Lifelong learning isn’t new by any means. The concept, as well as is applications, both in organized learning and in more ad-hoc discussions, refers to the fact that humans must strive to keep learning for the better part of their lifetime if they are to succeed in all areas: personal and professional alike. When we hear the concept, we are poised to picture ourselves and our peers either in classrooms listening to teachers and taking notes, or in front of a computer, taking advantage of technology and the internet and learning as much as we possibly can. While this is certainly the image of learning which is most common in the world at this time, it’s not the only one. And truth be told, it isn’t the most efficient one either.

Let’s leave the scientific part of the argument aside for a moment and think for ourselves. While it is true that we have been inside formal learning environments for the better part of our lives, have we always learned by the rules? How did we learn before we were taught “codes” like speaking, reading and active listening? And moreover, since the point of the article doesn’t revolve around us, how do other mammals learn essential skills across their lives?

Humans as an example

Taking humans as early examples is probably the best way to go about it. When a baby comes into the world, it is more or less completely unskilled in living. He must first learn to breathe correctly, then eat, communicate, and gain more and more crucial skills as he grows in age. For our topic, it’s especially vital to analyze the skills a baby acquires before speech is developed. For example, a child learns to mimic his parent’s facial expressions, or cry for food or when his diaper needs changing, a lot before he is able to communicate things using speech. Even learning to talk is first done by imitating sounds and mouth movements that the baby sees around the house. This type of learning, in which the subject learns by imitating or copying the actions of another member of the same species is called social learning – and has been around since the beginning of time, in almost any species we can think of. We might believe that humans are unique in this tense, but we are certainly not. We have seen clear traces of social learning in all the species we’ve come across.

While this all sounds correct to everyone, anecdotally, we can’t just call it real without hard-hitting evidence. The name most commonly tied to social learning is that of Dr. Albert Badura, a cognitive psychologist who is behind the development of the Social Learning Theory in the 1970s. The scientific paper that he published is long and full of complicated language, but can be boiled down to a few easy ideas: people (and other species) can learn through observation and imitation, although they have to have the correct mental attitude about it, and with the limitation that only because an individual behavior was learned, it does not mean that it will be applied fully from that moment on. While all these limitations are especially true for humans, some of them disappear when looking into dog modeling, for a few good reasons: dogs are almost always in the correct state of mind to learn, and once they improve their behavior, the need another strong cognitive effort to forget this newly learned skill.

Observational Learning

These ideas were seen in practice best in an experiment conducted by Dr. Badura in 1961, called the “Bobo Doll” study. In this study, Dr. Badura used two groups of children. The first group was shown a video featuring a woman who hits and yells at a Bobo Doll, while the other group was not shown this video. When faced with such a doll in a room, a good number of children from the first room imitated the violent behavior they saw in the video, while no kids from the other group tried it. This has proven that observational learning (or social learning) is a lot more common than we’d like to think.

After learning all these pieces of information, the case for observational learning in humans is obviously won. But can this type of learning be successfully used with man’s best friend, the dog? Dog modeling isn’t an easy task by any means. Just think about housebreaking and training a new puppy, or trying to get a dog to forget the bad habits he’s used for his entire life. Dog training is an enormous and fruitful business, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that humans are the best teachers. In fact, practice has shown us time and time again that the best way to teach a dog something is to show him another dog performing that action. Observational learning works terrific with these animals for the following reasons:

  • Dogs are essentially pack animals, and love to develop everyday skills and habits, and to work as a whole. While they can’t really copy lots of behaviors from their owners, they most certainly can copy those of other dogs.
  • Dogs are naturally receptive and love learning new things, which makes them keen and observant 99% of the time.
  • They have great respect for older members of the pack, meaning that a younger dog will have a very easy time learning the ropes from an older dog.

Examples

All this might sound scientific and not very well-grounded in reality, but we want to ensure you that dogs use observational learning more often than you think. There are tons of examples of skills, behaviors and habits that one dog passes to the next, even in short periods of time, such as during a walk or a few minutes of playtime. Of course, not all of these are things you’d like your dog to learn – he can also pick up bad behaviors from his peers. Here is a list of examples proving that observational learning not only happens within the dog world, but is probably the best way of teaching a dog a new behavior.

  • Having a confident, well-trained dog around the house makes teaching a newly brought puppy extremely easy. Not only will the new puppy understand that he is not the head of the pack, he will also quickly pick up tricks and habits from the older dog. Things like opening the dog door, jumping into the car at a certain signal and not barking inside the house are all things which he will see the older dog do, and immediately copy into his own behavior.
  • Observational learning helps puppies and older dogs alike reach objectives which are very hard otherwise. Think of the famous case of the small puppy at the top of a flight of stairs, terrified to come down, despite his owner’s best efforts and encouragements. This task becomes almost meaningless when another older dog is brought into the equation, who happily and quickly comes down and shows the younger puppy how it’s done.
  • Social interactions are also very quickly learned between dogs. For example, dogs who have suffered abuse and are placed within new families are more often than not suffering from confidence issues and may have violent outbreaks towards other dogs they meet on the street. Having a confident, well-trained dog walk alongside them for a few weeks will teach them proper manners, which they won’t forget even after the “teacher” dog is left at home.
  • Other, more complicated tasks, can only be learned by dogs through observational learning. For example, Saint Bernard dogs are used in the Swiss Alps for rescuing travelers who wander off the main roads. This feat is all the more incredible when we learn that these dogs have no specialized training with a human – they simply teach each other how to search for people in the snow, how to keep them warm and how to get help. Us humans would have a very hard time teaching a dog to do all these things, which they have no problem passing between them.

Conclusion

Observational learning is the best way to get a new skill, habit or behavior (including bad behaviors) into your dog’s personality. Have a good “mentor” dog around when housebreaking a new puppy, or whenever you want this puppy to gather new skills. A good instructor will simplify the entire learning process immensely and will lead to the result you surely want: a well-trained, confident and loving dog. This idea also works in packs: the more dogs you have who are all behaving well, the easier it will be for the new member of the pack to pick up good habits. If only things were this easy when it comes to humans!

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