As scientists learn more and more about the canine brain, they are discovering things that can help us as pet parents to relate to our dogs and train them. An understanding of how dogs think allows us to teach them behaviors better. This is beneficial for performance dogs such as those that compete in obedience competitions, but it is also helpful for pet parents who just need their dog to do as they are told.
"Do as I Do" Dog Training
Two recent studies were conducted into how dogs learn, one in Italy and one in Hungary, and they showed that dogs learn quickly when they are able to watch a human or canine demonstrator. At the University of Naples Federico II, fifty Labradors were taught to jump onto a little table or onto a child's toy slide. The results were quite impressive. Over 60% of the dogs were successful if they were able to watch a demonstrator dog perform the task. However, without the demonstration, only 23% of dogs were able to complete the task in the same amount of time. Interestingly, older dogs were quicker to learn by watching than younger ones; this may be because they had more experience in life with watching and learning.
It has been known for some time that dogs do mimic each other. It is thought that dogs will copy a canine companion if the behavior appears to be beneficial. For example, if whining for a pat gets the desired result, another dog may also start to whine. In the Italian study, it's possible that the untrained dogs saw the demonstrator dog receive treats and pats and decided to copy what they were doing.
What is even more interesting is that dogs also mimic the behavior of their human trainer. There is a training method known as "Do as I Do", where a dog watches a human perform a behavior, and then is encouraged to repeat it. The trainer starts with behaviors that the dog already knows, such as shake hands or fetch, so they learn the concept. Once they understand this, the technique can be used to teach new tricks and behaviors.
Budapest researchers worked with 38 dog and trainer pairs. Twenty were familiar with the "Do as I Do" technique and the other eighteen used the shaping/clicker training technique where dogs were rewarded for closer and closer attempts at a desired behavior. The "Do as I Do" dogs learned their trick in an average time of five minutes, while the dogs that were being shaped took almost three times as long to get it right.
Another important aspect of enhancing a dog's ability to learn is repetition and reward. Any behavior that is rewarded is repeated, so if your dog performs what you ask of them and you reward them with a treat or a pat, they are more likely to repeat that behavior.
This research suggests that dogs are visual learners and we can put this knowledge to good use in training our dogs. Demonstration of a desired behavior, positive reinforcement and repetition may offer pet parents an effective way of teaching an old dog new tricks.