It’s Not Your Imagination: Dogs Do Mimic Their Owners

Science finally confirms what many dog owners have known!


Behavioral scientists have long questioned whether dogs are capable of mimicking each other or people. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences has shown that dogs are not only capable of mimicking their owners, they do so automatically. In fact, their drive to copy our head and hand (paw) movements is so strong that they tend to do so even when it is not in their best interests.

Dogs Mimic Their Owners


Friederike Range and her colleagues at the University of Vienna Department of Cognitive Biology tested 10 adult dogs of various breeds and their owners. They began by training the dogs to open a sliding door both by using their heads and by using their paws. The dogs then watched their owners perform the same task, opening the door either by hand, or by getting down on the floor and using their heads.

Half of the dogs were then rewarded when they copied their owners; the other half received a reward when they did the opposite. All of the dogs tended to copy their owners, even when it meant they were not rewarded.

Later, when the dogs who had to learn to do the opposite of what their owners did then were asked to copy their owners, they made more mistakes than the first group, suggesting that imitative behavior is the result of developmental interactions rather than simply evolution. In other words, copying people is a learned behavior, not an instinctual one.

While both human and non-human primates, as well as certain species of birds, are known to automatically imitate each other, the phenomenon of copying another species is thought to be rare or even unique. This is undoubtedly due to the special relationship that dogs have evolved with humans.

Knowing that dogs imitate us could facilitate certain types of training. There are several delightful videos making the rounds that show groups of dogs performing tasks such as putting up Christmas decorations and enjoying a picnic at the beach. These dogs were trained in Hungary by clicker trainers who use what they call the “Mirror Method” of training. For example, when they want their dogs to sit, the trainers will crouch down themselves.

– Mary Straus

Previous article(Home-Prepared Raw Dog Food Diets #1) Home-Prepared Diets for Dogs, Part Two: Raw Diets
Next articleForcing a Dog to Deal With His Fear is a Big Mistake
Mary Straus has been a regular contributor to Whole Dog Journal since 2006. Mary first became interested in dog training and behavior in the 1980s. In 1997, Mary attended a seminar on wolf behavior at Wolf Park in Indiana. There, she was introduced to clicker training for the first time, and began to consider the question of how we feed our dogs after watching the wolves eat whole deer carcasses. Mary maintains and operates her own site,, which offers information and research on canine nutrition and health. has been created to help make people more "aware" of how to make the best decisions for their dogs. It's designed for people who like to ask questions and understand the reasoning behind decisions, rather than just being told what to do.  Mary has spent years doing research for people whose dogs have health problems, or who just want to learn how to feed them a better diet. Over this time, she has learned a great deal about dog nutrition and health, including the role of diet, supplements and nutraceuticals.  In 2007, she was asked by The Ivy Group to contribute to The Healthy Dog Cookbook. She previously also wrote a column for Dog World.