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How Dogs Learn from Other Dogs

I have never had the experience of bringing a new puppy into the home with an existing, “resident” dog, but…

I have never had the experience of bringing a new puppy into the home with an existing, “resident” dog, but I have heard lots of stories. The common theme is that the new dog learns from the existing dog, particularly when the existing dog is a confident adult. The puppy learns the “lay of the land” of their new home from the resident dog, following their cues and mimicking their behavior. I laughed at one lady’s remarks when she said she hadn’t trained a puppy since her first one many years ago. The resident dog does all the work!

From the time a puppy is born, it begins learning from and imitating its “resident dog” (aka its mother). Puppies learn to react to things by following Mom’s cues. Does Mom like people? If not, then the puppy learns to be apprehensive towards people. Does Mom cower when she hears a loud noise? Then the puppy learns that loud noises are scary things they should be afraid of.

“Mimicking behaviors,” or allelomimetic behavior, begin when a puppy is around five weeks old and continue throughout adulthood. Sometimes referred to as “social learning,” this natural behavior in puppies is one of the most important components of learning. It is instinctive for a social animal to want to follow others and do what they are doing.

Puppies and Allelomimetic Behavior

Puppies that have a “mentor” are often better at learning basic manners and obedience. They learn to “come when called” simply by following the other dog’s lead. They learn that they are to sit politely while their food is prepared by following the older dog’s example.

Holiday Barn Pet Resorts‘ Pack member, Stacey, says that house training her new puppy, Buddy, was much easier since they learned how to go potty outside very quickly from following their older dog, Skeeter. Ryan, another of our pack members, remembers his puppy, Wookie, learning how to go up and down stairs by following their adult dog, Dexter’s, lead.

If you study allelomimetic behavior, it’s fascinating. Wikipedia says allelomimetic behavior is sometimes called contagious behavior. Interestingly enough, the behavior is not a conscious action. Although I have never seen it referred to as a “subconscious” behavior, it makes sense. It’s like when you’re in a room full of people and one person yawns. Then the next person yawns, and it’s repeated by those present. You don’t purposely think, “That person yawned so I will too.” It just happens.

Examples of Allelomimetic Behavior

Oh, yes — allelomimetic behavior happens in all species, humans included.

Have you ever heard a wolf howl in the wild? And then, after that initial howl, you have a whole chorus of howls? That’s a great example of allelomimetic behavior. I witnessed something similar with the three beagles I once owned. Once one started barking, they all joined in – whether they knew what they were barking at or not!

Dog Daycare at Holiday Barn is the perfect place to see allelomimetic behavior in action. If one dog starts running excitedly, ears perk up all around the play yard, and the next thing you know, all the dogs are either running too or at least very involved in what is going on. If one dog races to the fence and begins barking, the others will run to the fence and begin barking as well. Emulated behavior is sometimes referred to as the “group synchronization” of behavior, with all members doing the same thing.

Allelomimetic Behavior in Dog Training

Allelomimetic behavior is not limited to the same species. A dog has the tendency to imitate human behavior as well. We are their pack. Our dog will learn from and copy not only our actions but also our emotions and attitudes.

Will approaching a situation calmly help a fearful dog as it imitates our human response? In other words, can we adjust our reactions to stimuli to help prevent unwanted behavior in our dog? Holiday Barn’s Professional Dog Trainer, Dickie, says, “Absolutely.” For example, if Dickie sees that a Training dog is fearful of a particular object, he will intentionally remain calm as he slowly, and over time, draw closer to the object, acting like it’s no big deal. The dog follows Dickie’s example, and eventually, the fear defuses.

In dog training, the use of another dog or person is sometimes used to help modify the behavior of a dog in training. Our Trainer’s dogs (We call them substitute teachers!) are onsite with our Trainers and exemplify good manners and obedience. Dogs in training emulate what their substitute teachers are doing.

Can Allelomimetic Behavior Be More Complex?

An interesting article by well-known dog expert, Stanley Coren, describes that even more complex learning takes place by dogs observing other dogs. He uses the example of St. Bernard Rescue dogs in the freezing cold Swiss Alps during winter. These dogs work in teams of three, and they have a very precise set of tasks to perform when a rescue is underway. Two of the dogs lie down beside the person being rescued, and the third dog goes for help. The amazing thing is that these dogs have never been given any special training. They just know what to do from observing the experienced dogs in their team.

Similarly, pack member Ryan utilizes the experience of his older hunting dogs to teach the pups when they are learning to hunt. This “tried and true” method of training young pups by pairing them with more experienced hunting dogs is popular among hunters. Thus the saying, “Experience is the best teacher!”

Dickie also uses the example of his experience of working with police dogs to substantiate allelomimetic behavior. If they had a shy dog that was training to become a police dog, they would put the dog in a crate and let it observe other, more experienced police dogs at work. When released from the crate, the dog in training performed much better than it had previously.

Fully-Trained Mentors for Puppies

Unfortunately, allelomimetic behavior is not limited to only “good” behavior. Dogs can learn bad behavior by copying other dogs as well. My niece’s dog was never reactive to a ringing doorbell until she stayed at her mom’s house, where the resident dog barked when the doorbell rang. Now, Lily learned that when a doorbell rings, she is supposed to get excited and begin barking.

I once had two puppies that always had to do what the other was doing. If one peed on the floor, the other would pee on the floor. If one chewed on the couch, the other would join in on the fun. That’s what you call allelomimetic behavior at its worst! (Side note: Never get two puppies at the same time!)

Make sure your doggy mentor has the qualities you want to be imitated. Not only should the dog have good behavior and obedience, but a good temperament as well. Your mentor dog should be well-balanced, consistent, and even friendly, thus welcoming and developing a rapport with the new pup.

There is No Substitution for a Human Training Regimen

If training a dog was as simple as pairing it with another well-behaved dog to emulate, professional dog trainers everywhere would be out of business. There is no substitute for the human connection and relationship. Building a rapport, developing trust, and understanding hierarchy are things that can only be cultivated in the presence of a loving and compassionate owner. The dog needs to be responsive to its human, first and foremost. 

If you would like more information about our Dog Training Program, please contact our Professional Dog Trainers in Midlothian by calling (804) 794-5400. For our Glen Allen location, call (804) 672-2200.

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