Imitation # 2

Thanks for your comments with examples of what looks like imitation in dogs and cats. I was especially intrigued by the cat stories, having had a cat myself who did a perfect imitation of a herding Border Collie after watching me work Luke every day. Luke and I would drive the sheep up the hill to the pasture, and Ayla, my tiny, gray cat, would follow behind. She often sit on a log and watch as I worked Luke on gathering and driving. The sheep, although never abused, did not enjoy this exercise as much and Luke and I, and were always ready to bolt to the barn if given half the chance. When that happened, Luke would have to streak around them at lightening speed and stop them.

When we were done working I’d say “That’ll Do” to Luke and let the sheep run back down the hill. Once they discovered no one was going to stop them, they’d usually break into a full run and dash down the hill like deer. After a month or so of this, as Luke and I followed the flock back down to the barn, Ayla darted out of the adjoining woods in front of the careening sheep, lept up and smacked the lead sheep on the nose with her paw. The entire flock came to a screeching halt. Ayla sat down in front of them and looked directly at me. The thought bubble over her head, as I imagined it, said “I can do this too you know.”

For years afterward I had visions of taking Ayla to herding dog trials, and, Babe-like, amusing and amazing the spectators while AYLA THE HERDING FELINE marched the sheep around the course. Of course, that didn’t  happen, Ayla appeared to be content with her one demonstration of prowess, and I never took the time to try to turn her ability into a circus act. But this example fits with so many of yours of dogs and cats observing the behavior of another for some time, and then replicating it. The challenge, of course, is turning our anecdotes into an experiment that rules out other explanations.

There are two pieces of research that come to mind that did just that, the work of Milosi and others with the imitating Tervueren, and the research of Friederike Range in Vienna. Here’s a summary of each:

Miklosi (& Topal and Bryne) worked with a 4 year old Terv, Philip, who had been trained from an early age as an assistance dog for a disabled owner. Philip could open doors, pick up items on cue, switch off lights, etc. His trainers began to teach him a few cues that corresponded with the desired activity. For example, his cue for Turn Around was an owner turning around him or herself. The experimenters built on that, and taught Philip to replicate 9 actions that replicated the behavior of the human. First the dog was asked to sit and attend to the person to “Philip, listen.” Then the trainer performed an action, like putting an object into a box. The “imitate” cue was “Do it.” After 10 weekly training sessions, Philip correctly imitated the action of the person 72% of the time, a significantly  higher percentage than a result expected by chance alone. Skeptics will note, however, that this is not necessarily imitation, if the cue was the same as the expected action. The question is, did Philip begin to understand the concept of imitation, versus responding to a cue that happened to be the same as the desired outcome? That’s why Philip was then asked to replicate untrained actions, which he did correctly 63 out of 94 trials.

A second test, two years later, asked Philip to pick up a bottle from one of 6 boxes and place it in another, based upon the actions of his owner (which creates 30 possible sequences). Philip performed the exact same sequence as the one he observed 28 of 60 times, which is again significantly higher than expected by chance. (Remember there were 30 possible combinations.) In addition, many of his mistakes were still very close to the correct response. There’s lots more in the paper, “Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog,” published in Animal Cognition Vol 9, 2006.

In the other study, Friederike Range trained a Border Collie to get food by pressing down on a wooden bar by using its paw (versus the easier and more natural way of doing it, by grabbing it with its mouth). Three groups of dogs were allowed to watch the dog pull down the bar in this way: One group watched the BC use its paw with nothing in his mouth, the second group watched the BC use its paw with ball in his mouth, and a third group was given access to the bar without watching the BC demonstrate. 83% of the dogs in the first group used their paws to pull down the treat, but in the other 2 groups only 21 % and 15% used their paws. The authors suggest that the first group of dogs consciously imitated the demonstrator with the assumption that the BC was using the most efficient way to get the food. The second and third groups used the most natural method, the second group presumably concluding that the BC would have used his mouth if he could have, but used his paw because his mouth had a ball in it. The test dogs had no such constraint, so they went ahead and used their mouths.  If this is true, it is not only evidence of imitation, but inferential and selective imitation. The full study is published in Current Biology, Vol 17, Issue 10, May 2007. Needless to say, it looks like our observations of dogs imitating the actions of others may have serious merit. I suspect that it is MUCH more common for dogs to imitate other dogs than to imitate people (I’ve never had luck with modeling a behavior, like lying down, with dogs, though some commented that they have). It just makes more sense for dogs to relate more to the actions of their own species, yes?

