Wondering how dogs learn weird behaviors? I know I was stumped trying to figure out how my adopted dog, Henry, learned some of his weird behaviors. He seemed like such a normal and well-behaved dog. Then all of a sudden he’d fluster me with weird antics. Sound familiar? Today, let’s dig in and discover whether or not dogs can learn weird behaviors from other dogs. And if an adult dog can learn from a puppy. Plus, I’ll reveal the science behind weird dog behaviors.
*Updated: August 14, 2023
Budget tip: It can be a necessity at times to take your dog to the groomers or doggie daycare. But sometimes they will learn the strangest things in these environments. That doesn't mean you stop taking your dog to your friend's house or the groomer. Actually, it simply means you may need to refreshen your dog's already learned behavior skills. I always think it's good for my dog, Henry and me to practice training every so often. So, when he learns some odd trait, it's a reminder to me. Although, if you haven't been through at least basic training with your dog, then you'll definitely want to consider it. I always think knowing basic commands are well worth it for you and your dog. Both from a safety viewpoint as well as a bonding aspect with your dog. It's a budget winner!
How do dogs learn?
There are a few ways dogs can learn. If you’ve ever been to dog training classes, you’ve most likely experienced at least one of these methods.
- Positive reinforcement (proper command or good behavior is positively enforced – think dog sits and gets a cookie treat reward)
- Negative reinforcement (an unwanted behavior or bad behavior is negatively enforced – think dog barks and receives a jerk of a leash)
- Analytical (remember those videos of a dog who carefully maneuvers a chair to reach a treat)
- Social learning (more on this in a bit)
Is there any evidence that a dog can learn from another dog?
Yes, there is evidence. This type of learning is social learning. A great example is a St. Bernard teaching St. Bernard puppies how to rescue and care for lost travelers in the Alps. The dogs would sniff out snow-buried victims. Then they would determine which dogs would stay with the victim(s) and which ones would return to the monks for help.
Another example is a study of 50 Labrador Retrievers from the University of Naples. In this study, a trained Labrador Retriever was used as a demonstration dog to show other dogs two new commands. The results were that over 62% of the dogs correctly performed the new commands by watching the demonstrator dog. And more interesting for me with Henry, was that older adult dogs did even better on completing the desired dog behavior by simply observing the demonstrator dog.
What does it mean when dogs learn from dogs?
If your dog suddenly starts doing a new unwanted behavior you didn’t teach him or her there could be an explanation.
As an example, a few months after I adopted Henry, I had a friend watch him with her puppy. Henry and the puppy are really good friends. So, I didn’t think anything of it.
However, a few days later, Henry tried to bury his food. This was new and weird behavior. There was nothing to bury his bowl with or in but he certainly went through the motions like a crazed Tasmanian devil. I was puzzled. With dismay and puzzlement, I said to him to stop being weird and petted him. He stopped, looked at me, and ate his dinner as he normally would do each night.
A week or so later, I was talking with my friend. She asked how Henry was doing. I said great, except he was doing the weirdest thing, and explained the attempted food burying. She laughed and said her pup does it all the time.
Mystery solved! Henry picked up the weird little behavior while watching his playmate. Interestingly, on occasion, he’ll still try to bury his food. But I’ve figured out it’s because he wants a treat first or hasn’t finished playing outside yet. It’s basically a “Henry fit”. But with a gentle reminder and pet to let him know he’s not “King Henry”, he calms down and eats.
Is there a benefit to social learning for my dog?
While “doggie see doggie do” (or social learning) can elicit a weird or unwanted behavior like with Henry, it can also have a great benefit. Specifically, it can assist in training dogs. For instance, many pet owners insist it’s basically “rapid learning” to train a puppy with a well-trained adult dog. The puppy watches the adult dog and learns all the ins and outs of being a dog like how to:
- Use a doggie door
- Go potty outside
- Play with a toy
- Share toys
- Walk on a leash
And the list goes on. However, you still need to train your puppy or dog. But, the amount of time involved in training is often greatly reduced. Thus, puppies can be rapid learners with a well-behaved adult dog in their home.
Additionally, if your adult dog is lacking energy or is a bit depressed, the puppy can help the adult dog with these issues. I know Henry always gets a boost of energy when he’s playing with his puppy friend.
TIP: Keep in mind that if your puppy is a barker, your well-trained dog may have a lapse. But with easy steps or a simple reminder of positive reinforcement training, he or she should be able to overcome the unwanted behavior. Of course, this is assuming you’ve already solved this issue once. Although, any bad behavior of a well-trained dog can be amplified in the puppy. That’s the flaw in social training. You can’t limit it to just the desired traits.
Where else could my dog acquire social learning from other dogs?
Basically, dogs learn from dogs anywhere they are for any amount of time. So, if you take your dog someplace to socialize with other dogs your dog could learn a new unwanted behavior. This could include:
If your dog suddenly is exhibiting odd behavior and was just around other dogs, he or she could’ve learned a new trait.
TIP: However, if your dog has been around other dogs and is behaving weirdly, along with other symptoms, such as not wanting to eat, vomiting, diarrhea, or any physical ailments, call your vet immediately. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.
One more odd note of caution. Dogs can also pick up on human body language and verbal cues. It seems to be built into dog DNA. So, if you’re digging in your yard, don’t be surprised to see your dog doing the same thing.
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Summary of where does my dog learn weird behaviors?
I know those odd and even weird behaviors that our dogs suddenly sport are confusing. But once you discover that they are little doggie see, doggie dos then it makes sense. Your dog, much like Henry, isn’t broken. He or she is just exhibiting social learning. I know I’ve even experienced social learning myself after being around different people who say certain words a lot. I’ll catch myself using the same words. Then I have to laugh at what a sponge the brain is for humans and dogs. The good news is that in most cases if your dog is trained you should know easy steps to unwind the weird behavior without much trouble.