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Can Dogs Learn by Observation?

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I'm very interested in the question of dogs learning by observation. The "decisive" paper that proved that dogs don't learn by observation was a very limited study, I believe, involving two dogs with no particular reinforcement history, in which the observer dog failed to learn some task. And somehow it went into the zeitgeist as a firm conclusion, one I was totally prepared to believe in myself, at one time. I thought that dolphins do learn by observation, and dogs don't. Then I started giving seminars, and seeing all kinds of observational learning going on.

Clicker trained dogs, at least, certainly do learn by observation of other dogs: the click tells the watcher-dog what the behaver-dog got paid for, so they try it. On one of my early websites there was a wonderful account of an Afghan learning obedience skills from its crate. While waiting for its turn at conformation training, it watched what its housemate golden, an obedience dog, was learning. It agitated in its crate, during the obedience class, until it was finally let out early, whereupon it grabbed a dumbbell and carried it over a jump. The owner then threw a little clicker training at it and got its CD in three weeks.

I often see my young poodle watch the old dog to see what she does, and then do the same. I now occasionally deliberately train one dog by tethering it to watch the other dog doing something new.

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Learning by observation

I agree with Karen that dogs do indeed learn by observation. I also agree that clicker training enhances the possibilities because dogs do watch and learn from what other dogs are clicked for. It remains to be studied just how complex learned-by-observation behaviors might be. Usually when I see evidence, it is like this: Dog A is crated and watching Dog B being clicked for performing the weave poles. When Dog A is released, she will quickly run for the weave poles...and perform them if she knows how. Perhaps with more gusto! Now, I would not suggest that a dog will learn how to enter from the left and do an entire set of weaves corectly. But, who knows?

I set up a useful session of observational learning myself just last night. I have two Rat Terriers, both clicker savvy. My female Rat Terrier is a rather nervy, stressy dog by nature but very intelligent and quick to learn. She is crated most nights because she is takes up the whole bed! But for years now, she had immediately gone to her crate on command, and sometimes just when seeing me finish brushing my teeth and heading for bed. (Speculation: she didn't want to, as my bed is The Best Place in the World, but she knew what was coming and the crate was a refuge from the stress of being sent to the crate....) She accepted the fact that the crate was her nighttime space, even though my other terrier got to sleep with me (he's a great bed buddy!).

Well lately I've been letting her share the bed with me and my other Rat Terrier rather more than usual... and she decided that was the new Norm. First, I had to ask her 2-3 times before she would crate. Things got worse, and suddenly she was actually leaving the bedroom, and when I settled in to read she'd leap back on the bed. When I finally got her in her crate, she would often scratch at the door for a while before settling to sleep. Lately she's taken to leaving the room and escaping downstairs until I turned out the lights (and then I had to get up and crate her physically). And then, after crating her, she scratched at her crate neurotically for hours until I finally had to leave and sleep in the other bedroom. That had to stop.

So, last night, I got my clicker and some steak, and started clicking my other dog for entering and exiting the crate. She came and watched, looking rather stressed but wanting to take part. After 5-6 clicks for the other dog, I let her have a turn. One send and she ran in her crate. I clicked and treated several entries/exits, then closed the door, gave her a jackpot, and shut the door. She slept through the night without a sound.

I'm not done retraining yet, for sure, and I've got lots more conditioning to do. I guess I'll have to be consistent. Sigh. But the point is: she very quickly got over her anxiety about crating by watching the other dog going in and out and being clicked for it. Sure, crating on command is a behavior she already knew, and then refused under stress. But watching the other dog being clicked for it is what turned her around. It was amazing how fast it happened.

I plan to try some more experiments in observational learning. I want to see if she can learn some simple behavior that she doesn't actually know. I have some ideas...


Sanja Miklin's picture

and observing the humans?

my second dog is a very observan creature that will look at every single move you make... and sometimes I even expect to see her in the morning making coffee...
although that have never happened before, she does learn, from my other dog, and from us, the humans of the family.
my favourite anectode is Reeva and the door knob. At my house, we have the nromal door knobs you press and the door open. While I had to train my first dog to do that, Reeva picked it up from brix and mastered it perfectly. She gets up on her hind legs, puts her front paws on the dor know and presses down. depending on whether door open forwards or backwards, she will pull or push. A door opening master I say. And I've put it on cue and it's really handy, although we have to lock our doors even when we're in the house.
The interesting thing happened when we went to our house on this nice river one summer and we were taking things from the car top the house opening and closing the doors. The front door was different that those at home, though, and had a door knob that you had to turn to the left and then push to open the door. Reeva as usually looked at everything around her, and when I, hands full of stuff, told her to open the door, forgeting that the door knob is different, she went to the door, stood up onh her hind legs, embraced the door knob with her front paws, and turned it. the door opened. I was amazed. maybe it was a lucky guess, but I am convinced she immitated our hand movements and opened the door. She learned to open the oven in a similar fashion I would say :-)

Sanja Miklin


LPC UWC, Hong Kong

Learn by observation

My dogs pay particular attention if one dog is receiving a reward for an activity and will try to mimic the other dog. It seems that they feel the enthusiasm and they focus better. But, having said this, I find it works much better if I train them away from each other otherwise one completes the task and the other rushes to get the treat.

Learn by obervation

I'm replying to a message almost 2 yearsr old, but... there's an easy solution to this. Crate train both dogs, and crate one or tether while you train the other--but let them observe each other.


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