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Some dog breeds are better at learning by observing humans than others

Have you ever noticed how different dog breeds seem to be better at social learning, from observing humans, than others?

A recent study from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University has shed some intriguing light on this subject. Their research findings suggest that some breeds of dogs may have more of an edge when it comes to gleaning insights from observing human actions.

A question that often pops up when debating dog behavior is whether the breed of the dog has any influence on the results of such studies. And, if so, why or why not?

There are hundreds of distinct dog breeds out there. Each breed varies not just in their looks, but also in their behaviors. It’s quite common to assume that a terrier might act differently than a Husky. Or, similarly, that a Border Collie might exhibit different tendencies than a pointer.

Differences in social learning ability across dog breeds

Ethologists have indeed found significant breed differences in many experiments. However, when it came to social learning, breed difference seemed a bit elusive. Social learning is the ability to learn by watching others’ actions.

Over the last two decades, regardless of breed, dogs have shown an uncanny ability to learn from other dogs. Also, and even more impressively, they can also learn from watching humans.

But this new study, published in the journal ‘Animals’, has brought a fresh perspective. The researchers have shown that certain dog breeds might have a sharper inclination towards human behavior.

This tendency can be a real game-changer when dogs face a tricky spatial problem-solving task. An example of this would be finding a detour around an obstacle.

How the new social learning study was conducted

The researchers behind this compelling study are Dr. Péter Pongrácz, a pioneer in social learning experiments with dogs. Also, his partner, Petra Dobos, an undergraduate student with tremendous potential.

Dobos’s bachelor thesis aimed to unearth breed-related differences that could explain variations in dogs’ social learning skills.

The dynamic duo employed a novel approach by grouping dog breeds into two functional groups. First were the cooperative working dogs. These include herding dogs, pointers, and retrievers who work closely with their human handlers.

Second are independent working dogs. This group includes terriers, sighthounds, spitz type breeds and livestock guarding dogs. They function mostly without continuous human guidance.

Testing dog breeds with the ‘V-shaped fence detour’ test

In the study, nearly 100 dogs were subjected to the renowned ‘V-shaped fence detour’ test. This task involves the dog finding a reward placed behind a transparent wire-mesh fence. This is a feat that many dogs struggle to accomplish within the standard one-minute trial duration.

Each dog underwent three consecutive trials. Each trial had a control group receiving no additional help.

The other group, however, got a leg up by observing humans. Petra walked around the fence before the second and third trials. This demonstrated the correct path to the reward.

As they dove into the data, the researchers found that both independent and cooperative breeds had a similar success rate in the control condition. This was to be expected considering the inherent difficulty of the detour task for dogs.

What the researchers discovered

Interestingly, when the dogs were given the chance to observe a human demonstrator navigate the detour, the cooperative working dog breeds clearly had the upper hand.

Unlike the independent dogs, cooperative dogs significantly improved their detour time compared to their initial trial, even though both groups observed the same human demonstration.

Dr. Pongrácz, the supervisor of the research program, reflected on the study’s findings. “The beauty of this finding lays in the fact that we did not find any specific dog breed to be especially talented in social learning,” he said.

The groups consisted of unrelated dog breeds, positioned at distant branches on the genetic ‘tree’ of dogs. This highlights the role of functional breed selection that possibly focuses on enhancing dogs’ attention and interest towards human behavior.

More research planned on dog breeds and social learning

The research duo has plans to delve deeper into these breed differences in future studies. Petra voiced the team’s ambition.

“We won’t stop here of course. There are so many things still to discover. For example, whether the cooperative and independent dogs would equally regard our attention calling words interesting. Or, would we find the cooperative breeds as being more attracted to human encouragement?”

In conclusion, this study has taken a significant stride in understanding the nuanced ways in which breed differences may influence a dog’s ability to learn from human actions. It paves the way for more fascinating discoveries in the world of ethology.

More about relationship between dogs and humans

Dogs and humans have shared a unique bond for thousands of years. These bonds have spanned different cultures, regions, and societies.

This human/dog relationship is marked by mutual companionship, assistance, and love. In fact, dogs were the first species to be domesticated by humans. This occured somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. Here’s a deeper look into this special connection:


Wolves, the ancestors of all modern dogs, were likely first attracted to human settlements due to the availability of food scraps. Over time, wolves that were more tolerant of humans and human behavior likely had an advantage. This led to a process of self-domestication.

Humans, in turn, found value in these animals. Dogs were used not only as sources of food and fur, but also as guards, hunters, and companions.


Humans and dogs have co-evolved. This means that as humans have shaped dogs through selective breeding, dogs have also influenced human evolution.

Some theories suggest that the collaboration between dogs and early humans allowed the latter to hunt more efficiently and have a more regular source of nutrients. These nutrients might have contributed to the development of our large brains.


Dogs have developed a unique ability to understand human signals, gestures, and speech. They can read our body language and vocal cues. They respond to our commands. Most dogs can even interpret our emotions.

This capacity for understanding and communication far exceeds that of any other animal species. It is a testament to the deep connection between dogs and humans.

Emotional Bonding

Dogs and humans have the capacity to form deep emotional bonds. Dogs are known for their loyalty and are often considered members of the family.

Research has found that interacting with dogs can release the hormone oxytocin, known as the “love hormone”, in both the human and the dog. Oxytocin further reinforces this human/dog bond.

Assistance Roles

Dogs play many crucial roles in human society beyond companionship. They can be trained as service dogs to assist people with disabilities, as therapy dogs to provide emotional support, and as working dogs in various professions. These include search and rescue, law enforcement, and herding livestock.

Health Benefits

Interacting with dogs has been shown to provide numerous health benefits for humans. These include lower stress levels, reduced blood pressure, increased physical activity, and improved mental health.

Some studies have also shown that children who grow up with dogs have a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma.

Cultural Significance

Dogs hold significant cultural importance in many societies. They are often featured in art, literature, and mythology. In some cultures, dogs are revered and considered sacred, while in others, they are cherished pets and family members.

The relationship between humans and dogs continues to evolve as we learn more about these remarkable animals. While the form of the relationship can vary from place to place and person to person, the mutual respect and love that form its foundation remain constant.

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