Thanks as well for the comment about Ken Ramirez’s work on imitation. He’ll be speaking the day after I do in Massachusetts, I can’t wait to hear him talk. He’s one of the best, and I learn something new and wonderful every time I see him.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Tornadoes a few miles away, torrential rains every night. Dramatic enough, but try leaving your partner’s Prius out one night in a downpour with all the windows all the way open. Makes for an impressive bolt out of bed at 2:30 in the morning, not to mention an hour of toweling, 2 hours of blow drying with a hair dryer and 4 hours of huge fans streaming air through its open doors. Whoops. Dodged a bullet I think.. car seems totally dry now. Whew.

I’m about to take off for the fund raiser in Milwaukee… truly looking forward to it. I was taking some more photos of play for the talk, and here’s my favorite of Will and the Scorpion. Dog bliss!


  1. Frances says

    Sometimes, of course, the difficult thing is to persuade them NOT to imitate each other! I’ve just started teaching my two to sit and wait together, then come one at a time when I call their name plus “Come!”. Still in the early stages, and complicated by Tilly-cat spotting an easy game to join in – so I ended up with two dogs and a cat sitting in a row. The dogs seemed to do the simple arithmetic that more players means fewer treats per player, but let her join in without too much argument. I have now quit while I am ahead – two reasonably good repeats in a row, and jackpots all round!

  2. Alexandra says

    The other week, I was listening to a radio show on our NPR station (WUNC, the State of Things). The topic was breast feeding in human society, but they also mentioned that it is a learned activity in great apes. They went on to mention that some zoos had been able to teach orphaned female chimps now trying to raise their own babies how to nurse by having a human mother demonstrate with her baby outside the chimp’s enclosure.

  3. Kat says

    I wish I could remember which one or where I read it but, sadly, my mind is a sieve. What I remember though is that one of the groups that raises and trains dogs for specific jobs (bomb dogs, service/assistance dogs, etc.) has had significantly higher percentages of puppies succeed in the training since they began having the puppies shadow the mom as she does the job. Puppies are reported to be easier to train as well.

    Love the photo of Will. Ranger gets that same blissed out look working on a marrow bone.

  4. AnneJ says

    I actually have experienced that many dogs will lie down if I lie down, to the point that when I was training sit stay for competition I would proof the dogs by lying on the floor- it almost always made them lie down until they learned that I wanted them to stay in a sit.
    Just tried it with Ben. I sat on the floor, he sat in front of me, I lay down, he lay down, trying to lick my face. I sat up, he sat up, I lay down, he lay down. Then Cinder came over and lay down too. Meanwhile Becky lay beside us the whole time and never moved, but she’s 13 and doesn’t get excited by silly people or dogs.

  5. Janice says

    Kat, I think the research you were referring to was this research here by Dr. Slabbert in South Africa.
    Slabbert, J. M. & Rasa, O. A. E. 1997. Observational learning of an acquired maternal behaviour pattern by working dog pup: an alternative training method? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53:309-316.

    It has been a long time since I have read this article. As I recall, this research showed that letting the experimental group of pre-weaning, 12 week, puppies observe their mothers retrieve a sachet of drugs while out on a walk together resulted in a higher level of performance when they were later put through training. The puppies were not allowed to pick up the sachet themselves, only watch the mother do so. Part of his experimental design had puppies staying with their moms until they were 12 weeks of age, instead of the usual 8 week weaning age. And it was this older weaned group of pups that showed the improved learning following the mother’s demonstration of search and retrieve while they were out on a walk together. But I don’t know if this has changed how the dogs there or anywhere else are trained (to do so would require changing two standard practices: how they train and when they wean).

  6. Margaret T. says

    It seems to me there has to be a certain amount of imitation bred into instinct. How else would predator canids teach their young to hunt?

