in animal cognition rather than continuing to work as a lawyer.
During my interview with Fugazza via Skype, it was easy to see her affection for dogs as well as her scientific curiosity about them. Her walls are decorated with dog paintings created by an artist friend. She got up during our conversation to let in her very old Border Collie, Snoopy, lovingly explaining that he’s not always sure what he wants to do these days. When she talks about her research and the questions she wants to address in future studies, she is animated and enthusiastic.
Fugazza’s main area of interest is social learning, and she’s one of the researchers studying this phenomenon in our best friends. The principle underlying her work is that animals who live in groups are capable of acquiring new skills through social learning. For example, there are advantages to avoiding trial and error when learning what’s edible. For dogs, it can be particularly beneficial to acquire information from humans. After all, people are the experts on many things that interest dogs, such as where to find food or other treasures and how to open various contraptions such as drawers, doors and containers.
With the knowledge that dogs are capable of social learning, and that it can be used to train them, Fugazza began to explore ways to put this aptitude to use. Her book, Do as I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs (Dogwise), explains the method in detail as well as the history of its development.
The Do as I Do (DAID) method teaches dogs to copy human actions. Once a dog understands the system, the person can perform a behavior, say “Do it!” and the dog will imitate it. Fugazza’s research has demonstrated that this method is highly successful, especially when the behavior involves an interaction with an object.
In a recent study, Fugazza and her collaborators found that—when compared to dogs taught via shaping/clicker-training methods—DAID-trained dogs learned faster, were better able to generalize the performance of a new task to a new context, and were more successful at performing the task in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the training session (Fugazza, Miklósi 2015).
Like any training method, DAID has both advantages and limitations. Though some see it as a challenge to their own longtime training methods, Fugazza considers it a supplement rather than a replacement. In order to learn what “Do it!” means, dogs must be able to perform a number of behaviors learned via other methods, shaping/clicker among them. She also emphasizes that while DAID can reduce the time it takes to train a dog to perform certain tasks, it’s not useful for teaching dogs to walk on a leash or to come when called.
Among its advantages is its focus on the human/canine relationship, and many dogs seem to benefit from this way of learning. Another interesting aspect of the DAID paradigm is the view it provides of dogs’ cognitive processes. What Fugazza finds most interesting is that it allows an investigation of the way the observer (the dog) represents the action of the demonstrator (the person). In other words, it allows her to see what is in the dog’s head when he observes the action of the demonstrator. Studying how dogs learn through imitation has implications for our understanding of dogs’ minds as well as their behavior.
One study involved the action of opening a drawer. The people performed the action with their hands, but dogs’ use of either paw or nose was considered successful. (Researchers were looking for what they call “functional imitation,” which takes into account the differences between dog and human anatomy.) One of the dogs did not imitate the behavior, which was surprising because this dog had previously had a lot of success with DAID training. The guardian said she thought her dog would do it if she herself demonstrated by opening the drawer with her mouth, which she did. The dog then immediately copied her action, and did it correctly. Since most dogs opened the drawer by mouth after observing a human do it by hand, this exception provides insight into individual differences in dogs’ mental representations of actions.
Currently, Fugazza is researching the length of time that dogs can remember behavior shown by a human demonstrator, and this is the area in which she has been most surprised by dogs’ abilities. Specifically, she was amazed to find that dogs can remember actions they observed after a 24-hour delay but did not ever perform during the learning session. Her research into time delays suggests that dogs’ mental representations of the actions demonstrated are long-lasting (Fugazza et al. 2015).
It’s exciting when science meets practical experience, and when love and understanding of dogs connect with a desire to improve our interactions and relationships with them. Claudia Fugazza, who has experience in both the world of science and dog training, has seen firsthand how different these fields can be.
In the scientific arena, there has been (and continues to be) extreme skepticism about work with canines in the area of imitation. Fugazza welcomes the criticism, which she says forces her and her colleagues to do even better, more conclusive research. The intense scrutiny has improved their work and allowed them to design and carry out the very cleanest and best studies possible.
She has had the opposite reaction from the dog-training world—hardly any skepticism at all—probably because dog lovers believe that dogs are amazing and have incredible untapped potential. Additionally, dog trainers, who typically are open to new styles of training and always looking for novel ways to work with dogs, are finding the DAID approach to be quite useful.
That’s no surprise, because the method takes advantage of social learning, which comes naturally to dogs. What is thrilling is that it opens up a world that millions of dog trainers and dog guardians have fantasized about for years. We can show dogs—literally show them—what we want them to do!