We all know that dogs are smart, but how much is learned behavior and how much is based on their own inherent canine judgement? According to a new Study titled “Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Overimitation: A Comparison Across Domesticated and Non-Domesticated Canids” Published in Developmental Science, dogs are much more efficient learners than they’ve previously been credited.
Yale psychologists working for the Canine Cognition Center collected 40 different breeds of dogs and decided to administer a test to see just how much dogs will learn and how much of what they learn is just imitation. The test was administered through a “puzzle” which was simply a treat, placed inside of a box, with a lever added. There were two ways the dogs could open the box and retrieve the treat, either opening the box by stepping on the lever, or simply lifting the lid.
The test administrators wanted complete objectivity, so in order to avoid any interference they left the room. At first, the dogs figured out what they needed to do with the lever, but gradually they began skipping the lever entirely, and lifting the lid themselves. This showed that not only can dogs learn, but they conceptualize efficiency, perhaps even better than children.
The psychologists who administered this test were inspired to test canines after the 2005 study titled “Causal Knowledge and Imitation/Emulation Switching in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Children (Homo sapiens)” which set out to discover whether children and chimpanzees were actually learning, or just imitating. When you compare the children’s results to those of the dogs, the dogs come out a clear winner.
The 2005 study on children was administered very much the same as the study involving dogs, though the puzzle was slightly more complex. The children without fail, repeated all of the steps to get the desired goal. They never stopped to consider which steps may be irrelevant. The authors of these studies suggest that human “Overimitation” helps developing children learn better by copying what they see to avoid having to learn everything through trial and error.
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