  7. Beth says

    Margaret, that’s a good point about teaching to hunt. Just to play devil’s advocate, though, I have seen where mother cats bring half-killed prey back to their young so their young can “practice” killing. I don’t know if it’s so much “teaching” them to hunt as it is exposing them to weakened prey to sharpen their skills. It may actually be a combination of both behavior patterns, though: exposure and imitation.

  8. Alex says

    Years ago I taught my Border Terrier to ring a bell when he needed to go out. This is especially important due to the fact that we live on the third floor and don’t have the luxury of just opening the back door so-to-speak. I eventually phased out the bell when the pup grew up and could hold his bladder more consistently. When the BT was about two, we got a new puppy. After a week of him being in the house, I hung the bell back on the doorknob with the intent of teaching him to ring too. The BT immediately started using the bell again, but I never got around to showing the puppy the bell. One day, I heard a ring, looked at the door and it was the puppy! I ran him down three flights of stair and once on the grass he went poo right away. This happened several more times, over the course of the next week, and every time he rang the bell, he went out an had a b.m. This was no coincidence, and he had obviously learned the behavior by watching the older dog.

  9. Susan says

    At the end of one of my dog’s clicker classes, everyone had to teach their dog a trick. One of my classmates taught her dog to left his left foot when she liffted her right foot, facing each other, and to lift his right when she lifted her left. It was really cute. I don’t know if she caught him randomly lifting his foot and reinforced that to begin with, but I suppose it could have been imitation that she reinforced? In the finished trick, he certainly was cued by which foot she lifted. How would you test this overlap in cueing/imitating?
    I also worked at a zoo many years ago where an Orang was taught to nurse her baby, as someone else mentioned, by watching her favorite keeper nurse her baby. This was the Orang’s 1st pregnancy and she was raised in captivity w/o her mother. When the baby was born, she was attentive to him, but hadn’t a clue what to do with him.

  10. Jessie says

    The best example of imitation thatIi can think of seeing is with one of my mom’s new dams who had no clue what she ought to be doing to care for her new pups. So we let the senior b*tch of the house go in and show her what was what. Luckily, the new dam got the message. She still needed to be supervised, but once the senior dog of the household showed her that these little pups were not to be left, not toys, not annoying, etc., she decided they were AOK as well and things improved dramatically.

  11. Amy W. says

    Both my dogs were afraid to jump off the boat platform, until I jumped in and then began swimming. Soon they followed me into the water, and we paddled around together. They already knew how to doggie paddle, so it wasn’t like I was giving them swim lessons, but I do think they were motivated to jump in the water after watching me do it.

  12. Margaret T. says

    Beth, that’s an interesting thought–everything needs practice. When I said hunting, I was thinking more in terms of choosing a weakened animal (which predators often do), stalking to get close enough not to be outrun, and how a pack can function as a unit rather than individuals who don’t care what the others are doing. The actual killing is a skill that they can practice at home. There is a lot more to the hunt than the kill that ends it.

  13. Dena (Izzee's Mom) says

    I had a cat named George who spent a lot of his time outdoors. My young Springer was just starting to ring the potty bell at the back door when she wanted to go outside. One day I heard the bell, started to get up to let her out, and almost tripped over her, as she was lying at my feet. Yep, you guessed it. George was standing at the back door, staring intently at me, waiting to go out.

  14. em says

    I can second what has been said about dogs learning to hunt by watching other members of their ‘pack’. When, Otis, good at pattern recognition, figured out how to catch the dog-savvy squirrels at the park, one of his dog-friends learned by watching him and imitating his strategy.

