Can Dogs Learn By Observation?


Experts are continuously learning about dog behaviour – how they think and how they learn. Many new experiments in dog behaviour reveal that dogs are much cleverer than previously thought. Holidays4Dogs finds out more about this fascinating subject.

A particular avenue for research is a dog’s capability to learn by observation. Interestingly, this is not just in terms of them watching and learning from each other, but their ability to learn new things by observing their human owners.

Eminent trainers and behaviourists such as Karen Pryor understand that dogs do learn by observation, particularly if they are familiar with clicker training. As long ago as 2001, Karen noted that;

“clicker trained dogs, at least, certainly do learn by observation of other dogs: the click tells the watcher-dog what the behaver-dog got paid for, so they try it”.

The model-rival method.

This kind of social learning is known as the ‘model-rival’ method. The theory was developed by Irene Pepperberg, professor of psychology, at Brandeis University in the U.S. However, while her expertise lay in animal cognition, she famously worked with Alex the parrot to teach him an astoundingly large vocabulary.

Researchers in canine cognition have used Pepperberg’s principles in the training of dogs, with quite impressive results. The method relies on two people handling an object in front of the dog.

The two handlers pass the object from one to the other, naming it each time in short conversation. The dog is then required to distinguish the item from two other similar items.

The researchers wanted to show that the technique involves social stimuli which creates an interest in the object. They wanted to do this without the use of other incentives, such as food. Thus, demonstrating that the dog learns the name of the object and not that the object means food.

Watch and learn.

There have been other studies which have focused on a dog’s ability to learn by observing humans, to either solve a puzzle – (manoeuvre round an obstacle for instance) – or, perform some other simple task.

You can watch a YouTube video here to see how it works

You can see another fascinating video here of how a puppy learns to negotiate stairs by watching his owner


There are so many benefits to this type of training. It is great for dogs that become stressed by other methods. Learning by observation provides the animal with the opportunity to learn at their own speed. It is a really exciting time for trainers, behaviourists, researchers and pet owners to discover new information about how dog’s learn and think.