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July 23, 2013

Your dog is a copycat

The next time your dog digs a hole in the backyard after watching you garden, don't punish him. He's just imitating you. A new study reveals that our canine pals are capable of copying our behavior as long as 10 minutes after it's happened. The ability is considered mentally demanding and, until this discovery, something that only humans and apes were known to do.

Scientists first discovered that dogs are excellent at imitating their owners in 2006. Or at least, one dog had the talent: Philip, a 4-year-old Belgian Tervuren working with Jozsef Topal, a behavioral ethologist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. Topal adapted the method (called "Do as I do") that Keith and Catherine Hayes developed in the 1950s for teaching an infant chimpanzee to copy their actions. Philip was already a trained assistant dog for his disabled owner and readily followed Topal's commands. First, Topal told him to stay, and then commanded "Do as I do." The researcher then performed a simple action, such as jumping in place, barking, putting an object in a box, or carrying it to Philip's owner. Next, Topal ordered, "Do it!", and Philip responded by matching the scientist's actions. The experiment was designed to explore dog's imitative abilities, not to measure how long Philip's memory lasted; but his owner used Philip's skill to teach him how to do new, useful behaviors, such as fetching objects or putting things away.

Despite Philip's abilities, "nobody really cared, or saw that it could be useful for investigating how dogs learn or see their world," says Adam Miklosi, a behavioral ethologist at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest who was part of Topal's team. And in 2009, another team concluded that dogs were only able to correctly imitate if there was no more than a 5-second delay between watching the action and repeating it. With such a short retention span, dogs' vaunted imitation skills seemed useless.

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