Don’t call them copycats! Puppies (not kittens) instinctively imitate their owners

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Instead of calling people “copycats,” you might want to think about saying “copy-dogs,” according to a study. New research out of Hungary finds that puppies (not kittens or wolf pups) instinctively imitate human actions, even without any training or a food reward.

Puppies could copy someone’s behavior for a number of reasons, according to study authors from Eötvös Loránd University. They may imitate what people do as a way of navigating new situations. They could also mimic others to learn new skills or information. An alternative explanation is that imitation breeds flattery. Impersonating another creature could be an evolutionary tactic to get into someone’s good graces and up their social standing.

The scientists tested to see whether baby animals imitated others without any pre-training or rewards such as food or toys. They observed the behaviors of 42 puppies, 39 kittens, and eight wolf pups placed in a room with a novel object. These fur babies often interacted with the new object by touching it with their noses or paws.

Next, while their owner held the pup, the scientist demonstrated a different action on the object. For example, if the animal previously touched the object with its paw, the experimenter would touch it with their nose. The researchers then looked to see whether the pup would eventually perform the same action on the object.

“Since paying attention to the demonstration is a fundamental requisite for social learning, we first assessed whether the puppies, kittens and wolf pups looked at us when we performed the demonstration,” explains Claudia Fugazza, a researcher in the university’s department of ethology, in a media release.

A dog trainer touches their nose to an object while the dog watches
New research out of Hungary finds that puppies (not kittens or wolf pups) instinctively imitate human actions (Photo: Claudia Fugazza)

Puppies and wolf pups replicated the experimenter’s actions in approximately 70 percent of the test runs — twice as often as kittens. Dog puppies were the only ones to imitate the action with a body part similar to the trainer’s demonstration, such as a paw and hand, even if that action differed from the action they took before they observed the demonstration.

“Typically, most subjects touched the object with their nose, when they had not observed a demonstration. However, after observing the experimenter touching the object with her hand, the puppies tended to touch it using their paw,” explains Stefania Uccheddu, co-author of the study.

One of the reasons for puppy imitation is that they spent more attention on people.

“While typically the puppies looked at us almost immediately, it took four-five times longer to get the attention of wolf pups and kittens,” adds Fugazza.

A dog plays with a round toy
Dogs matched the actions of humans 70 percent of the time after watching them interact with a toy. (Photo: Claudia Fugazza)

Kittens did not copy the actions of the experimenter. The study authors note that there might be an evolutionary reason behind this, too. The ancestor of modern-day dogs and wolves was a social creature. They stayed in packs and relied on group cooperation to survive.

Cats’ ancestors, on the other hand, were solitary hunters. What’s more, humans domesticated dogs much sooner than cats because of their willingness to work with people. Cats were domesticated differently. While they started hunting rodents around humans, they did not like cooperating or communicating with them. The authors suggest the findings could inspire different training methods for puppies — relying less on food rewards and more on a dog’s predisposition for social learning.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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