Training with Purpose

Book reviews of Do As I Do and Canine Play Behavior
By Mechtild Käufer and Claudia Fugazza
Reviewed by Claudia Kawczynska, January 2015, Updated June 2021

Two excellent new books from Dogwise Publishing, Claudia Fugazza’s Do As I Do and Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, are invaluable resources for those who are serious about understanding and communicating with their dogs.

Fugazza, who is completing her PhD research in canine social learning at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (renowned for its canine study programs), burst on the training scene with the hypothesis that dogs can and do imitate people. As we know, dogs are keen observers of humans; what they do with this knowledge is part of their social learning repertoire.

When comparing wolf and dog learning, researchers at Eötvös have found that when both species are faced with an insolvable task, the wolves—even those who have been hand-reared—are more “dogged” in trying to sort out the problem for themselves, whereas the dogs actually turn and “look in the direction of their owners as if they were asking for help.” (Miklósi, et al. 2003) As Fugazza notes, “this predisposition to look at humans paved the way” for the special bond we have with our dogs.

Taking dogs’ natural inclination to observe us to the next step, she developed a groundbreaking training protocol (detailed in the book/DVD combination) that taps into our dogs’ “copy cat” skill set. The exercises are definitely fun to do, but also will have practical application in training service dogs and canine athletes. Though rather simple, these training exercises demonstrate dogs’ complex cognitive skills and involve motivation, attention, memorization and replication.

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So, when you set up your first training lesson, you need to know what motivates your dog (treats, play or praise). The action you choose must be replicable by the dog, who may use her mouth as we do our hands. The process itself is straightforward. It starts by asking the dog to stay still and observe you; you then demonstrate the behavior (say, walking around a table), return to the initial position and give the cue, “Do it” (which your dog has learned in the first phase of the training). When your dog offers the right behavior—i.e., mirrors your action— you reward her. This certainly makes for an entertaining game (and one that can be done inside or outside), but more importantly, it also enriches our relationship with our dogs and, Fugazza says, allows both “dog and human to achieve a deep and reciprocal level of understanding.” Brava, Claudia Fugazza!

As Marc Bekoff notes in the foreword to Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, “play is the most natural way for dogs to learn.” We have often reported on this in The Bark, both for the reason Bekoff notes and because it is such a vital part of their behavior throughout their lives. Käufer collects findings and analyses on the subject from many leading scientific researchers in this fascinating volume.

There are numerous reasons why dogs as a species are so playful, including the fact that play stimulates their endogenous reward system. It not only feels good while they play, according to Bekoff, it also causes them to feel relaxed, excited and happy all the same time. This complex emotional state only occurs during play.

We also learn that play behavior is not “an immature form of adult behavior but rather, a separate behavioral category drawing on its own neural structure.” There certainly is science behind it, and learning to follow their rules will help us direct their play behaviors in a fun and safe way. Along with marvelous photos illustrating all facets of play, this book provides a valuable reference, one that will help the reader better understand one of the most important aspects of dog behavior.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 80: Winter 2014

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.