All the dogs were shown the same novel action: Each watched her owner enter a wooden box. In those cases, they were expected to wait behind the screen for a full minute before returning to the starting position and being told, “Do it!” For the distracting-action tests, the dogs watched the owner do something they had seen before. Again, they were led behind the screen, but this time commanded to lie down or fetch a ball. The waiting periods during these distraction sessions lasted from 30 seconds to four minutes.
The dogs endured their longest breaks after watching a familiar action — with times varying from 24 seconds to 10 minutes. The dogs also showed their smarts by repeating the action that they’d witnessed, even when a person who did not know which action the dog was expected to copy gave the “Do it!” command.
All the dogs completed 18 trials, scoring almost perfect marks: Six dogs made one error each, one dog made two, and another made six, the team reports in the journal Animal Cognition. This suggests, says Claudia Fugazza, a graduate student who worked on the study, that dogs have declarative memory — long-term memory about facts and events that can be consciously recalled. Until now, only humans have been shown to have this type of memory.
“It is a very nice demonstration of deferred imitation in dogs,” says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who suggests that now that this ability has been found in dogs, it’s likely to be found in many other animals. Still, the discovery will probably be a surprise to even the most experienced dog trainers, says Brian Hare, a comparative psychologist at Duke University.
“I doubt that they would have predicted that dogs can learn new actions by observing what a human does, remembering the actions and then repeating those actions, after translating them to their own doggy body plan,” he said. And while de Waal agrees with the researchers that the dogs must be using declarative memory to do this type of imitation, Hare and others are less certain. “That’s the weakest part of the study,” says Jonathon Crystal, a comparative psychologist at Indiana University at Bloomington. “But the evidence for delayed imitation is solid and impressive.”
The researchers hope that trainers, especially those teaching guide dogs and other working dogs, capitalize on the animals’ willingness to learn by watching. “They do it so naturally, because dogs are predisposed to learn socially from us,” Miklosi says.
This article was produced by ScienceNOW,the daily online news service of the journal Science.