How do dogs learn new tasks? Dogs use flexibly different learning strategies in social learning situations

Principal Investigators: Claudia Fugazza, Ph.D., Eszter Petro & Ádám Miklósi
Institution:Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest


Dogs learn socially from humans and this ability can be effectively used in dog training, with the use of the Do as I Do method. When learning a new task with this method dogs may flexibly rely on different types of social learning processes. They may learn socially what goal to reach (emulation) and / or they may learn socially what actions to perform (imitation). Our study aims at revealing if dogs engage flexibly in imitation or emulation, according to the relevance for dogs of the demonstrated goal. We define a goal as ‘relevant’ if dogs are naturally motivated to reach it (e.g., obtaining a ball). We hypothesize that, whether dogs imitate or emulate in a social learning context depends on the information provided by the owner during the demonstration about the goal. When the demonstrated task includes a goal that is relevant for the dogs, they would learn the goal socially and use their most efficient means to reach it, thus engaging in goal emulation; When the demonstrated goal is not relevant to them, dogs would replicate the demonstrator’s body movements, which might be less efficient to reach the goal for dogs (imitation).

This finding will be crucial to shed light on how dogs learn and, consequently, to fine-tune the training methods to dogs’ understanding of our actions. As a consequence, dog trainers and owners will be able to train dogs using the method that is most effective, given the task to be trained.