In dog training terms, modeling means social learning. With this technique, a well-trained mentor dog shows a less trained dog how to behave. Simply put, your dog learns by example.

By providing a model of good behavior or a rival to compete for resources, dogs can learn to mimic desired behaviors. So a trainer might have another dog, or even a human, act out the desired behavior, praising them for completing tasks on command or scolding them for unwanted behavior. The dog, as an observer, learns from the model. The model can also act as a rival, competing to do the right task for a desired toy or treat as a reward, encouraging the dog to pick up on the task and accomplish it more quickly.

Humans as an example

In many ways, much of our own human learning is done through modeling. Babies learn to speak through modeling, and many of our social skills and movements are learned through modeling. Do you and your parents have similar gestures or facial expressions? Do you walk like your dad? Speak like your mom? That’s learning by modeling, also called social learning, at work. The scientific study of social learning is credited to Dr. Albert Badura, a psychologist known for his groundbreaking work in the field of social cognitive theory.

Observational Learning

In 1961, Dr. Badura conducted an experiment called “The Bobo Doll Study.” He used two groups of children; the first group was shown a video that showed a woman hitting and yelling at a doll named, Bobo, while the other group was not shown the video. When given their own Bobo doll to play with, many of children from the first group imitated the violent behavior they’d seen. None of the children from the other group behaved violently. The study proved that social or observational learning is real and a lot more common than we’d care to think. Why do you think your mom was so concerned about who you were hanging out with in high school?


For social learning to be successful, the student needs to be ready to receive and process the information so they can act on it. Because dogs are naturally receptive, this training method, combined with positive reinforcement, can be very effective.

While dogs can learn from humans, having a confident, well-trained dog around the house makes teaching a new puppy quite a bit easier. Not only will your new puppy instinctively know the older dog is head of his pack, he’ll also mimic his leader’s good behavior.

I like to use the example of the small puppy at the top of a flight of stairs, terrified to come down, despite his owner’s best efforts and encouragements. When the older dog in the house trotted past him down the stairs, the puppy followed without a second thought.

Having a well-trained dog take walks alongside a hesitant or formerly abused dog for a few weeks will instill confidence and teach submissive dog proper manners; manners they won’t forget even when their leader isn’t with them.

Short & Sweet

If you have a well-trained mentor dog, modeling is a fast and effective way to teach your dog new skills, habits or behaviors.