Dogs are highly social creatures. Most dogs crave time side-by-side with their humans, and yes, other dogs. But many dog owners notice, upon giving their dog time at the dog park or making “dog friends” with a neighbor, that their dog seems to be pushing boundaries more, or showing more unwanted behaviors that they didn’t have previously.
Unfortunately, a lot of behaviors that dogs tend to “pick up” from each other tend to be the kinds of behaviors that dog owners prefer to keep to a minimum — like barking, digging, and even fighting. These behaviors are more likely to be spread from one dog to another because they are behaviors that most dogs already have within them somewhere; when it’s displayed by one dog, it can quickly erupt in other dogs in a social group, as well.
This can be used to your advantage, however, if you introduce a young dog to an older well-rounded dog who can help model expectations. I do this when raising young puppies for clients and rescues; my doberman-bully mix Milo has helped socialize and helped set behavior standards for many young dogs that have come in to Lugaru K9 Training in the past.
There is often still debate among dog experts about how heavily dogs draw from the behaviors of other dogs, but in puppies the opinion is nearly unanimous across all trains of thought and methodologies: puppies’ brains are specifically designed to learn from older dogs. Very young puppies will begin observing the behavior of their mothers, and continue to absorb behavioral information from dogs around them through their “teen” years.
It’s for this reason that I believe strongly in getting your own house in order, so to speak, before branching out to get social with other dogs. Lay a strong foundation for your dog, ensure that they understand what the expectations are, and have a plan for what to do if your dog picks up unwanted behaviors from the dogs of friends and family.
It also will save you and your dogs a whole lot of trouble to have an older dog’s training dialed in before bringing a second into the home. If your first dog is out-of-control or neurotic, not only can their unwanted behaviors spread to a new dog, but dogs can also be quite sensitive to the mindsets of those around them. Unstable behavior sets or “energy” in a fellow resident dog can also create an unsafe feeling for new dogs, so it is always best to dedicate the time and effort to train the first dog first.
Do Dogs Learn From Other Dogs?
The debate in the dog training industry is, by contrast, if dogs can learn their dog training skills from each other. For example, will a new dog learn “sit” faster by having a more experienced dog model the behavior? While this can happen under the right circumstances, the answer is a little more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”
It’s not typically expected that an otherwise untrained dog will imitate specific tricks, tasks, or commands taught through reward to an older dog. Things like PLACE, SIT, DOWN, and even tricks like SHAKE or ROLL OVER are not likely to get picked up in the same way that natural behaviors mentioned before will. This is because things like barking, fighting, jumping, and chewing are all normal instinctive behaviors that most dogs already have within them. Because these behaviors are self-rewarding and come naturally to the dog, it is going to be much easier for a dog to monkey-see-monkey-do.
When it comes to teaching a dog basic obedience commands, it is always helpful to give each dog one-on-one time to guide them through and shape the behaviors you want. Even though we have well-trained dogs around our fosters and board-and-train dogs, we find that new dogs always learn new behaviors faster through our reward-based protocols.
There are definitely situations, however, where we have incorporated other dogs in unusually difficult training situations. One example is helping a client with a service dog puppy who needed to learn the SPEAK command. The dog was a particularly quiet dog that never made a peep, no matter how excited she was; meaning, the client had nothing to capture and shape into a command, no matter how she tried.
In this situation, bringing in a dog who already knew the command was the best thing we could think of after exhausting everything else, and we started two-dog sessions in which we would cue the SPEAK command and reward the older dog who already knew it well. This built some frustration in the younger dog and also modeled the behavior we were looking for, and eventually we were able to get a little bit of vocalization and intent to reward.
Not a lot, but it was something to start with!
How Do Dogs Learn From Other Dogs?
So, how do you know if your dog will be able to learn something from another dog? At the end of the day, all dogs will still need guidance and leadership from their human. But there are two main ways that dogs learn on a social level, and understanding these types of learning can really help us mitigate the spread of unwanted behaviors and facilitate the growth of the types we want to see.
One type of grouped learning is called social facilitation, which is the amplification of behaviors when shared by at least two dogs. Think of it in the means of the saying from motivational speaker Jim Rohn, which declares we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. This is true for you and your dog because of social facilitation.
