Dogs Do Not Learn by Observation and Imitation

Your dog’s emotions are primarily activated by his senses, particularly vision, as that sense best serves the active reflexes of the prey instinct, such as chasing, striking, biting, and fighting. When dog A is watching dog B, dog B influences what dog A is going to learn only through the effect of energizing him. By moving animatedly, dog B is exuding his “prey-like” essence, thereby arousing the observing dog into a similar mood of drive.

The more frenzied the first dog acts, the more excited the second one will grow. Emotional energy is being directly transmitted from one to the other; nothing of a mental nature is being communicated. Since all dogs carry the primal prey instinct as the basic software for their behavior, both dogs once put into the same emotional state of drive are likely to end up acting with roughly the same reflexes.

It may appear that the observing dog noted the first dog’s behavior and then imitated him, but that is not what happened. If high drive is being transmitted, high drive will be received, and the two dogs will act in unison within the prey instinct. The same goes for medium and low drive as well. Therefore, the two dogs inevitably will operate on parallel wavelengths even though neither of them is aware of the others point of view.

This is not in any way a cognitive capability; it is simply a “mirror effect” of the prey instinct that causes synchronization within the group. There will, however, remain variations between the two dogs’ behavior based on temperamental differences, which allows for specialization if they have to work as a group.

Another example frequently cited to demonstrate learning by observation or imitation are those occasions when a young dog seemingly learns to bark at strangers by watching an older dog. In such cases, the knock on the door unnerves the older dog, and his actions of barking or growling similarly unnerve the younger dog so that they are now both in the same mood.

Defensive responses to stress are again part of the universal software of the prey instinct and so here, too, the younger dog appears to be learning by observation and imitation, when in fact, he is merely conforming to the master code operating within his temperament. He has not learned from the older dog’s experience; he has simply learned from his own experience.