A recent scientific study shows that dogs can learn to copy human behavior and repeat it later.
Every dog watched their handler go into a wooden box. These dogs would then have to wait for one minute before going back to their starting position. They were then told to “Do it.” When they had to do the distraction action tests, the dogs were made to watch their handler do something they had seen before. Then they were led behind the screen, but instead of being commanded to “Do it,” they had to lie down, or fetch a ball. It was during these sessions that the waiting periods lasted from 30 seconds to 4 minutes. Fugazzi adds, “They can wait even longer but we really dont expect the owners to stay behind the screen for an hour!”
The dogs in this research experienced their longest breaks after watching a familiar action that included times that varied from 24 seconds to 10 minutes. The researchers observed that these dogs displayed their intelligence by correctly repeating the action that they had witnessed. This occurred even when a person other than the demonstrator had given them the command. This person was also unaware of which action the dog was expected to imitate. “The statistical results are very robust,” Fugazza notes, “and they show the dogs can do deferred imitation.”
Fugazza also says that dogs have declarative memory, which is long term memory about facts and events that they can recall. She describes how in one of her tests the owner, Valentina made her dog, Adila, stay and pay attention to her, always in the same starting position. Three randomly selected objects were placed on the ground, each at the same distance from Adila. Her handler then showed her the object-related action, like ringing a bell with her hand. While Valentina and Adila took a break behind the screen that was used to hide the objects, Adila was not able to see the object. They played ball or practiced a different training activity. Adila was able to do whatever she wanted – lie down, bark, or play during this break.
When the break was over, Valentina and her dog walked back to the original starting point and Adila was commanded to “Do it.” This time, the command was given by the owner and not a stranger, as in the control condition. After the command, Adila performed the action that had been previously demonstrated.
The studies demonstrate that dogs are able to reproduce familiar actions, as well as novel actions, after different delays; familiar actions that had taken place after intervals as long as ten minutes; and novel actions that had a delay of one minute. This ability had been demonstrated in different conditions, and even when the tested dogs had been distracted by different activities during their break behind the screen.
The researchers summed it up: “The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs. This would be so-called ‘declarative memory,’ which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge.”
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