    The trick, if you are interested, is not to chase the squirrel itself-they are almost always able to reach their tree before a fast but high-off-the-ground dane can get to them. But squirrels are creatures of habit, and will often run back to the same tree, day after day. Spotting this trend, Otis abandoned the effort to chase the squirrel itself in favor of running as fast as he could FOR THE TREE, shortening the length of his run, cutting off escape and catching his prey. (He just tumbled it over and let it go, so no harm done). Otis’ friend, a golden retriever named Charlie who had, up until then, always chased squirrels by running after them directly-on hundreds of occasions-observed his success. The next time that a squirrel popped up, Otis was sniffing something in the other direction, but Charlie stunned us all by making the same move-tearing off for the tree rather than the animal itself. Fortunately for the squirrel, he started a bit too soon (not a natural stalker) and the squirrel was able to alter course in time to make it to a different tree. Otis still catches squirrels every once in a while, but they are quick learners, too and are much quicker to disappear when they spot dogs on the horizon. :-)

  15. Sharon says

    We went blueberry picking today on our hike with 4 dogs. Daphne the Golden Retriever is an experience ‘picker’. She knows how to browse the shrubs for ripe blueberries. The others have spent previous years begging for blueberries, only to get snubbed. (Hey, I work hard for those blueberries, and I am NOT giving them to the dogs!).

    Today, two of the dogs figured out how to pick for themselves. I don’t know if they worked it out independent of the humans and experienced dog, or if they were imitating either humans, dog, or both. After an hour of picking, they got very proficient at it.

    The third ‘newbie’ is still looking for handouts. We go back out later this week. It will be interesting to see if he learns to browse like the other 3 have.

    Just wondering – assuming that imitation is a valid theory, does the relationship between the individual ‘demonstrating’ and the individual ‘imitating’ matter? I believe that it does.

  16. Mary Beth says

    I’d forgotten about this until I read your post, but years ago I had a black and tan coonhound puppy who absolutely adored my horses. One of my horses would literally lift her off her feet by her scruff and she would lick his nose….mind you this was over the fence and she spent all her time near the fence just so she could reach the horses and vice versa.
    One day she was in the barn with me while the horses were eating hay (a fascinating thing to study if you’ve never watched horses use their teeth and lips before), and next thing I know, she’s nuzzling the hay and trying to eat it with them. Too funny!

  17. says

    Back Scratching in the dirt!

    Our 5 yr old wolf/malamute hybrid loves to flip onto her back and wiggle around, legs splayed in the air, especially on snow or ice, sand or dirt. When my 3 yr old golden retriever was a puppy, she picked this up pretty quickly, which made sense. “Oh, that’s what dogs do? That looks like fun, let me try” But what was a bit more interesting is when I met my boyfriend, his 5-yr old GR (then just 3 yrs old) hadn’t ever tried back scratching. He’d look at the other two wiggling around as if to say, “Are you having a seizure?” But eventually he tried it, gave just one scoot of the butt before his legs flopped to the ground (he was quite fat & roly-poly when I met him). He’s a bit of a clumsy dog. Sat, a bit dejected, and watched the girls again from the sidelines. It looked like so much fun, so he’s been working on it! He’s gotten pretty good, but he still only lasts a few wiggles before he flops over, looking quite satisfied.

  18. JJ says

    re: “blueberry picking”
    I had a similar experience with blackberry picking. One of my walks used to take us by lots of wild blackberries. Duke would eat them if I threw them, but one day he started to help himself.

    As an aside: I quickly and strongly discouraged this behavior because a) I was very concerned he would hurt himself on the thorns. Blackberries plants can be quite nasty, b) I was worried he would over indulge until he got sick. He’s just that kind of dog.

    As stated previously, I don’t really know if this counts as imitation or not. Perhaps Duke just figured it out on his own and it had nothing to do with watching me or the other dog in our group who seemed to figure it out at about the same time.

    On the other hand, there are other stories on this thread and the previous one that leave me with no doubt that dogs (and cats!) DO imitate. For me, I can’t understand why it would be controversial to believe that higher mammals imitate behavior. Seems so basic/low-level to me.

  19. Melanie S says

    LOVE the story of Ayla and her sheep herding prowess!!

    One of my cats, Brer, loves to walk under my sheeps’ necks with his tail held high, which they don’t seem to appreciate; they are even less enamoured if he walks under their bellies with his tail ‘caressing’ their vulnerable (ticklish?) underbellies.

  20. trisha says

    I couldn’t resist adding to the dogs eating berries stories: I had a dog who went blueberry picking with me when I lived in Alaska. Cosby, the St. Bernard, stood beside me and drooled while I picked. One day, when I was power picking and had spent hours filling a huge bucket to be frozen for later use, Cosby dropped his head into the bucket and slobbered and smashed his way to the bottom. I was mad, I won’t pretend otherwise. I took Cosby by the collar, dragged him over to the bush and said, “Pick your own damn berries.” And he did. Ever after, he nibbled them off the bush like an antelope, purple slobber running down his chin, him on one side of the bush, me on the other.

