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Thursday, August 5, 2010

His master's mimic: Dogs 'copy their owner's hand and mouth movements'

It has often been observed that dogs resemble their owners.

But it seems our four-legged friends go a step further and even copy humans too.

They automatically imitate hand movements with their paws and mouth movements with their muzzles, research has revealed.

Face off: Kelsey Grammar with Eddie, his canine co-star on TV comedy Frasier. Pet dogs copy the actions of their owners, scientists have discovered

Humans are known to engage in ‘automatic imitation’, when another person’s body moving in a particular way elicits the same physical reaction in an observer.

And now canines have been shown to do the same.

Dogs’ imitative abilities are shaped by the way their owners interact with them as they grow up, the researchers suggest.

In the study, ten dogs were trained to open a sliding door using their heads and also with their paws for a food reward.

Five of them – three border collies, an Australian shepherd and a mongrel – were asked to open the door in the same way as their owner (head or hand/paw).

The remaining five dogs – four border collies and a mongrel – were required to use their paw after seeing human head use and their head their owner used a hand.

They took significantly longer to respond correctly to the task than those simply imitating.

Researcher Dr Friederike Range, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna, said: ‘The dogs brought with them to the experiment a tendency automatically to imitate hand use and/or paw use; to imitate these actions even when it was costly to do so, when imitation interfered with the efficient performance of an ongoing task.’

His colleagues told the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: ‘The results provide the first evidence of automatic imitation and of automatic counter-imitation in dogs.

‘Dogs are special animals, both in terms of their evolutionary history of domestication and the range and intensity of their developmental training by humans.

‘Both of these factors may enhance the extent to which dogs attend to human activity.

‘But the experiment suggests it is the latter training in the course of development which plays the more powerful and specific role in shaping their imitative behaviour.’

Two years ago, researchers found dogs yawn when they see a human doing so, suggesting they are capable of empathising with people.

Another study found they develop a bark similar to the sound of an owner’s regional accent. So canines in Liverpool communicate in a high pitch, for example.



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