The behaviors learned in this manner tend to be natural, self-rewarding behaviors such as digging or barking, that dogs can engage in together as a social experience. You may see two dogs begin to bark at something, and then continue simply because they are being charged up by the other.
One example of this occurring to one of my personal dogs was a weekend out of state when it was just me and my first dog, Grimm. We’d settled at the friend’s house where we were staying, and spent a lot of time outside in an unfenced yard with a few other dogs who weren’t trained quite to Grimm’s standard.
On our second day, a neighbor’s chocolate lab wandered on to the property at the sound of dogs while I was preoccupied helping my friend set up a table. The lab ran off back towards its house, and the group of dogs Grimm was hanging out with chased off after it; with Grimm following along, because, hey, it was fun and everyone was doing it!
While the rest of the my friends panicked and went chasing after the dogs (who, by the way, had a decent head start), I gave Grimm a small stim on the e-collar, and he was back in around twenty seconds. One of the friends who had gone running after the group of dogs told me that Grimm turned on a dime and immediately headed back to the house while the other dogs continued chasing.
I talk about this tool in a number of articles listed below:
This is why it is important to have your dog trained before venturing into risky social situations with them, and to always have a method of follow-through on picked up behaviors or even just a reminder of their training. Luckily, through the use of a high-quality e-collar, I was able to tap my dog on the shoulder from a long distance, and get him back without any drama. And, of course, he also got some food as a reward for a solid recall.
Had this behavior been allowed to continue, however, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I would eventually see Grimm become the average of the dogs with which he was socializing.
Group behaviors that get picked up and shared by multiple animals in a social group are called allelomimetic behavior. This type of learning is a phenomenon in which the nearby occurrence of a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring with other nearby animals of the same species.
This is especially prominent for puppies, as through their early development they are little monkey-see-monkey-do machines. Allelomimetic behavior is a type of mutual mimicry, in which dogs (and all other social animals) engage in group behaviors, and through repetition of these behaviors, eventually learn from it.
In dogs, allelomimetic behaviors are most easy to spot in a dog’s eating and vocalization habits.
Studies have shown that dogs will eat in greater amounts when other dogs are also eating. It’s also shown that an already-satiated dog may resume eating if a hungry dog is introduced to the group.
This type of behavior has also been shown in vocalizations, and is easily replicated in most multi-dog households. Have you ever heard a knock at a doorbell, and your most bark-happy dog starts off? Suddenly it’s not just the first dog barking, but a whole chorus of barks that continue on even after the delivery person has driven away?
The issue with these types of behaviors is that they often overlap with behaviors that dog owners see as “bad” behaviors. Social barking, crowding, digging, and such are typically unwanted behaviors, which makes this kind of social learning troublesome for the human at times.
And over time, behaviors initiated by this type of learning can become conditioned and grow over time by being self-reinforcing. Essentially, the behaviors are fun; engaging in these behaviors release dopamine in the brain, making them rewarding to do with or without a reward from the handler. Over time, a dog can “pick up” these behaviors because they’ve become practiced and given the dog consistent invisible rewards.
For more on this concept, check out my article, The Economics of Dog Behavior.
It’s also fair to point out, however, that sometimes a dog’s training will seem to slip not specifically because of group learning, but because they are more distracted and can, as I put it, forget themselves. Remember that self-rewarding behaviors are not always a matter of group learning.
Sometimes a dog simply learns that they can not recall, for instance, and continue getting rewarded anyway because running around with another dog is fun! Understand your dog’s limitations and prepare accordingly!
As a dog owner, it’s important to understand how group behaviors are influencing your dog in order to modify your training routine and what you choose to allow in terms of social interactions. If your dog picking up barking or digging from a friend is posed to be a big deal to you, and be prepared to either put in the training to counter it (behavior modification) or limit your dog’s social interactions with dogs that may influence this behavior (management).
In some situations, the right answer may just be to limit your dog’s interactions with dogs who aren’t quite reaching the bar of your personal behavior standards. If there is a chance your dog may pick up a behavior that you simply couldn’t deal with, it may be best to find dog friends that are also trained the way you train your dog.
Remember, if you find yourself with a dog who is the average of the five dogs they spend the most time with, pick those five dogs carefully!