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Puppies spontaneously imitate human actions

A team of researchers from the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary has recently investigated whether young puppies, wolf pups, and kittens have different tendencies to observe and imitate human actions, without pre-training or food or toy rewards. The experiments revealed that puppies – but not kittens or wolf cubs – tended to spontaneously imitate what humans did, even if they were not offered any rewards.

Imitating what others do in a new situation is an efficient way for individuals to learn about their environments and the possibilities it offers. Moreover, besides helping them learn new skills or new information, copying another’s actions is also a way of promoting belonging to a social group.

In their experiments, the researchers first observed how 42 puppies, 39 kittens, and eight wolf pups – all socialized and living in human families – reacted to a novel object placed in a room (such as touching it with their nose or paw). In a second step, while the owner was holding the pet, the experimenter demonstrated a different type of action on the object. For instance, if the animal previously touched the object with its nose, the experimenter touched it with her hand. Finally, the scientists observed whether the animals eventually performed the same action on the object.

“Since paying attention to the demonstration is a fundamental requisite for social learning, we first assessed whether the puppies, kittens, and wolf pups looked at us when we performed the demonstration,” explained study lead author Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at ELTE. “While typically the puppies looked at us almost immediately, it took four-five times longer to get the attention of wolf pups and kittens.”

Although both puppies and wolf pups replicated the demonstrated actions in nearly 70 percent of the trials (twice as often as kittens), only puppies tended to imitate the actions with a body part homologue to that of the human experimenters, even if the action differed from the action they performed before watching a demonstration.

“Typically, most subjects touched the object with their nose, when they had not observed a demonstration. However, after observing the experimenter touching the object with her hand, the puppies tended to touch it using their paw,” reported study co-author Stefania Uccheddu, another ethologist from the same university.

These findings could be explained by the fact that while dogs’ and wolves’ ancestors were social animals with intense within-group collaboration for survival, cats’ ancestors were solitary hunters. In addition, dogs were domesticated much earlier than cats (between 20,000 and 40,000 versus 10,000 years ago) and were selected for various forms of collaboration with humans. By contrast, cats had a different domestication process: although they hunted mice, rats, or snakes in the human environment, they did not have to closely cooperate or communicate with humans.

“We believe that our findings can form the basis for the development of novel training methods that rely on the tendency of puppies to learn by observation and to imitate human actions. This way, dog training can be less dependent on the use of food rewards and more able to take advantage of dogs’ natural propensity for social learning,” concluded senior author Ákos Pogány, an assistant professor of Biology at ELTE.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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