"It is a very nice demonstration of deferred imitation in dogs," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who suggests that now that this ability has been found in our canid pals, it's likely to be found in many other animals. Still, the discovery will likely be a surprise to even the most experienced dog trainers, says Brian Hare, a comparative psychologist at Duke University. "I doubt that they would have predicted that dogs can learn new actions by observing what a human does, remembering the actions, and then repeating those actions, after translating them to their own doggy body plan." And while de Waal agrees with the researchers that the dogs must be using declarative memory to do this type of imitation, Hare and others are less certain. "That's the weakest part of the study," says Jonathon Crystal, a comparative psychologist at Indiana University, Bloomington. "But the evidence for delayed imitation is solid and impressive."
Fugazza and Miklosi hope that trainers, especially those teaching guide and other working dogs, take advantage of their willingness to learn by watching our actions. "They do it so naturally, because dogs are predisposed to learn socially from us," Miklosi says. He and Fugazza advise dog-owners and trainers to think of useful actions for dogs to copy, such as fetching the mail from the mailbox, carrying a tool to the garden, or better yet on these hot summer days, grabbing a beer for Dad from the 'fridge.
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This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science.