5 min read


Does Your Dog Know How to Imitate Human Actions?



5 min read


Does Your Dog Know How to Imitate Human Actions?


Switch on the TV and we are instantly wowed by a dog performing all kinds of tricks with its owner on a talent show. As the little pup leaps through hoops, climbs up its owner's back, or does cute, little backflips, we are stunned by their ability. 

Is this the product of intensive training or is there an element of imitation at work? It seems parrots are not the only copy-masters, as our impressive pups are watching with interest when we open the door or shake hands with an associate. If you thought your Pug or German Shepherd had only food and walks on their mind, you could be missing something, as dogs love learning and imitating their guardians.


Signs a Dog Can Imitate Their Owner and Other Dogs

Dogs are in good company, as we humans subconsciously imitate other people all the time. Little kids replicate dad's swagger or mom’s way of talking. Parents might think it’s cute and flattering, but we don’t give our dogs the same consideration. Meanwhile, everything we do is being analyzed by the family woofer.

When you’re in the dog park, watch how Roscoe, your Lab-Retriever, copies other dogs actions. If they play-bow to initiate fun, your Lab will do the same and if one jumps up and down, so does the other. Roscoe barks, setting off a woofing fury as the neighbor's mutt howls and a chorus of wolf-descendants light up the park. It’s all good fun as dogs love tuning into each other and us.

Maybe dogs enjoy a goofy giggle when they wag their tails in unison, or collectively scratch their ears. We do it when someone walks in a comical way and we imitate their unusual jaunt. It’s been suggested that a dog would only copy another dog if it was in its best interest, and that is pretty much how we operate.

You’re digging a hole in the garden for a new plant and "low and behold," Roscoe’s busy behind you, getting his hole ready as well. He might not be a rose fan like his pet mom, but he is contemplating a nice tree he can lay under. Roscoe likes to copy-cat his guardian and paces as she does the housework. He also bobs his head when she’s singing along to the radio.

Body Language

Here are signs your dog is a copy-cat:<br/>

  • Barking
  • Digging
  • Jumping Up
  • Howling
  • Scratching
  • Pacing
  • Play Bowing

Other Signs

More signs a pooch can imitate people and other dogs include:<br/>

  • Mimicking Behavior
  • Chain-Barking
  • Following Movements

History of Dogs Imitating Humans


Wolf cubs learn to imitate their parents, giving them the talents required to survive in the wild. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to rely more on human cues. Their brotherhood is evident when they are at play but when it comes to feeding time, the wolf goes looking for an elk, while the modern-day mutt heads for the designer food bowl.

Science Mag featured a study carried out at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, that highlighted the effect of domestication on dogs. Both wolves and dogs watched a trained woofer press on a lever to open a box, which contained a treat. The wolves were quick to catch on, leaving their descendants in the dust, as dogs struggled to complete the task. Both wolves and dogs had been raised together in captivity, but the real copy-cats were the attentive wolves. It’s thought our dogs have replaced their wolf-to-wolf relationship with humans.

The Daily Mail, UK revealed a study where ten dogs were trained to open a sliding door with their head or paw. Five of the woofers were asked to perform the action exactly as their owner did. The other five were requested to do the complete opposite. If their owner opened the door with their hand, the dog would then open the door with their head. This was confusing to the pups, as according to a cognitive biologist involved in the study, dogs are more likely to imitate a human. This is referred to as “automatic imitation.”

Evolution and human interaction have shaped a dog's ability to copy their owner’s actions. Chimps, birds, dolphins, whales and cats are also capable of imitating humans.

Studies Prove Dogs Mimic People


They say our dogs look a lot like us, but what about their personality traits. The Cut featured a rare insight into dogs behaving more like us, with a study featuring around 132 dogs and their owners.

Heart rates and saliva samples were taken as dogs and their, guardians were subjected to various stimuli. Dog owners were also asked to fill out a survey about the behavioral attributes of them and their pooch. The results were dogs become very much like their owners, exuding similar personalities. If a person is anxious, there’s a good chance their woofer will be also.

The influence is similar to how parents project their emotions onto their kids, and why so many rescue dogs come to new owners with a pile of baggage. The former guardians may have left their mark with a pup that’s insecure and afraid of certain things, or aggressive from being with a like-minded human.

One needs to be aware dogs are mimics who watch our every move. They also take onboard our emotions. Genetics play a part in a dog’s good or bad behavior but a lot of influence comes from their owners. Knowing dogs mirror our moves could be a spooky concept for some but in general most dog owners would consider this an advantage in training.

Training a Dog to Imitate Your Actions


The “Do As I Do,” dog training method is becoming increasingly popular, as it works off a dog's natural ability to copy their owner's actions. Dogs are literally shown what movement to perform by a person or other dog.

Back in 2006, an ethologist named Joseph Topai from Hungary called up the (Do as I Do) concept used with chimps back in the 1950’s. This time, a dog named Philip was the subject and Topai would ask Philip to perform tasks by showing him how. If he wanted Philip to sit, he would sit and then command “DO AS I DO.” This he applied to other actions such as barking or bringing him an object.

The idea was based on his awareness that dogs are mimics and could learn easily with this style of training. Today, some dog trainers have followed Topai’s lead and teach dogs how to sit, stay, and fetch, using copy-cat techniques.

Smart Animal Training are advocates for the DO AS I DO” training theme. They suggest teaching your woofer three basic behaviors - like fetch, sit, or stay - with a voice cue or hand signal. Once they have learned these steps, you can start the new (Do As I Do) training.

Make all body movements clear so your dog understands what you want them to do. Say “Do It” before you sit or lie down and then ask the dog again. If you take a close look at a dog and owner performing a ton of tricks, you will notice most are done physically by the owner first, apart from hand gestures.

According to Healthy Pets, researchers at a University in Budapest, Hungary recently studied the “Do As I Do,” dog training technique and compared it to clicker training. They concluded the former strategy was the far better way to teach dogs. The experiment involved opening a sliding door on a cabinet. Dogs and owners were individually experienced with their training methods but it was found the dogs who imitated their trainers' movements won the day.

Before you start your own training process, make sure your neighbor’s not in view, as some serious questions might be asked as to why you’re rolling around the ground with a stick in your mouth. All humor aside, this training method inspires the copycat nature already inherent in your dog.

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By a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Published: 03/29/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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