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Dogs can imitate human actions from videos

Dogs can imitate human actions from two-dimensional video projections, according to a new study led by researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE).

The experts discovered that the cognitive ability of dogs to process and replicate actions observed in 2D video projections aligns with their everyday observational experiences with humans.

Human actions as verbal dog cues

Using the “Do as I Do” training method, the researchers trained two dogs – Tara, a male Golden Retriever, and Franc, a female Labrador Retriever – to imitate human actions, first from live demonstrations, and then displayed on a screen. 

The setup involved life-size video projections streamed via online conference software, enabling real-time interaction between the dogs and their owners, who were located remotely. For example, the owner would spin in a circle in front of the camera and verbally cue the dog to imitate the action. 

Dogs’ ability to imitate human actions

The experiment tested the dogs’ ability to imitate actions observed from three different camera angles: frontal, side and above. The tested actions included walking backward, spinning horizontally, pushing a buzzer button and lying down, among others. 

Additionally, the dogs were tested on their ability to imitate novel actions, not included in the training, such as picking up an object, touching a pole with their nose, and knocking down a water bottle. 

Observational perspectives in dogs’ daily lives

The results showed that dogs could replicate actions observed from frontal and side angles, which are observational perspectives commonly encountered in dogs’ daily lives with humans.

However, they faced challenges when trying to imitate actions from an overhead perspective, which is a less familiar viewpoint.

“Using the Do as I Do imitation paradigm is similar to asking the dogs, ‘What did I just do?’ while showing them on the screen various human actions under different camera angles,” explained study co-author Fumi Higaki, the founder and director of the Ichinomiya Animal Assisted Education Dog Club.  

“The dogs responded by performing matching actions based on how they perceived and processed the demonstration. For instance, one of the demonstrated actions included knocking down a plastic bottle, which was demonstrated from an overhead view.” 

“My dog Tara observed my demonstration on the screen, looked for the bottle in his room, in front of the screen, and then knocked it down. But he struggled to replicate other actions with an overhead view.”

Broader implications of the research 

“This study, even if only exploratory, not only advances our understanding of how dogs perceive and interpret human actions, but more importantly, this innovative method could broaden research into several other potential cognitive abilities, and could also be extended to other species,” said study lead author Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at ELTE.

The Do as I Do training method has been employed to study imitative abilities not only of dogs but also of cats, orcas, and various other species. If you are intrigued by this training approach, you can explore it further in the recently published second edition of the authors’ book, now available from Dogwise

How dogs imitate human actions

Dogs have a remarkable ability to imitate human actions, a skill that’s deeply rooted in their history of domestication and their relationship with people. This capability is partly due to their keen observation skills and their social nature, which drive them to engage and interact with their human companions. 

Social learning 

When a dog imitates human actions, it is often through a process known as social learning, where the dog watches a human perform a task and then tries to replicate that behavior. This might include simple actions like opening a door, fetching specific items, or more complex behaviors seen in training scenarios such as assistance dogs who perform tasks to aid their handlers.

Bonding hormone

The inclination to imitate also stems from the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which enhances social learning abilities in dogs. This hormone increases their attentiveness to their human companions and makes them more likely to engage in mimicry. 

Reward system

Additionally, dogs are motivated by the rewards they receive from humans, whether those are treats, praise, or affection, reinforcing their imitative behaviors.

This interplay of biological predisposition and environmental reinforcement helps explain how dogs can effectively mirror human actions in their own way.

The ELTE study is published in the journal Biologia Futura.


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