They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, which means your pet is giving your baby great props every time he imitates her. Whether he tries to match your baby’s sounds, movements or patterns is not as much of a choice as it is an innate instinct. Dogs are one of the few species that imitate across species, and most of the time they cannot help themselves. As pack animals, it is in their nature to want to adapt to their pack. They observe what is going on, what is productive and useful, and they imitate it. If your baby and your dog spend time together, and your baby is getting things your dog may sense are beneficial, he will undoubtedly be imitating her in as many ways as possible. The fact that dogs imitate is important to note as they are always watching you. They can pick up bad behaviors, but you can also use their observatory behavior to train them.
The Root of the Behavior
Adorable videos abound on the Internet of dogs imitating people in their homes, especially babies. Watching a large pooch cry with a crying baby, or attempt to crawl along with an infant is incredibly heart-warming. Dog lovers for years have attested to seeing their pet imitate them and there are now studies that prove dogs imitate people and hypothesize as to why it occurs. Dogs are like children in that they learn behavior by observation. If the behavior they observe has a productive effect, then they are even more motivated to imitate it. A baby crying brings a parent’s attention and affection. When the dog imitates this, he too receives attention thus reinforcing the imitated behavior. As pack animals, dogs long to have unity and harmony with their pack. If one is in distress, then they share the distress. A pack of howling wolves is a natural phenomenon observed in the wild and carried instinctively to dogs. A pack that cries together stays together. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of B states that dogs have ‘automatic imitation’ in that they cannot help but imitate humans. In the study, dogs were put into two groups who observed their owners opening a sliding door. Half of the dogs were rewarded if they opened the door like their owners, and the other half were rewarded if they opened the door differently than their owners. Both groups of dogs attempted to open the door as their owners did, regardless of the reward. It is interesting that even the dogs that would have received a reward for opening the door differently still opened it the same and forwent their reward. They simply could not help but imitate the behavior. When your dog sees your baby exhibiting behaviors he cannot help but imitate her. If her crawling across the room gets her from point a to point b without harming herself, perhaps she is on to something and he should give it a try.
Dogs also observe if a behavior is helpful. In another study, dogs observed a dog use her paw to open a door. Half of the dogs observed her open the door using her paw with her mouth free, the other half observed the dog open the door using her paw with a stick in her mouth. The half the observed her opening the door with her mouth free also used their paw to open the door. However, those that observed her open the door with the stick in her mouth continued to use their mouth to open the door. The researchers theorized that they dogs assumed she was not using her mouth since it was occupied, whereas the first group used the paw because she had found using her paw more productive. It does appear that while they cannot help but imitate behavior, dogs do evaluate whether or not the behavior is necessary. If your baby is throwing a tantrum and gets no attention, your dog will most likely avoid imitating that behavior.
Encouraging the Behavior
Having your dog imitate your baby or you is an asset in training him. You can model behaviors and tricks you wish him to have and do and he will imitate you. For example, in teaching him to sit and shake your hand many owners simply stand and say “sit, paw” and hope the dog will respond. While he may after you have pushed his bottom down and picked up his paw many many times, you may be better to model the behavior as you speak. You can get down like you want him to sit and say ‘sit’ and then say ‘paw’ and stick your arm out to him. After observing you a few times he will be more likely to perform the behavior out of imitation rather than behavior management. Teaching your dog commands is only the beginning. As you watch your baby and family members, note behaviors and tricks your dog could potentially adopt that would help him be more support to the family. Dogs have been trained to sing, stand on their back legs, and retrieve objects from the refrigerator or cabinets, dance and open and close doors. Because he cannot help himself and because he very much wants to be a part of his pack, he will be more than willing to observe and imitate. Spending time with a trainer will also give you some ideas as to how you can hone on this desire and skill to have a well-behaved pooch.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Because dogs imitate behavior, and often cannot help themselves from doing so, it is important to monitor your own behaviors when you are around him. Just as children imitate us and learn right from wrong from our actions, so do our beloved pets. If you are exhibiting a behavior you would not wish to see out of your pet, or your baby is, it is important to curtail that behavior before your dog picks up on it and exhibits it as well. It is easier to retrain our own behavior than a pet’s. Should your dog adopt behaviors that are undesirable, do not punish him or attempt to correct the behavior prior to changing yourself. It is at these times very beneficial to hire a professional dog trainer to help you recognize how your behaviors are instigating your dog’s behaviors and how you can go about removing the undesired behaviors and replace it with the desired behaviors.
Dogs imitate babies because of an innate for of imitation. They also imitate them because it helps them bond in their pack and allows them to go about life more efficiently. If your dog is imitating your baby in a positive way, grab a camera and document the cuteness. You can use your dog’s innate imitation to your benefit to train him. If your dog is imitating behaviors that are not desirable, review your own behaviors and consult with a licensed dog trainer.