  21. J Wood says

    We have two rescued beagles, one 7 years old (Booker) and one 5 (Murphy). The younger one was born wild; her mother was a farm dog, went to the woods to have her pups, and kept them out there until they had to be trapped at 3 months old. She was also born with dwarfism, so she had some nifty issues.

    When we brought her home, she started to mimic Booker’s behavior, which helped immensely with training. Booker has problems with his ears, so he get regular ear-cleaning and care. The skeletal distortion due to dwarfism actual puts Murphy’s ears in such a position that they don’t tend to get as dirty as Booker’s. But when we treat Booker’s ears, she expects treatment as well. So we’ll cap the bottle of ear treatment, and make believe that we’re treating her ears like we treat Booker’s ears.

    Just like Booker, she starts to lap her tongue out, as if she can taste the non-existent fluid at the back of her throat, and then she runs around the apartment shaking her head and rolling all over the place, just like her big brother. It’s adorable.

    On the flip-side, Booker was also terrified of getting his nails clipped. Murphy had never really been around people until we adopted her, so she hadn’t developed a fear of tools. Watching how calm Murphy was getting her nails clipped wore off on Booker, and now he mirrors her behavior when it’s time for a pedicure.

  22. Annie R says

    Cute pic of Will; but are you sure that’s a scorpion? Looks like a lobster to me . . .

  23. Rosana Hart says

    Hmm, if I can call it a lobster maybe I’ll get one. We are just back in the US after several years living in Mexico where scorpions were such a fact of life that I would happily never see another one. Our Mexican rescue dog, a now-3-year-old Rottweiler, is rather a timid girl and I bought her the toy sheep — but she is afraid of it! Once in a while, early in the morning before her first walk, she will wrap her jaws around its legs if I play wildly with it myself for a while. I think this is less a matter of imitation than of general excitement.

  24. Nancy S. says

    I am coming on late having recently found this site after a few years of holding up “The Other End of the Leash” as the best dog book I have read in a long time.

    I have trained more cats than dogs (not necessarily to high levels but to do what I needed them to do). Most of my cats walk on leash and most need more socialization (time sweet time.. and a FT job and two dogs in training).

    A couple of winters ago I was introducing my GSD to a teeter board in the house. I was clicking her for contacts and for stopping on center of the teeter and then popping it over and clicking for rear contact. She was ‘sort of’ getting it.

    Oliver, the grey and white I think part siamese somewhere back there cat was watching all this (he was about a year old). He sat on the stairs and after the last session when I released my dog to play, he trotted down the stairs and went to the teeter. He put his front feet on the board.. stopped, looked at me and meowed; trotted to the center, stopped, popped it over; trotted to the end and stopped with both hind feet on the teeter and then meowed again. I clicked and treated.. after all, he did it…

    He then walked over to my dog and talked to her.. she looked at him and cocked her head. I had to laugh and it was pretty hard not to anthropomorphise what he was saying.. (“Look.. it is easy.. you got to THINK..”). He then went back up on the stairs to watch.

    In my experience working with horses, cats and dogs I have found that cats are better problem solvers than dogs and horses. They really think all the time. Dogs are more biddable.. and horses have a stellar memory but cats seem more capable thinkers. This is just experience and anecdotal.. as I have trained about 20 dogs and worked with about 2X that in cats and somewhere between the two with horses.

  25. Andrea says

    So, I know this is an old post, but I’ve just recently found this blog and have been reading through all the old posts and I just can’t help but comment on this one. I have a cat who, I swear, tries to imitate the birds in the trees outside. She’ll sit in the window watching and listening to them for a while, and then she’ll start to try to chirp like a bird. She makes this weird gutteral clicking sound, varying the pitch from higher to lower, and it really does kind of sound like bird chirps. She doesn’t do it any other time except when watching birds, so I can only conclude that she’s trying to talk to the birds in their language.

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