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Learning by Observation: Dogs

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From Tarrah Skowronski, Phoenix, AZ:

Only yesterday that I was amazed at my own dog "learning by observation" of another dog!

I have a little rat terrier mix named Brie, and I take her to the dogpark constantly. She has struck up a friendship/playship at the dogpark with a little Border collie. Now this Border's way of playing is by laying in wait and stalking Brie, then laying down again before suddenly bursting full speed to pounce and/or chase Brie. Brie LOVES this and they do this over and over, with Brie being the "prey" or should I say "sheep." They have been playing like this for about 2 weeks, and we go to the dogpark 3-5 times a week generally.

Now here's the neat part: Last night when we went, the little Border wasn't there. Brie was playing with another dog. Brie was stalking, laying in wait, and pouncing exactly like that Border collie was doing with her—and this is something Brie has never done before! I thought it was pretty neat!

In addition to my little terrier, Brie, I also have a Rhodesian ridgeback named Bodie. I have taught Brie to leap into my arms when I use the cue "Safe!" If anyone ever says that dogs can't learn by observing, just have them talk to me...I would NEVER attempt to teach a 75-pound ridgeback to jump in my arms—but he did. Talk about a bruised backside (I never even saw it coming)! By the way, ridgebacks are great observers.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share!

Karen Pryor comments: For some years I've been collecting trainers' accounts of animals learning by observation. Erich Klinghammer and Konrad Lorenz have both taught me that these are not anecdotes; an anecdote is something you've been told, which may or may not have been made up. These are descriptions of observations, usually by experienced observers; and observation and description is the most basic first step in good science.

In my collection I have noticed that among dogs the gaze hounds, or sight hounds, crop up a lot. My favorite description was on our very earliest website, back in 1996 or so. An Afghan watched its housemate, a golden, practicing obedience skills night after night. Finally agitated to be let out of its crate, bounded into the ring, snatched up a dumbell, and carried it over a jump and back to its owner. "Hey, I can do that!"

I suppose it makes sense that sight hounds, bred to watch game animals and track them visually, use their eyes to learn about other things too. This ridgeback story interested me because it seems to me that ridgebacks, although they look sort of like other big hunting and guarding breeds, behaviorally are much closer to the sensitive and cautious sight hounds such as greyhounds and Afghans.

So how did you teach Bodie not to jump into your arms?

Great story!  And how did you teach Bodie NOT to jump into your arms? Or was your reaction enough?



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