Dogs Learning Through Modelling

For those who have read my about me page, you won’t be surprised to learn that I have always been into dogs and their training. As a student at school, I always tried to make my assignments about dogs where possible.

I remember doing Stage 2 Psychology in school, and how immensely easy learning theory was. I was doing this already when I was training dogs!  We had an oral presentation on three aspects of learning (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and modelling), and I chose to base mine on dogs.

While classical conditinoinng and operant conditioning was easy to talk about, I had difficulty finding examples of modelling in dogs. To this day, I still struggle to find examples.

That’s probably why I was so excited to find this video (shared by PuppyTales – thanks!). It shows a young puppy who is hesitant to go down a small flight of steps. An adult dog walks past a number of times and the puppy eventually follows suit and descends the steps himself:

This video is getting a lot of publicity for the cute factor, but I am more interested in how the puppy demonstrates an understanding of the adult dog’s behaviour, and how it relates to their own. Obviously, there are other factors in play for this puppy descending the steps, as well, but at least part of the puppy’s success is related to the adult dog’s descent.

So, I want to ask, when have you seen a dog model behaviour of another dog? Do you use modelling to train dogs? I look forward to your responses!


Strangely, today Stanley Coren posted a very similar post on his blog! Read “Dogs Learn by Modelling the Behavior of Other Dogs“.

And a new link: Children teaching a dog to jump on the bed.

10 thoughts on “Dogs Learning Through Modelling

  1. I found this concept interesting – my young Border Collie appeared to learn a lot of her utility obedience exercises (one of the higher classes of formal obedience) through watching and observing my older Border Collie.

    In particular one exercise which requires the dog to run to a box and sit. I had shaped some basics with my young girl previously (not using a box but using a hoop and having her sit from a few meters away).

    Any way on this occasion I had taken them both out to a park and had my young border collie (she was less then 12 months at the time) tied up watching my older girl. When I untied my youngster to swap them over she ran out greater then a full distance sendaway (so maybe 25-30m) from where I had her tied up and placed herself in the box looking expectantly for her reward. I went to the box and rewarded and took her back about half the distance and she shot off when given the command and placed herself in the box.

    Exercise learned and she has never really had to many issues with it since.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sally. That’s really interesting. I wonder if your young dog is particularly clever or if this is a common outcome. Would love to hear more from other readers on their experiences.

  2. All our farm dogs learnt about commands and what they meant by modelling the older dog(s). Dad “trained” them by taking them out with an older trained dog and they learnt by running with it. This method worked very well for my Dad.
    Dogs definitely learn off others…if the other bloke is getting some-thing for doing a particular thing.. they soon learn to do it too…and they can also model bad behaviour too :(
    Nothing beats having a well behaved adult dog when you get a new puppy, they learn to much off them.

    • Thanks for your input, Josie. I am sure we are going to get lots of stories of puppies learning good (and bad) habits from adult dogs. Just like the video!

      It’s also interesting to hear about working dogs learning by example, too. Thanks for sharing.

  3. The moment I read the last portions of your post, I instantly remembered how Chooey taught her pups how to newspaper potty. It’s amazing that one of them was able to pick it up. LOL.

    This is also how Chooey learned to potty in the potty area.She saw Peanuts doing it there and eventually, she herself picked it up. Great topic today! You’re video was adorable, too!

    Huggies and Cheese,


  4. I have a multiple dog home, average number around four, but currently sitting at a crazy six. Ages go from 10 to seven months, herding, hunting breeds and a single spitz. The younger ones do tend to copy the adults, but I have found that the adults have difficulty following the younger. In my house we have a doorway/stairway policy. Either I go first, or they (the dogs) go first – this way I can’t fall down the stairs or don’t get knocked into the door-frames lol. Also, some doors they just aren’t allowed through period. It prevents bolting through entryways which I cannot stand when say the pizza delivery guy comes along.

    Anyway, after my older dogs figured this rule out, the puppies I would bring home would learn from them after one or two attempts and then they’d be solid unless abnormally excited. However, funnily enough, when I brought home my oldest dog (lived with my parents due to weight limits of apartments) he could not grasp the concept of this rule for the longest time! It didn’t exist at my parents home, but had been established in my home for at least four years by then. He’s a good four years older than our second oldest. Even now, since we’ve moved again, he is the last to figure out that to get inside you can only walk through the mudroom door – the back sliding glass door and front door are off limits due to carpet. The other five know this, but he still tries the others much to our frustration. I wish he’d copy the younger dogs, but if you watch he never pays them any attention and tries to figure everything out on his own, which for a Border Collie he’s just not very good at it LOL.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Brandee. We have recently brought a new adult dog into our house and so far he is following the adult dogs well. Maybe modelling depends on how much of a bond the dogs have to one another? The new dog to our household is very dog-focussed and gains a lot of confidence from interacting with the other dogs. Puppies, too, seem to be very focussed on other dogs in the household, probably due to a primitive urge to be with their mum. Thank-you for raising the issue of age, and whether modelling is a puppy-only thing.

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